Eleanor Beardsley

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The French go to the polls Sunday to cast ballots in the first round of a political race like no other in France's recent history: Entrenched politicians have been swept aside, with fringe candidates and untested newcomers filling the void.

After Sunday, the field of 11 presidential candidates will be narrowed down to two contenders, who will face each other in a runoff on May 7.

If Marine Le Pen is elected president of France in May, she says she promises to hold a referendum on leaving the European Union. Her EU-skeptic stance is an unlikely vote-winner in France, where the EU is still very popular. That's especially true in eastern France, near the border with Germany, but even there Le Pen has some supporters.

When Maureen Hargrave, a 71-year-old American who lives in San Diego, wrote an email to the chateau of Versailles in January, she wasn't sure she would hear back.

"I went to the Versailles website," she says, "and pulled down the link, and just wrote, 'On December 16th, 1944, [Pearlie] Hargrave, my aunt, married Michael McKeogh, Eisenhower's aide de camp. She was Eisenhower's driver, and they were married in Marie Antoinette's chapel. Can I come see it, please?' "

It's creeping toward 9 in the evening, but a group of young people is still busy at the National Front party's office in Metz, in eastern France. They're preparing for a rally for their presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen.

Twenty-one-year-old Arnaud de Rigné remembers when he first became interested in the party.

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As Erwan Humbert turns his tractor off and climbs down from the seat, the rumble of a motor gives way to the twittering of birds. The scent of fresh earth fills the air. This baby-faced farmer, with his long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, used to be an engineer. But the 44-year-old traded in his job in Paris' business district to grow organic vegetables in the countryside.

Humbert says he makes a good living, and most of all, he's happy.

"I might not earn as much as I used to," he says, "but I'm my own boss and now I can listen to the sound of the birds."

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In the southern French city of Toulon, 39-year-old presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is greeted by cheering crowds as he makes his way onstage at a rally. The former investment banker, who served briefly as President Francois Hollande's economy minister, has never been elected to political office. Yet he stands a good chance of becoming the next French president.

This year, the Paris museum that looks like a jumble of giant, colored pipes with an escalator in a clear plastic tube zigzagging up its side turns 40.

Nowadays, that museum — the Pompidou Center — has a secure place in the heart of Paris and in Parisians' hearts. But it wasn't always the case.

The carpeted prayer hall at the grand mosque in the French city of Bordeaux is full on a recent Friday afternoon. Behind a sculpted wooden railing on a small raised pulpit, Tareq Oubrou, a popular imam, is delivering his sermon in French as well as Arabic.

Bilingual sermons are rare in French mosques. Most Muslim clerics in France are foreign and speak in Arabic, which most young French Muslims don't understand. Oubrou says that's one reason why Muslim religious leaders are out of touch with a generation of French Muslims.

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