What Do France’s Surprise Election Results Mean for the Far Right?
from Europe Program

What Do France’s Surprise Election Results Mean for the Far Right?

Jordan Bardella, president of the French far-right National Rally party, leaves the stage after early French parliamentary elections results.
Jordan Bardella, president of the French far-right National Rally party, leaves the stage after early French parliamentary elections results. Kevin Coombs/Reuters

The surprising shift to the left in snap elections has broken the far-right populist fever in France, but now a crisis of governability looms in Paris that has further weakened President Emmanuel Macron’s grip on power.

July 10, 2024 11:51 am (EST)

Jordan Bardella, president of the French far-right National Rally party, leaves the stage after early French parliamentary elections results.
Jordan Bardella, president of the French far-right National Rally party, leaves the stage after early French parliamentary elections results. Kevin Coombs/Reuters
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What happened to France’s surging far-right movement in these elections?

The second round of France’s snap legislative elections on July 7 delivered a surprising outcome due to the strategically smart combining of rival political forces on the left and center. The far-right National Rally (NR) of Marine Le Pen had topped the first round of elections on June 30 with 33 percent of the vote. Further, of the seventy-six seats for the National Assembly directly elected in the first round—by getting more than half of the vote—forty went to the NR, an absolute record for the party.

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Faced with this surge, the left-wing New Popular Front (NPF) and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Ensemble (“Together”) Alliance party chose not to compete with one another in three-way races involving their parties and an NR candidate. The stigma against the National Rally remains for a reason, despite Le Pen’s efforts to ‘de-diabolize’ the party since she took over the leadership from her father in 2011. The party continues to harbor and attract members with openly xenophobic, homophobic, and often antidemocratic views.

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This strategy employed by the left-wing and centrist parties, known as the “Republican Front” against the far right, has been used successfully before. It worked in 2002 for Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and then leader of the National Front, had made it into the second round of the presidential elections, and well over 80 percent of the French electorate voted for Chirac.

This time around, while National Rally managed to further increase its vote share to 37 percent of the vote in the second round, it ended up with just below 25 percent of all the seats in the 577-seat Assembly (143), while the New Popular Front emerged as the largest group getting 31 percent of seats with just 26 percent of the vote (180) and Ensemble received 28 percent with just 25 percent of the vote (159).

Is the French far right no longer a political factor then?

Quite the opposite. Despite its disappointment, the far right made its strongest ever electoral showing this time around. Back in 2017, when Macron was first elected President, the far-right National Rally got just 6 out of 577 deputies elected to parliament. In 2022, they secured eighty-nine. This year, together with their right-wing allies, they landed a record number of 143 deputies. The trend is clearly upwards, even though this time around they fell well short of their own very high expectations—and those of the polls—that they could get as many as 270 seats in the National Assembly (close to an absolute majority of 289). That is why Le Pen was defiant after the first results were announced, pointing out that “our victory has only been delayed”—clearly with her eyes on the big prize during the 2027 presidential elections when Macron cannot run again—and that her party was the victim of a “dishonest alliance.”

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What does France’s left-wing New Popular Front want?

The New Popular Front—a reference to the progressive Popular Front that won the 1936 elections against the right, led by Léon Blum, the first socialist prime minister of France—was put together in just a few days after Macron called snap elections on June 9. It comprises the far-left France Unbowed, led by left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, as well as the communists, the greens, and the Socialist Party of former President François Hollande, now led by Olivier Faure. NPF insists it should have the right to form a new minority government, led by one of its own, although it has yet to agree on a candidate, and there is no obligation for President Macron to appoint someone from the New Popular Front as prime minister.

The NPF ran on a very traditional left-wing tax-and-spending program, with higher taxes for the rich and a whole series of expensive spending plans. Its central policies included the repeal of Macron’s hard-fought pension reform (bringing the retirement age back from sixty-four years old to sixty), increasing the minimum wage from 1,400 to 1,600 euros a month, a freeze in the prices of essential goods such as food, energy, and gas, and a reduction in overall energy bills for working- and middle-class families. The New Popular Front also wants to abolish the tax privileges of billionaires, reinstate the wealth tax, and substantially increase taxes on capital income. On foreign policy, Mélenchon advocates a much tougher line on Israel’s military actions in the Gaza Strip and wants France to recognize a Palestinian state without delay.

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Will there be a governing stalemate?

It definitely looks that way right now. Unlike in neighboring Germany, France has no experience with coalition governments. Traditionally, after getting directly elected, the new president asks the French electorate for a governing mandate and an absolute majority allows the president’s party to govern. In the past, there have been cohabitations with prime ministers from another party, but those have always commanded absolute majorities in the National Assembly, so former Presidents François Mitterrand (from 1986 to 1988 and again from 1993 to 1995) and Jacques Chirac (from 1997 to 2002) grudgingly accepted them. Right now, with no stable majority emerging—especially as the New Popular Front has ruled out governing in a coalition with Macron’s allies, and both exclude governing with the far right—France finds itself in uncharted waters.

Macron has asked his outgoing prime minister, Gabriel Attal, to stay on at the head of a caretaker government for now and will decide in the days ahead what the most sensible way forward is. Attal himself did not have a majority and presided over a minority government. He either needed to find majorities on different issues or could push through laws by decree under article 49.3 of the French constitution, which allows the government to bypass parliament. The frequent usage of article 49.3 is one of the reasons Macron’s government was so unpopular over the past two years, which led to the electoral beating he received during the European Union (EU) Parliament elections on June 9.

Macron could choose someone from the New Popular Front to try and form a minority government, though it is hard to see how his own allies in the Assembly would support their policies. He could also decide to appoint someone from his own party and see if he can work with the more moderate wing of the New Popular Front, even though they insist right now that is not an option. He could also decide to appoint a government of technocrats with no political affiliation to keep the government functioning until June 2025, the next time that general elections can be held.

What does this mean for Macron—and France—influencing vital issues in Europe?

This is clearly bad news for Macron, as it makes him a less effective president. In his first term, from 2017 to 2022, Macron was able to push through domestic reforms and provide leadership in the EU, whether it was in pushing for Next Generation EU (the Union’s joint economic recovery plan for the COVID-19 pandemic) or the initial response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his second term, starting in May 2022, he had to govern with a minority cabinet, but his party had a plurality of seats in the National Assembly, and he could govern by decree or bypass parliament by using article 49.3.

Starting this summer, Macron will have to take into account the views of various other parties in the Assembly and make compromises. Though presidents in France hold wide sway over foreign policy including command of armed forces and national security bodies, Macron will no longer be able to dictate the agenda of his government on domestic issues. On backing Kyiv, there will be broad continuity, but it could be tougher to free up a lot more money to support Ukraine in its war against Russia. On any new EU initiatives, including on defense or energy policy, Macron could find himself hamstrung by a new government that is even less stable than the one he had before.

But the main fight will be on the budget for 2025, where his government could clash with the EU, which is pushing forward with an “excessive deficit procedure.” France is currently in breach of the EU’s stability and growth pact that manages Eurozone members’ fiscal policies and aims to keep government deficits below 3 percent. With the current French deficit well above 5 percent, a combination of tax increases and spending cuts will be required to bring that deficit down over the coming years. It is hard to see how a left-leaning government can square that circle without disappointing its voters. The fact that Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Germany has just managed to put together an austerity budget of his own will only increase the pressure on France to do the same thing. Difficult months lie ahead.

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