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French election: The far right has been held at bay, but for how long?

The far right won more votes nationwide than the left alliance and Macron’s centrists but the vote was spread across the country

People celebrate at Place de la République following the surprise win by left-wing coalition NFP in the second round of elections on Sunday. Photograph: Lys Arango/Bloomberg

Sunday July 8th, 2024, between 7pm and 8pm. Dozens of white CRS police vans are lined up in the rue du Temple. The cops don shoulder and knee pads, helmets and visors. At the end of the street, where it feeds into the Place de la République, young people are also getting ready, putting on masks and goggles to shield them from tear gas.

8pm. The results of France’s snap legislative elections flash up on screens. A roar rises from the square, so mighty that it can be heard many blocks away.

Polls have for weeks predicted the victory of Marine Le Pen’s extreme right-wing National Rally (RN). Instead, the New Popular Front (NFP), the motley alliance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left France Unbound (LFI), Socialists, Communists and Greens has taken 182 seats, the largest number. President Emmanuel Macron’s Ensemble centrist coalition has come in second, at 168. The RN is relegated to third place, with 143 seats.

Everyone is astounded, even Macron. In the République neighbourhood, synonymous with left-wing causes, the ambience turns on a dime. Eight thousand people weep for joy, hug, jump up and down, dance and party until 4am. Among them are many Africans, Arabs and women in Muslim hijab who feel threatened by the RN’s obsession with national origins.

A young man holds up a placard saying 'The bad days will end' on the Place de la République on Sunday night. Photograph: Susanna Schrobsdorff

But what happens next? France is in deep political fog, with zero visibility, its body politic divided into three blocs, none of which have the majority required to govern. Parties with similar goals have not enough seats to form a majority, while component parts who could achieve a majority are too hostile to come together on most issues.

The triumphant left is more than 100 short of the 289 seats (out of 577) it needs for a majority. Mélenchon nonetheless demands that the NFP choose the new prime minister, swearing that his or her agenda must be the NFP programme, “and nothing but”.

Macron says he’ll wait until the new assembly is “structured” before naming a prime minister. The assembly will convene for the first time on July 18th. The French president is extremely unlikely to choose anyone from LFI, which he described as just as dangerous as the RN. Measures advocated by the NFP – retirement at age 60, a €1,600 monthly minimum wage and a price freeze on necessities – would cost the French treasury €150 billion at minimum.

The NFP promises to nominate a candidate for the prime minister’s office by the end of this week. Contrary to the hardline Mélenchon, Greens and Socialists advocate dialogue and compromise. Marine Tondelier, the Green leader, and Raphaël Glucksmann, the Socialist MEP, emerged during the campaign as impassioned and articulate opponents of the extreme right.

Macron has not contacted any NFP leaders. His former prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, reportedly told a colleague that Macron wants to govern with the right. His Ensemble coalition combined with the remnants of the conservative party Les Républicains (LR) could muster at best 228 votes in the assembly, far short of the majority needed to pass legislation. Macron failed to lure LR into a coalition for the past two years. There is no reason why it should work now.

France faces political deadlock after surprise left-wing vote surge blocks far right’s path to powerOpens in new window ]

Macron’s supporters claim he was right to call the snap election. The Élysée says the high level of participation – 66.7 per cent – “proved that the dissolution (of the National Assembly) fulfilled a need for democratic expression” and that “cohabitation” with the extreme left has been avoided.

But Macron’s centrist bloc has shrunk from 250 to 168 seats – certainly not a victory. With three years to run in his presidential term, Macron has become a man of the past. The youth who partied through the night of July 8th no longer bothered to insult him, saving their venom for Le Pen’s protege, the RN leader Jordan “Merdella” Bardella.

Much as they hate each other, RN and NFP, far right and far left, could gang up in the National Assembly to demand Macron’s resignation. They have similar positions on a price freeze and abrogation of pension reform. Already, the outgoing prime minister Gabriel Attal “suspended” the reform of the unemployment system following the disastrous first-round results. Not much is likely to remain of Macron’s reform legacy. Most of his entourage have turned against him and are competing to succeed him in 2027.

Macron has asked Attal to stay on for the time being, to ensure “stability” through the Paris Olympics. It will probably take weeks or months for Macron to name a new prime minister.

The defeat of the RN was only relative. Le Pen’s party increased its seats in the National Assembly from seven in 2017 to 89 in 2022 to 143 in the new legislature. The old-time “republican front”, whereby candidates from dissimilar parties pull out of three-way races so the anti-RN vote is not split, worked surprisingly well.

As Le Figaro pointed out, the RN won more votes nationwide – 36 per cent – than the NFP, which won 25 per cent, and Macron’s Ensemble at 23 per cent. But the RN vote was spread across the country, over more constituencies. There will be renewed demands for proportional representation, which would strengthen the RN.

The sense of grievance on the far right at what they see as a system rigged against them is stronger than ever. “We must do things differently or we will have Marine Le Pen as president in three years,” the outgoing minister for industry Roland Lescure said.

Tactical voting was the primary cause of the RN’s defeat, but the NFP’s campaign was surprisingly well organised and united, despite internal divisions. And the RN revealed its true character, with homophobic, racist and xenophobic remarks by candidates. Le Pen and Bardella gave the impression of gloating over their expected victory.

As a consolation prize, Bardella was on Monday night appointed the president of the new Patriots for Europe group, founded by Hungary’s far-right, populist prime minister Viktor Orban. The RN’s victory, Le Pen said, has merely been postponed.