With the scent of blossom in the air, the medieval fair in the hilltop village of Bormes-les-Mimosas was proving a happy hunting ground for recent presidential candidate Eric Zemmour in his effort to win a seat in the French Parliament.
As a crowd gathered at a stall exhibiting battle-axes, pikes and other relics of ancient combat, Mr Zemmour quickly became the focus of attention.
Bormes-les-Mimosas, overlooking the Mediterranean 35 kilometres west of Saint-Tropez, is currently represented by a centrist, but the surrounding area has gone over to the far-right.
People pressed forward to shake the firebrand polemicist’s hand, pose with him for selfies or chat to young supporters sporting his ‘’make your voice heard’’ campaign T-shirts.
Although the seat has been held since 2017 by a Macronist, Sereine Mauborgne, the far-right performs well in the Var — the department as a whole voted 55 per cent for National Rally's Marine Le Pen — and Mr Zemmour seems the candidate to watch. One poll suggests he will reach the deciding round on June 19.
Approached by The National, he would say only when asked if he felt optimistic: ‘’Of course I have a good chance — if people vote for me.‘’
Two months after giving Emmanuel Macron a second presidential term, French voters are now deciding the make-up of Parliament in elections that highlight deep divisions in the country. Before Sunday’s first round of polling, Mr Macron’s overall majority in France’s National Assembly is in jeopardy.
The president's loyalists are menaced not only by rightists like Mr Zemmour but more notably by an alliance of socialists and environmentalists led by the veteran far-left campaigner Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Early results from voting already held outside France lend weight to impressions from opinion polls that the president’s centrist party, now known as Renaissance, and allies are jostling for seats with Mr Melenchon’s coalition Nupes (the People’s New Ecological and Social Union). Among latest polls, one puts Nupes marginally ahead on first-round voting intentions.
A dramatic front-page headline in a major French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, described “cold sweat” at the Elysee Presidential Palace at the prospect of a hung parliament or, worse, a hostile one. Either would weaken Mr Macron’s presidential mandate.
The cost-of-living crisis is a major factor, with petrol prices soaring despite a pre-election government subsidy to mitigate the effects. And complaints about shortages in the shops — first sunflower oil, now mustard — grow louder.
The rise of the left has not eliminated the far-right sympathies that won Ms Le Pen 13.2 million votes (41.4 per cent) against Mr Macron’s 18.7 million in April’s presidential run-off. In the columns of the JDD, there is speculation that no fewer than six members of Mr Macron’s new government could lose.
The momentum is with Mr Melenchon’s alliance which, with the support of the conventional if ailing socialist party and Greens, seems much better organised at local level than National Rally.
Mr Melenchon, 70, was born in Morocco, where his father worked for the French postal service. He chases the same working-class, anti-austerity section of the electorate as Ms Le Pen. With only 420,000 more votes, he would have beaten her to April’s second round against Mr Macron.
Mr Zemmour suffered a humiliating first-round elimination with 7 per cent nationwide but his strength in the Var — along with the Melenchon phenomenon and gradual advances by Ms Le Pen in presidential contests — offers further proof that French voters no longer feel stigma when backing candidates routinely described as extremists.
The trend has become more pronounced with the collapse of the two parties of left and right with histories of power — the Parti Socialiste, now a minor component of Nupes, and conventional Gaullists, Les Republicains.
‘’It is difficult to dismiss the far right since it achieved a significant score in the second round of the presidential election,’’ said Christele Lagier, a sociologist and senior academic at Avignon University in southern France.
She tells The National the split in far-right voting is compensated by the decline of the centre right and the sharing of its support among Ms Le Pen, Mr Zemmour and a president viewed as having veered to the right since his victory in 2017.
Even if the immediate chances of the far left or far right taking power are overblown, the prospect of a troubled cohabitation, with political enemies dominating Parliament and frustrating his programme, must strike foreboding into Mr Macron’s heart.
Faced with electoral fatigue that makes a low turnout one of few certainties, Mr Macron may need a late revival in public approval to win the 289 seats required for an overall majority.
Mr Macron’s party has also been damaged by claims from two women, strongly denied, of rape by one of his new ministers, Damien Abad.
If he falls short, perhaps he will blame the French tendency to complain about their lot. ‘’Sylvain Tesson [a French writer] coined a nice phrase,’’ the president said in an interview with the regional press. ‘’France is a paradise populated by people who think they’re in hell.’’