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France: Who will rule after shock win for left?

Ella Joyner in Paris
July 8, 2024

France had braced for a parliament dominated by the far-right, but instead, the left emerged victorious. Now they may be forced to enter an uneasy government with centrist Macron. If negotiations fail, deadlock looms.

French flags wave as left-wing supporters stand on a graffitied national monument at Place de la République in Paris
Defeating the far-right National Rally was only half the battle for France's leftist allianceImage: Lionel Urman/ABACAPRESS/IMAGO

It was an election night that stunned France, not to mention onlookers in Europe and beyond. When Sunday evening's exit polls signaled an unexpected victory for a rapidly cobbled together alliance of disparate left-leaning parties, New Popular Front (NFP) supporters gathered at Paris' famed Place de la Republique burst into a joyous uproar.

For the far-right National Rally (RN), which dropped to third place in terms of parliamentary seats won, the news was much more somber. After winning the first round of voting for the French lower house, the National Assembly, on June 30, they seemed poised to take the premiership.

In the end, Sunday's results dramatically defied most people's expectations. The NFP won 188 seats, President Emmanuel Macron's centrist, pro-business Together group took 161 seats, and the National Rally — plus a few allied candidates — secured 142.

Leftist alliance wins in French legislative election

It was a triumphant night for the left and a disaster avoided for Macron and the centrists. But as the dust settled on Monday, reality set in. The task now will be to assemble a new government reflective of last night's election results but with the 577-seat parliament divided into three political blocs, nobody has the absolute majority needed to dominate and push through their policies.

The cards may have been reshuffled in favor of the left and to the detriment of the far-right, but it is unclear who exactly will make it into the Cabinet of a government presided over by Macron. His Renaissance party and the New Popular Front did a lot of mud slinging on the campaign trail. But now they need each other to block the far-right. Chaos and potential deadlock could lie ahead.

What happens next?

The impetus now lies with President Macron, who will stay in his post until 2027, and will likely seek to build a new coalition government with key faces from the NFP in the weeks to come.

"What would now make political sense would be for a left-of-center coalition to emerge from the debris of the election result," Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of the Eurasia Group political consultancy, said. "Macron, I suspect, this morning, is going to go about trying to build a coalition that enlarges and expands on his own centrist coalition."

French President Emmanuel Macron and a bodyguard
President Emmanuel Macron brushed aside Prime Minister Gabriel Attal's offer to resign as the far-left demandedImage: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Macron did not appear to be making any quick moves despite pressure from the left. He rejected, for instance, an offer of resignation tendered by Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, according to a source close to the president.

The 35-year-old Attal, also a member of Macron's Renaissance party, will be staying in his post "for the moment in order to ensure the stability of the country," the source told journalists on condition of anonymity in a short statement.

The first sitting of the newly constituted National Assembly will take place on July 18, though Macron does not have to appoint top jobs before then.

Who will get the premiership?

Politicians from the NFP immediately began jockeying for the prime minister role on Monday. Green Party leader Marine Trondelier said Macron should approach them "today" to ask them to nominate a candidate, French media reported. Raphael Glucksmann, leader of the center-left Socialist Party, said they should be ready to nominate a candidate within a week.

The NFP banded together after Macron called snap elections in the wake of the National Rally's victory in last month's European Parliament elections, quickly putting forth a program focussed on pension reform — ever a hot-button issue in France — tax justice, and education.

The alliance is led by the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI), but is also made up of Social Democrats, Greens and even Communists.

Prime Minister Melenchon?

Over the past three weeks, France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon has been floated as a potential prime minister. Known for his fiery rhetoric, his critical stance on NATO and the European Union, and an ambivalence towards Western support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, he is at odds with the French political mainstream.

France Unbowed (LFI) founder Jean-Luc Melenchon (center) delivers a speech while Daniele Obono, second right, gestures.
LFI leader Jean-Luc Melenchon threw down the gauntlet for Macron, demanding the New Popular Front be allowed to run the countryImage: Thomas Padilla/AP Photo/picture alliance

But Sophie Pornschlegel of the Brussels-based think tank Europe Jacques Delors says it's anyone's guess who the next prime minister might be at this point. Given the controversy surrounding Melenchon, Pornschlegel believes it is more likely the premiership could go to the traditional center-left Socialists, who came in close behind France Unbowed.

"It would be difficult for Melenchon," she said. "I think if he is strategically smart, he would not do that [demand the premiership]. You already had enough polarization." It would be much easier to make a center-left coalition work when led by a more moderate figure, Pornschlegel argues.

How long could it take for France to get a new government?

For Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group, it is not so much about who should get what job but whether centrists and leftists can agree on a government program in the first place. "That will be very difficult, because the left wants to reverse Macron's pension reform, they've got a set of commitments around tax and spending that doesn't sit well with the center," he said.

If they can agree on substance, then deciding who gets which top jobs shouldn't be a big challenge, but regardless, Rahman doesn't believe it will be quick or easy. "I think we're looking at a process of at least a few weeks, if not months, of government formation. It won't be straightforward."

How did the left pull out its surprise victory?

Heading into the second round of voting, National Rally looked stronger than ever. The party netted 33% of the popular vote in round one, and while RN was projected by pollsters to fall short of an absolute majority, it was tipped to possibly secure the premiership for leader Jordan Bardella.

A crowd of National Rally supporters, one holding a French flag, stand stunned as election returns are announced
The surprising result came as a shock to the far-right National Rally and its supportersImage: Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/IMAGO

Turnout for the second round of voting was the highest it has been in decades, as Sophie Pornschlegal pointed out. For her, it was an indication that a lot of voters wanted to stop National Rally from coming to power. "So there was a real fear from people that you would end up with a far-right government."

Moreover, the NFP and Together were very successful in the strategic withdrawals they made in the second round, avoiding three-party races known as "triangulaires" to keep from splitting their votes and delivering victory to National Rally candidates. "They did that in over 200 constituencies," Pornschlegal said.

Could a center-left coalition hold together?

France's political system does not lend itself to "cohabitation," with the president and prime minister coming from different parties, or even coalition governments for that matter.

Still, Pornschlegel argues that both sides have every reason to want such a scheme to work this time around in order to keep the far right out of power. Though she admits a "cohabitation" between the NFP and Macron would not be a "perfect situation," Pornschlegel nevertheless adds, "but it has already happened three times before, with center-left and center-right governments, and it somehow worked out as long as the parties were not entirely extreme."

But Rahman fears France is headed for weeks or months of political chaos if negotiations between Macron and the NFP don't work out, predicting there may even be fresh elections down the line.

A person waves the French flag with the sun in the background
The French public has voted in a flurry of presidential, parliamentary and European elections over the past two yearsImage: Christophe Ena/AP/picture alliance

"At best, I think you're looking at deadlock in the assembly and potential political paralysis with a very weak and fragmented national unity government that may not be able to serve a full term," he said. "At worst, you're probably looking at a technocratic government."

"The far right didn't deliver a majority, so the worst case scenario has been avoided," Rahman argued. "But frankly, the situation in France is now moving towards a less stable, less coherent one than in the status quo ante. So that can't be a good thing for France and its role in the world, or indeed in the European Union."

Edited by: Jon Shelton