Usually when the French take to the streets at this time of year they line the roadsides in their millions to watch the progress of the Tour de France.

This year though, while Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard battle it out for the maillot jaune, another battle is taking place, some would say for the very soul of the nation.

Taking a theme and running - cycling? - with it, a website appeared this week documenting the 'Tour de France de la Honte', the Tour de France of Shame, highlighting some of the most extreme candidates from Rassemblent National (National Rally, RN), the far-right party which is looking to win a parliamentary majority in Sunday's second round of voting in the legislative election.

They include Tony Bihouée, the candidate for the fourth district of Finistère who described a young man of North African descent killed by police as "scum" who "wouldn't comply"; Jocelyn Dessigny, incumbent for the fifth constituency of Aisne, who was pictured in a t-shirt of the nationalist rock In Memoriam who covered a Hitler Youth song; and Julien Leonardelli, the MEP elected last month who tweeted in 2019 "not a single Jew was killed by the far-right" and defended the 'soupe au cochon' initiative by SDF-Solidarité, banned in 2007, where the poor and homeless were served pork soup to exclude Jews and Muslims.

The party, founded as the National Front and led by Marine Le Pen, took a third of the vote in the first round of the election and could even win an outright majority in the second round, making Jordan Bardella the Prime Minister.

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An open letter signed by 1,000 historians warned "to date, the far right has only come to power in the turmoil of a military defeat and a foreign occupation in 1940", urging the country to unite against RN.

That, however, proved more easily said than done. Under the French electoral system, any candidate who receives more than 12.5% of the vote in the first round is eligible to advance to the second, meaning there can be three or even four-way races.

RN took 37 seats in the first round and led the voting in many others, leading to calls for an electoral alliance to defeat Ms Le Pen and her party and avoid splitting the vote.

The left coalition, Nouveau Front Populaire (New Popular Front, NFP) immediately declared that it would stand down the candidates who finished third in seats where RN was first, but the centrist bloc led by President Emmanuel Macron and his Renaissance party was more equivocal, stating it would only make way for "Republican" candidates - excluding the hard-left members of the NFP.

While Secretary of State for the Sea and Biodiversity Hervé Berville made clear "not one single vote for the RN", incumbent Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, though saying an RN victory would be "catastrophic", said not all of their third-placed candidates would withdraw.

Candidates had until 6pm on Tuesday night to withdraw from the second round, and the apparent reluctance of Ensemble to make way for challengers from the left coalition caused tension.

Mr Attal was confronted by a young man while campaigning in the 15th arrondissement of Paris on Tuesday morning.

"I'm 22-years-old," the man said. "You don't have the right to leave the world to the far-right, for people like me who are just starting out in life.

"There haven't even been 40 withdrawals.

"Are you able to look me in the eye and tell me you won't give a voice to the far-right?"

By closing time more than 200 candidates had withdrawn, 131 from the left coalition and 83 from the President's group, with 96 three or four way races still planned.

RN withdrew three candidates one of whom, Ludivine Daoudi, after a picture emerged of her wearing a Nazi military cap.

(Image: @emma_frr/X)

Speaking to TF1 on Monday night, Mr Bardella described the uneasy bloc as "a bit of a counter-intuitive alliance".

He said: "It's an alliance of dishonour in one direction or the other, the French are not fooled and must have clarity in the coming days.

"I'm surprised that a President of the Republic would come to the aid of a violent far-left movement, which appeals for insurrection, which has nourished an atmosphere of anti-semitism after October 7, never has the words to condemn Hamas atrocities, and which wants to at all costs sow disorder in French society.

"It's a choice between Jean-Luc Mélenchon as Prime Minister or us.

"We can see this far-left coalition rising up which could win on Sunday, which wants to free prisoners, disarm the police, and create a mountain of new taxes which will hurt the middle and working class."

If the centrist-left bloc make for uneasy allies the same is true across French society.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, LFI), is the biggest name in the left coalition and came within one point of qualifying for the second round of 2022's presidential election.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

The 72-year-old has a history of controversial comments, particularly when it comes to France's Jewish community.

In 2013 he referred to finance minister Pierre Moscovici as having "stopped thinking in French, like someone who only thinks in the language of international finance". Mr Mélenchon said he was unaware Mr Moscovici was Jewish.

In 2017, echoing comments by Ms Le Pen, he played down French complicity in the Holocaust, while in 2020 he declared "I don't know if Jesus was on a cross, but he was apparently put there by his own people".

Such comments have made many Jews uncomfortable about voting for the NFP - with some even giving their votes to Ms Le Pen's party.

"In the case of a duel between the RN and the NFP left-wing bloc under the influence of La France Insoumise, a party which has become anti-Israel and exudes anti-semitic overtones, I'd advise Jews to vote for RN rather than abstain," Serge Klasfeld, 88, whose father was killed at Auschwitz told La Vie.

It was an extraordinary intervention, especially as the lawyer and his wife, Beate, had Ms Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, convicted of holocaust denial, a crime under French law.

In response Auschwitz survivor Ginette Kolinka, 99, said: "If even the Jews side with the far-right we'll never be rid of it - and what will RN do once they have the votes?"

Some elements of the French right are even more extreme.

In the fifth constituency of Meurthe-et-Moselle, Pierre-Nicolas Nups - who was not endorsed by RN - put up campaign posters saying "let's give a future to white children", having previously been filmed singing a song glorifying Marshall Pétain, the collaborationist leader of Vichy France. He received 10% of the vote, just missing out on entry to the second round.

Ms Le Pen has made clear that her party wants to be able to govern, and thus would need a majority or something very close to it which could be augmented by sympathetic figures on the right from other parties.

Among RN's stated policies are excluding foreigners from the welfare system, banning dual nationals from government jobs, scrapping nationality rights for those born in France to two foreign parents, and in 2022 Ms Le Pen advocated banning the production of halal and kosher meat.

Most polling suggests that RN will fall just short of being able to command a majority in parliament, but it's clear that Mr Macron faces a humiliating defeat.

The President is not eligible to run for re-election in 2027, and his grand gamble on holding an early legislative ballot has failed spectacularly.

Even her party fails to form the next government, Ms Le Pen will have her eyes firmly fixed on the presidency - and she may well get there.