France’s elections showed a polarized country


People attend a gathering for the election night following the second round results of France’s legislative election at Republique Square in Paris on July 7, 2024. A broad left-wing coalition was leading a tight French legislative election, ahead of both President’s centrists and the far right with no group winning an absolute majority, projections showed. (Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP) (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images)

In Sunday’s French parliamentary elections, voters delivered a serious shake-up of the status quo, one that now means that, in France, there’s no longer a strong center, but rather a politics increasingly dominated by extremes.

The election saw the highest turnout since 1981, as well as a sharp rebuke to the far-right National Rally (RN) which came out on top in the first round of the contest and saw a major victory in June’s European Parliament elections. However, President Emmanuel Macron and his center-right Renaissance party aligned with the brand new left-wing coalition, the New Popular Front (NFP) in an electoral tactic that prevented RN from taking power.

The victory of the resurgent left reflects a new, highly polarized political reality for France.

Although Macron’s centrists won second place behind the NFP, it will not be able to form a government without appealing to the left. And that will not be easy; some members of the NFP have publicly refused to go into coalition with Macron’s party.

Macron dissolved France’s National Assembly last month after the RN trounced his party in the European Parliament elections. Macron’s technocratic, neoliberal policies have been deeply unpopular in France; Renaissance came in third after the RN and a new coalition of France’s left during the first round of elections on June 30.

While that may have been enough to keep the far right from real power, that doesn’t mean the new coalition will have an easy time governing. Just months ago, the Greens, Socialists, Communists, and France Unbowed, led by the fiery and controversial politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, were deeply fragmented over personal and ideological differences. But “historically, when there is a threat from the extreme right, the left always unifies,” Rémi Lefebvre, a political scientist at the University of Lille, told the New York Times

Though the group has agreed on a platform, there are still serious questions about leadership and whether the coalition can govern beyond the immediate threat of the RN. That’s without factoring in Macron and his party, which, since Macron has promised not to step down, will also presumably be in what is called a cohabitation with the left-wing alliance to govern.

The coming weeks will see France struggling to form a functioning government, but this election has shown one thing quite clearly: The far right and the left wing, not Macron’s centrism, are dominating French politics.

The left, the right, and the disappearing center

As part of Renaissance’s electoral partnership with the New Popular Front, both parties pulled candidates from Sunday’s race, making the choice clear: It’s the RN versus everyone else. 

It was a strategy that reflected France’s decades-long social pact, called the cordon sanitaire, which effectively prevented the far right from gaining power after the horrific rule of the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government during World War II. 

And Sunday’s results showed that it was ultimately successful. The mere fact that it was necessary, however — and that Macron now likely depends on the left wing to be able to govern — sends a strong signal of where French politics is now. 

“Macron succeeded in creating that centrist party,” Patrick Chamorel, senior resident scholar at the Stanford Center in Washington, told Vox. “But there is no alternative because all the alternatives were either far right or far left, he destroyed the moderate of right and left. And now he is collapsing his own party. So there’s nothing left except for the extremes.”

Although the RN has existed for decades, first as the National Front under Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party had never been more than marginal until 2012, when Le Pen’s daughter Marine first ran for president as the party’s leader. The RN slowly gained legitimacy and popularity in French politics, with Marine Le Pen winning a greater share of the vote in the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections — which Macron won.

Part of Le Pen’s strategy has involved toning down the RN’s most noxious and hateful ideologies, particularly about migration and antisemitism, to make it more palatable. She ejected her father from the party in 2015 after he repeated comments that downplayed the Holocaust and attempted to reframe her father’s policy of reserving social services for French citizens. That has been reflected in public opinion; support for the RN has increased in nearly all of France’s municipalities since 2017.

Still, the RN pushed a platform centered on restricting social services for non-citizens. “They want to deprive people who don’t have the French nationality or people who are illegal migrants, for example, for any health coverage,” Sandrine Kott, a professor of modern European history at the University of Geneva, told Vox. “It’s very clear, it’s not even hidden — it’s very clear what they want, they want to exclude [migrant workers from] social apartments, social housing, and so on,” on the basis that they are taking social services away from people born in France.

When it comes to the right, France’s politics follow a general trend in Europe. The right has been building toward this moment over the past 15 years: Right-wing parties have been steadily gaining influence in Europe since the far-right German party the Alternative for Deutschland started in 2013, and the two right-wing blocs — the Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) — now hold 131 of 720 seats in the European Parliament, an increase of 15 seats from the last election.

However,  the threat of an RN government reignited the foundering left. Mélenchon, for instance, came in a very close third behind Le Pen in the 2022 elections, and a 2022 coalition of the main left-wing parties provided a formidable counter to Macron in the National Assembly.

Now, the public has put the left wing in a position of power but it doesn’t have a mandate — and that raises the question of whether any governing can happen with this upcoming National Assembly. 

What happens now?

The left-wing coalition’s platform includes lowering the retirement age to 60, raising the minimum wage, and freezing the prices of basic goods to combat a cost-of-living crisis that has swept much of Europe in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. It has also promised to make the asylum process easier — a direct counter to RN, which demonizes immigrants and promised to cut immigration — as well as recognize a Palestinian state and push for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

Despite being the most powerful single bloc after Sunday’s vote, the New Popular Front won’t necessarily be able to push through its ambitious agenda for the next three years. Instead, there will likely be piecemeal reforms, with the left-wing coalition relying on alliances with other parties to push legislation through.

Macron’s term runs to 2027 and he insists he is not stepping down as president. His handpicked prime minister, Gabriel Attal, tendered his resignation Monday, as his party doesn’t have a parliamentary majority. Macron has asked him to stay at his post for “the moment to ensure the stability of the country.”

There are a few options for moving forward. Macron could have a prime minister from the left wing — a “cohabitation” in French political parlance. Who that prime minister would be is an open question as the New Popular Front has no official leader. In the immediate term, the goal is to form a government, which will likely require an alliance between the New Popular Front and another faction, potentially with Macron’s centrists, which came in second place (though some, like Mélenchon, have ruled out that possibility). NFP politicians have said that they will put forward a prime minister candidate within the week.

“We’re going to have a situation we’ve never known before, with the absence of a stable, coherent, homogeneous majority, very different from the three cohabitations that took place previously. And there is no natural choice for prime minister in these political circumstances,” Didier Maus, a constitutional law specialist, told the AFP.

Macron’s center-right, neoliberal politics have never quite fit in with French political tradition — something protests last year against raising the retirement age demonstrated as many French people resented the notion that their right to stop working would be violated for the sake of productivity. 

All of this puts France in an unusual position. Macron’s Renaissance party seems at a dead end, and there are no longer any other viable centrist parties; there’s RN, and there’s the left-wing coalition, which is still shaky, despite its impressive mobilization leading up to the election.

That could spell more instability down the road and raises the question of what happens in the next presidential election. There could be new, invigorated leadership from the French left, or the coalition could fall apart. It’s not clear what the future for centrists like Macron is, and though the RN lost resoundingly this time, it’s not going anywhere. 

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