France's 'far-right election': who won it and what happens next?

France's 'far-right election': who won it and what happens next?
Thanks to France's left rallying voters, the far-right has been defeated for now in the legislative elections, but what comes next?
6 min read
08 July, 2024
Jean-Luc Melenchon's France Unbowed played a major role in forming the left coalition that defeated the far-right threat in France's elections [Getty]

France’s far-left New Popular Front (NFP) has won the largest number of seats in the final round of snap parliamentary elections, with President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition finishing as runner ups and the far-right populist National Rally (RN), led by Marine Le Pen, trailing in third place.

It’s an astonishing result that has left France without a clear candidate for prime minister but eases fears about the far-right coming to power in one of Europe's most powerful countries.

The New Arab looks into what happened, what this means for the future of France, and where it leaves the prospects of power for the far-right National Rally, a party known for its anti-EU, pro-Putin, anti-migrant and radically Islamophobic ideology.

Why is France holding elections at this time?

On 9 June, France headed to the polls for European Parliament elections when Emmanuel Macron faced one of the lowest approval ratings of any president in France's history and his centrist Ensemble coalition not expected to perform well.

But none of France’s political class envisioned the scale of Macron’s defeat and the size of the RN's victory with the president's coalition only managing a dismal 14 percent of the vote, with Le Pen’s far-right party getting over double that at 31%.

Macron's response stunned even his own deputies and defied usual political logic when he announced on 9 June that the lower house of France’s parliament, the National Assembly, would be dissolved and snap elections held in a two-round poll on 30 June and 7 July.

Macron justified the decision by saying that his government could not just go on "as if nothing had happened" and citing the need to uphold the "sovereignty" of the French people.

What happened next?

In the first round of the legislative elections held on 30 June, Macron’s Ensemble coalition received less than 21 percent of the vote.

This was far behind the RN, which, along with its allies in the Union of the Far-Right, got 33.2 percent, almost one-third of the vote.

Many analysts in France and other centrists parties in Europe feared the worst, with a RN victory looking inevitable and France facing the prospect of its first far-right government since the Vichy puppet regime of Nazi Germany.

However, merely 20 days before voting day, France’s parties of the broad left - ranging from far-left Marxist parties to centre-left social democrats - had assembled and joined together into the New Popular Front.

The NFP managed to beat Ensemble into second with a shocking 28 percent of the votes, only five points behind the RN with another round to go.

Despite this rally of the left, most polling and analysis indicated that the RN would storm to victory in the second round.

Melenchon’s Dam

How then did France avoid falling to the far-right on 7 July?

The phenomenon is known in France as Front républicain – a term that refers to the historic tendency of French voters to turn out to stop the far-right.

And this is precisely what happened, but it could only be successful if the two leading non-far-right groupings, the NFP and Macron’s Ensemble coalition, essentially formed an unofficial bloc to defeat the far-right.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, France’s most famous leftist politician and a leading figure in the NFP, announced the left coalition had a plan to create a "dam" to stop the flow of the far-right into power. According to this strategy, the NFP would call on its voters to vote for Ensemble in places where they were more likely to beat the RN. In a shocking move of informal cooperation between the centrists and the left, Macron’s coalition also largely adhered to Melenchon’s dam.

Between them, more than 200 candidates withdrew from Assembly seats to allow the better-placed party to defeat far-right candidates.

With this in place, despite the RN getting by far the single largest number of votes, the NFP triumphed with a projected 182 seats, while Ensemble came second with 159 and the RN were pushed to third, with 142 seats.

What comes next?

Although the far-right has been stopped from sweeping to power in the National Assembly, France has been left in a state of political chaos with a hung parliament. No single coalition has enough seats – 289 – to put forward a prime minister and form a government.

Gabriel Attal, the incumbent Ensemble prime minister and Macron's protege, said he will resign today, but Macron has controversially asked him to stay on as a "caretaker".

The path to appointing and agreeing on his successor is a complex process, fraught with potential danger regarding the far-right.

The only path to stability is what is known as cohabitation, where Macron, as president, appoints a prime minister from the largest NFP party as prime minister, working in a formal or informal coalition with Ensemble.

This would likely mean making Melenchon, who is the leader of France Unbowed, the largest single party within the NFP, prime minister. However, leading figures in Ensemble have said they will not work with France Unbowed, claiming they consider the party to be just as extreme as the RN.

And this is where France’s informal anti-RN coalition could come undone. If Macron does not appoint a prime minister, France could be back to the polls, only this time, there would likely be no Melenchon’s dam and thus no electoral protection against Le Pen’s far-right party sweeping to a historic victory.

Even if the NFP and Ensemble can work together, the size of the far-right vote in a country as geopolitically important as France, right at the heart of the European Union, is already a terrifying prospect for many. It could lead to a further layer of normalisation of far-right politics in France and Europe. 

There is also the fact that the NFP and Ensemble are proponents of two vastly different ideologies. For example, the left-wing coalition has pledged to cap prices on essential goods, such as fuel and food, raise the minimum wage to €1,600 net per month, raise public sector wages, impose a wealth tax, and amend inheritance taxes.

In foreign policy terms, the NFP has also pledged to recognise a Palestinian state "within two weeks" of coming to power, while Macron refuses to do so. This is just a snapshot of the difficulties France faces in further alignment beyond defeating the far-right. 

Given this fractious political situation that France now finds itself in, Europe could be plunged into a mini-crisis, with financial markets reeling from such instability and the prospect of an anti-capitalist far-left prime minister coming to power.

The situation, whatever way it goes, is one of deep uncertainty and though thousands took to the streets of Paris to celebrate the defeat of the far-right, the French Republic is currently on the verge of the greatest electoral crisis in its postwar history.