RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's May Day, the international workers' holiday, and people are celebrating across Europe. In France, it's also the day the far-right holds its traditional rally. This year, the far-right has a candidate in the second round runoff of the French presidential election, now just six days away. We go to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Hi, Eleanor.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: This is an annual rally, but it's clearly taking on new importance with Marine Le Pen in the presidential runoff, right?
BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. You know, this is the far-right's day, but it's hugely symbolic. This was once a small, marginal party. And now she's holding a massive rally on the outskirts of Paris later today that I'll be going to. This morning, her father is laying a small lily of the valley flower at Joan of Arc's statue - that's their traditional thing. She'll be staying far away from him. They've completely broken off relations. You know, she's been trying to modernize and mainstream this party, and he kept having these xenophobic and anti-Semitic outbursts. You know, he's the founder of the party. And she kicked him out of the party, actually, two years ago.
MARTIN: So you say she's tried to make the party more mainstream. Has she been able to do that?
BEARDSLEY: You know, Rachel, she has. Analysts say, you know, she's brought in a lot of young people, women. You go to her rallies now, and you used to just see, you know, like, workers, unemployed angry people. Now you see professionals. It's very, you know, middle class. And, you know, she's toned down some of her rhetoric, her anti-euro currency rhetoric. As it turns out, the French actually like the euro. And she says, we're not going to get out of the euro currency right away. And we're going to let our multinational companies keep using it.
This weekend, Rachel, she was endorsed. A small, patriotic party formed an alliance with her. They got about 5 percent of the votes in the first round. But what's important is this gives her a really - a veneer of normalcy. It's going to make it much more palatable for voters to vote for, you know, Marine Le Pen now. Never before has a so-called mainstream party become an ally of the far-right. And people who really don't want to see Le Pen in power are scared. I spoke to Parisian Philippe Gibert (ph), and here's what he said.
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PHILIPPE GIBERT: I'm afraid. I'm afraid because, for the first time, we have to consider that the extreme-right party could be at the power. That's the very first time we have this feeling. And as far as I'm concerned, that's frightens me. We still have hope that Macron will be the next president. But we cannot avoid to consider that Le Pen has a chance.
MARTIN: So are his fears justified?
BEARDSLEY: Well, yes and no. It's still a long shot. Polls show that Macron has around 60 percent compared to Le Pen's 40 percent. But - well, here's what political commentator Thierry Arnaud says about the race.
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THIERRY ARNAUD: Let's make it clear that the Marine Le Pen win is a very unlikely scenario. But it is not an impossible one. For that to happen, you would have to have a very low turnout, a massive abstention by French standards. And let me remind you that about 80 percent of the French electorate usually goes to the polls for a presidential election.
MARTIN: So what do you hear in that?
BEARDSLEY: Well, Rachel, people are worried about abstention. You know, the last time the National Front made the second round was in 2002 with her father. And literally all of France got together and voted against him in the runoff. Jacques Chirac won, like, with more than 80 percent of the vote. But things are different this time around. You know, she's made the party more palatable. She's brought it more mainstream. What's known as the Republican Front, everyone against her, it's not happening anymore, as she's allied with a small party.
And also, look - for example, today the unions are going out on May Day. They've all called on their voters not to support Le Pen, but they're split over whether to endorse Macron because, you know, many people consider Macron too capitalist. He's a former investment banker. Remember, the far left got nearly 20 percent of the vote in the first round. And their leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, has not even endorsed Macron.
Several days after the first round, after being called a sore loser, he finally came out and said, of course I'm not going to vote for Marine Le Pen. But he still has not said he will vote for Macron. So many people - there's this neither/nor, factor. We don't want Le Pen, but we don't want Macron either. So there are fears that there will be a lot of blank ballots cast or even, you know, people just not bothering to go vote at all. And that could really make this a close race, say analysts.
MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting on the French presidential runoff election from Paris. Eleanor, thanks so much.
BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.