Five takeaways from the French elections – and what could happen next

It was a bad night for the president and a triumphant one for the far right. How long until a return to the polls?

Emmanuel Macron’s alliance remains the largest force in France’s parliament, but the president – comfortably re-elected eight weeks ago – lost his overall majority amid a strong electoral showing by a new leftist coalition and a historic far-right surge.

Here are five key takeaways from a shock legislative election that leaves the centrist leader needing to strike difficult deals with other parties to deliver his promised reforms – and that could yet plunge France into political chaos.

1. A triumph for the far right

Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), which routinely scores 20% or more in national elections, had just eight of the 577 MPs in the last parliament. In the new assembly it will have 89, an elevenfold increase and a historic total (its previous high was 35 in 1986, under a short-lived period of proportional representation).

The unprecedented score, double what polls predicted, qualifies the far-right party as a political group under the assembly’s rules, giving it significant speaking rights and representation on parliamentary committees, and will allow it to pay off its debts and build up a campaign warchest for future elections.

RN also cleared the thresholds required to be able to launch parliamentary investigations and challenge bills before the constitutional court. In the words of many commentators, its score represents a seismic breakthrough.

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2. A dire night for Macron

The president’s coalition, Ensemble (Together), finished up with 245 deputies, by far the largest bloc in parliament but well short of the 289 seats needed for a majority and more than 100 down from the previous parliament.

There were a few bright spots, such as the first-time election of the Europe minister, Clément Beaune, but Macron also lost a string of heavy hitters. Analysts say the 44-year-old president must take much of the blame, accusing him of throwing away a solid projected parliamentary lead after his re-election in April with an all but nonexistent campaign in which he seemed to rely on the tradition of French voters usually giving newly elected presidents a majority.

Rapidly rising inflation and cost of living concerns also revived popular resentment of Macron and his style, widely perceived as arrogant, top-down and “president-of-the-rich”. Macron, used to ramming his pro-business reforms through parliament with little regard for opposition views, will have to learn the art of political consensus-building; he faces weeks of negotiations and may yet fail to form a functioning majority.

3. The left’s tactics paid off, but not completely

The Socialist and Communist parties, the radical-left Unbowed France (LFI) and the Greens (EELV) scored no more votes in combination than in the previous 2017 election, but their decision to jointly field a candidate in each constituency as part of a new alliance under the hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon paid off, allowing them to win 131 MPs, more than double their previous total (they can also count on the support of some of the 22 deputies from non-allied leftwing parties).

The performance makes Nupes, as the alliance is known, the largest opposition force in parliament. Most observers, however, believe that with major differences over everything from the EU to nuclear power and policing, Nupes will struggle to stay united for long if Macron tries to peel off more moderate MPs: less than 24 hours after polling stations closed, it was already showing signs of strain. Mélenchon also fell far short of his target of a left-leaning parliamentary majority (with himself as prime minister) and it is unclear how far his disruptive LFI, as the major force in the alliance, will be able to dictate to its less radical allies.

4. Low turnout and a ‘republican front’ hit by a bitterly divided electorate

Abstention played a crucial role. As in the first round, more than half of eligible voters stayed away from the polls, with turnout at just 46%. Young and less well-off people abstained en masse: only 29% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 36% of people in households earning less than €1,200 a month voted, compared with 66% of those over 70 and 51% of those with higher incomes. France’s so-called republican front, in which moderate voters traditionally ally to keep out the extremes, also failed at the local level.

Divided in effect into three mutually antagonistic blocs (far right, left/far left and centre), many voters – faced with a two-horse second round that did not feature their preferred candidate – simply stayed away. This explains much of the far-right surge: according to the pollster Ipsos, for example, such is the mutual loathing of leftist and centrist voters that “a very large percentage” of Macron supporters abstained or spoiled their ballot rather than vote for Nupes candidates in run-offs against the National Rally, while a similar number of Nupes voters declined to vote for Ensemble candidates in head-to-heads with the far-right party.

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5. A more representative – but potentially paralysed – parliament

For some, the upsides in Sunday’s results are that power in France will now necessarily shift from president to parliament; that the makeup of the assembly more accurately reflects the political views of country’s electorate; and that French MPs will be forced to reach consensus in the national interest.

Unlike in Scandinavian countries, Germany or the Netherlands, however, France’s modern national assembly has no tradition of compromise, and many other commentators fear a fatally hung parliament, paralysis and political crisis at a time of major European – and global – challenges.

… Where now? The three main options ahead

To form a majority, Macron could seal a pact with the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) party, which has 64 MPs but is split between a moderate, pro-European wing and a harder-right, more nationalist faction. Senior LR leaders, however, have for the time being ruled out a formal coalition.

The party may yet break up, with some MPs rallying to Macron. Alternatively, the president may seek support from right and/or left on a bill-by-bill basis (as the Socialist president François Mitterrand once did, with some legislative success). LR has said it would be open to this; Nupes has been less forthcoming.

But if the assembly parties fail to work constructively together (LFI and the National Rally, in particular, could prove particularly obstructive), deadlock will ensue and a snap election, which Macron can call at any time, may prove to be the only way out – possibly within months.

Contributor

Jon Henley in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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