A shock election result in France puts the left in the lead

People gather at the Place de la Republique after partial results were announced on 7 July. Photo: Reuters
People gather at the Place de la Republique after partial results were announced on 7 July. Photo: Reuters

Summary

  • But they are well short of a majority; uncertainty looms

In a result that took France wholly by surprise, the left-wing New Popular Front (NFP), dominated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, looks poised to become the biggest bloc in parliament after final-round voting at legislative elections closed on July 7th. Projections by Ipsos, based on early results, gave the NFP 171-187 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly. This would still be far short of the 289 seats needed to control the lower house. Voters have returned a badly hung parliament, and France is now set for a period of uncertainty and political manoeuvring as the country tries to learn how to act as many other European countries already do, and forge a majority coalition.

Graphic: The Economist
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Graphic: The Economist

The results contained surprises all round. Marine Le Pen’s hard-right National Rally and friends, which polls had suggested would top voting, is on course to become only the third-biggest parliamentary bloc. Ipsos suggested that they would secure 134-152 seats. This represents a big jump from the 88 the RN held in the outgoing parliament, and shows how far it has travelled from its days as a fringe pariah outfit to a near-respectable party backed by a big chunk of French voters. But it will be a disappointment to Ms Le Pen, who wanted a majority, and Jordan Bardella, her 28-year-old protégé, who had hoped to become the next prime minister.

For President Emmanuel Macron, who called this election against the advice of his close allies, the result will come as something of a relief. Ipsos projections suggest that Ensemble, his centrist coalition, will hold on to 152-163 seats, down from the 250 it held in the outgoing parliament. Though painful, this is not quite the calamity that had been widely expected. His bloc looks likely to become the second-biggest, slightly ahead of the RN, and his group of deputies could now hold the key either to forming a governing coalition or to keeping a minority left-wing government in power.

On election night, Mr Mélenchon, a hard-left firebrand and former Trotskyist, was the first to take to the stage and, triumphantly, declare victory. He called on Mr Macron to invite the NFP to try to form a government, insisting that its radical electoral programme would be put in place. This promises, among other things, to increase the minimum wage by 14%, bring back the wealth tax and cap energy prices. Offering support for an independent Palestinian state, the alliance did particularly well in a belt in and around north-eastern Paris and other big multicultural cities. Mr Mélenchon recently dismissed antisemitic acts in France as “residual", worrying French Jews.

There is now likely to be much internal squabbling between the four parties that make up the alliance: Mr Mélenchon’s Unsubmissive France (LFI), the Socialists, Communists and Greens. Before the election result, the alliance had been incapable of putting forward a single candidate for the job of prime minister. Plenty of figures within the NFP are deeply unhappy with Mr Mélenchon’s self-promoting dominance, and are itching to sideline him. The Socialists look set to have a similar number of seats to LFI, and could well insist that they take the lead instead, which would make it much easier to form a coalition with the centrists. Among the Socialist members who will sit in the new assembly is none other than François Hollande, the former president who was once Mr Macron’s boss.

One lesson from this vote is that a solid majority of the French still rejects the hard right. After first-round voting, polls had suggested that, under France’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the RN had a chance of winning a majority of seats. But a tactical effort by both Mr Macron’s Ensemble and the left-wing alliance to withdraw third-placed candidates in over 200 constituencies helped to avoid splitting the anti-RN vote. This was laborious, fractious and in some cases painful; but it seems to have worked. To the indignation of Mr Bardella, who denounced an “alliance of dishonour", it turned the vote in many constituencies into a referendum on the RN—which could store up problems for the future among its voters, who will feel robbed of victory by a stitch-up by the Paris elite.

Under the French constitution, it is now up to the president to name a prime minister. Political convention suggests that Mr Macron will ask the biggest parliamentary bloc to do this, which looks likely to be the NFP. According to a source in the presidency, however, Mr Macron thinks the results do not clearly show “who could govern". A minority government could fall, thanks to a no-confidence vote, at the first hurdle. His best hope is that there could be an alternative parliamentary effort to put together a coalition that pulls the moderate left and Greens away from Mr Mélenchon’s crew and teams up with the centre.

France, however, unlike Germany, Italy and many other European countries, has no experience of forging the compromise agreements needed for governing coalitions to stick. The three blocs that will make up the new assembly dislike each other intensely, and distrust each other even more. Given such uncertainty, Mr Macron may well ask the 35-year-old Gabriel Attal, his current prime minister, who said he would offer his resignation to the president on Monday, to continue as a caretaker while talks take place. This arrangement could last for much of the summer period, including during the Paris Olympic Games, which begin on July 26th. France seems to have pulled back from the brink; but it is still heading for the unknown.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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