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French polls: Far right in the lead but path forward unclear

July 1, 2024

The far-right National Rally delivered its best results in the first round of voting in a high-stakes parliamentary election. But, after President Emmanuel Macron's gamble, the end result is anyone's guess.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen reacts on stage after partial results, smiling, her arms outstreched
France's far-right National Rally took about a third of the vote in the first round on SundayImage: Yves Herman/REUTERS

Basking in the glory of a 33.5% projected victory in the first round of French parliamentary elections on Sunday evening, youthful National Rally (RN) President Jordan Bardella used his first post-exit poll address to pitch himself as a serious statesperson who was more than just the poster boy for France's far-right campaign.

"Next Sunday, if the French people award us an absolute majority to put the country back on its feet, I intend to be the prime minister of all the French people, listening to each and every one of them, respecting the opposition and mindful of national unity," the 28-year-old told a crowd in Paris.

The far right looks closer to power than at any time since the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, with Bardella angling to serve as prime minister in an awkward "cohabitation" with longtime centrist French President Emmanuel Macron until his term expires in 2027.

France's far right wins first round of legislative elections

But Bardella's use of "if the French people'' carried a lot of pressure at this stage of the fight. He both gave people the power to choose their representatives and urged them to do so in his party's favor.

Going by present projections, the RN, which was founded in its original form by convicted racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, may well fall short of an absolute majority in the French National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

Strong showing for new leftist alliance, but not enough

Coming second in the polls, with a projected 28.5%, was the broad improvised left-wing coalition New Popular Front. The alliance, which comprises the center-left Socialists, Greens and communists, is led by hard-liner Jean-Luc Melenchon of France Unbowed.

Macron’s centrists trailed third, with his pro-business, centrist alliance Together winning only 22% of the vote, according to the initial count. While Macron's own position is not in peril (he was elected to a second five-year term in office in 2022), his big bet to call a snap election appears to have backfired.

After RN scored a stunning 31% in European Parliament elections in June, compared to 14% for Macron's grouping, the president, who found himself trapped in a splintered parliament, threw down the gauntlet. As Sunday's projections show, the French public responded by voting for RN.

Far right in France edges closer to power

High turnout, high volatility

However, under France's complicated two-step voting system, nothing is certain yet. In the 577 French voting districts, all candidates who scored more than 12.5% will move on to the second, definitive round of voting unless one person scores more than 50% of the vote. In that case, they win a seat outright, and there's no runoff election.

This time, high turnout (at a four-decade high of almost 70%) means the next round of voting looks to be more volatile than usual, as many seats look set for three-way contests known as "triangulaires."

To avoid splitting the vote against the far right, both NPF and Together have committed to strategically withdrawing from the race if their candidates finish in third place, letting the other advance to the second round to face off with RN on a stronger footing.

Macron plans to prevent 'absolute majority' for far right

Macron renewed this call on Sunday. "Faced with National Rally, the time has come for a broad, clearly democratic and republican alliance for the second round," he said in a statement.

Melenchon and his political colleagues made similar commitments to team up against the far right, but whether everyone will stick to their promises remains to be seen.

Animosity all round

For Sophie Pornschlegel, an analyst from the European Jacques Delors think tank, much depends on the NPF leftist bloc and the traditional right-wing Republicans party.

The position of the Republicans, when it comes to RN, is less clear. Embattled party chief Eric Ciotti has been pushing his once-mighty party, which finished last place with 10% of the vote on Sunday, to team up with RN. Bardella also reached out to the Republicans in his address. But as Pornschlegel pointed out, the Republicans are fiercely divided over whether they should work with RN.

At the same time, she pointed out that some centrist voters will find it hard to vote for a coalition led by left-wing populist Melenchon in seats where Macron's party pulled out because it came third.

French parliament 'close to ungovernable'

With so much political horse-trading expected, Pornschlegel said the actual makeup of the future National Assembly is very hard to predict right now. "It very much depends on whether there will be some kind of coalition against the far right or whether it will break up," she told DW by phone.

According to Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, the lower house looks set to be polarized. "On these numbers, the far right will struggle to win a majority next Sunday," Rahman wrote on social media platform X. "But France's new [National] Assembly is likely to be a raucous and close to ungovernable place."

For Pornschlegel, a hung parliament looks quite likely at this stage. "I think Macron still holds quite a lot of power, constitutionally, to take the decisions of who the next prime minister will be," she said.

Whatever happens, Pornschlegel believes France is likely heading for political gridlock in some form or another, or possibly a technocratic caretaker government. Things could get so bad that Macron might even call an early presidential election, she argued.

"It's impossible to govern in the kind of scenarios that we're looking at," she said.

Edited by: Roshni Majumdar