The Guardian view on Macron’s bad night: a rocky road ahead | Editorial

A remarkable parliamentary election has transformed the political landscape

Ahead of Sunday’s legislative elections, Emmanuel Macron asked voters to deliver his parliamentary grouping a solid mandate at a time of multiple crises. The alternative, said the recently re-elected president, would be to add “disorder in France to the disorder in the world”.

This plea was resoundingly rejected. In a stunning set of results, which added up to a terrible night for Mr Macron, his centrist alliance lost more than 100 seats in the National Assembly. Though it remains the largest force, the president’s Ensemble (Together) party fell far short of achieving an absolute majority, and a number of high-profile heavy-hitters were defeated at the polls.

Arguably, this was not the biggest shock of an election where the turnout was depressingly low. Outstripping its wildest expectations, the French far right achieved easily its best-ever parliamentary result. Upping its number of deputies from eight to 89, Rassemblement National won swathes of new territory as supporters turned out in the north and south-east. Marine Le Pen’s party will now enjoy unprecedented visibility on the national stage and gain access to significant constitutional rights in the Assembly. Meanwhile, on the left, a new alliance led by the hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon became the main opposition force to Mr Macron’s centrist grouping. The controversial uniting of France’s fragmented left, under Mr Mélenchon’s charismatic but divisive leadership, proved a tactical triumph. The alliance more than doubled the number of seats its constituent parts won in 2017.

Mr Macron oversaw a lacklustre, complacent campaign that unsuccessfully relied on momentum generated by his presidential victory in April. The seismic consequence is a parliament reflecting a country where political affiliation is divided between three camps: the social democratic and socialist left; the liberal centre and centre right, and the radical right. The deeply unwelcome breakthrough by Ms Le Pen must in part be put down to Mr Macron’s unwise decision to demonise the united left as an equally “extreme” force. This contributed to a collapse of anti far-right solidarity, as many centrist and left-wing voters abstained in contests where their own candidate failed to make the run-off. The door was thus opened wide for some of Ms Le Pen’s candidates.

For the president, the main take-out is that the dynamics of his second term will be utterly different from those of his first. Across-the-board successes in the elections of 2017 meant that Mr Macron could indulge in a sometimes high-handed, “hyper-presidential” political style. This alienated much of the electorate, which has now dramatically clipped his wings. These results mean Mr Macron will need to work to make new allies and to accept compromises. The fate of his proposals to raise the retirement age and introduce welfare reforms will probably depend on an ability to woo deputies from the centre-right Républicains party.

From being a mere sideshow rubber-stamping the Élysée’s decisions, the National Assembly has been transformed overnight into an institution that matters. This is, broadly speaking, a good thing for French democracy. But the risk of fractious paralysis is real, at a time when urgent challenges need to be addressed on issues such as the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine and the climate emergency. A rocky road lies ahead for a chastened Mr Macron, and a parliament that must find a way to act in the national interest in treacherous times.

• This article was amended on 21 June 2022 because Emmanuel Macron has proposed to raise the retirement age, not lower it as an earlier version said.

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