A grim result for Le Pen—and for Macron, too

The French Left’s magnificent victory has beaten back the Far Right (for now) while thrusting Macron into a major constitutional crisis.

Published : Jul 10, 2024 19:08 IST - 6 MINS READ

A woman holds a placard reading “My heart is on the left” during an election night rally following the first results of the second round of France’s legislative election at Republique Square in Paris on July 7, 2024.

A woman holds a placard reading “My heart is on the left” during an election night rally following the first results of the second round of France’s legislative election at Republique Square in Paris on July 7, 2024. | Photo Credit: AFP

The faces, and the immense roar of triumph, said it all.

Following the closing of polling booths on the evening of July 7, Parisians in their tens of thousands flocked to the Place de la République to await the first exit polls (normally reliable early indicators of how French elections have gone). Photos, videos, and online live streaming make it possible to sense the atmosphere there—the exuberance mixed with the apprehension of those waiting with the banners, the placards, the flares and the chants, all waiting to face the results together.

Then came the moment when the extraordinary, hardly-to-be-hoped-for projections were relayed across the square. Against all poll and media predictions and the justifiable fears of many French citizens, the biggest block of seats in the new National Assembly had been won by the Nouveau Front Populaire (New Popular Front/NFP), a newly formed coalition of the French Left. As for the neo-fascist party of the far Right, the Rassemblement National (RN), it was trailing in third position and denied even the satisfaction of being runner-up. The rapture of those gathered, tumultuous and infused with hope, was echoed in towns and cities across France: an immense chorus of pride in this reassertion of the Left as the principal bulwark against fascist advance.

Also Read | European Parliament election: The far right advances, the ‘centre’ accommodates

On July 8, the following morning, the official results of this second, concluding round of legislative elections were confirmed. Based on a voter turnout of 63 per cent—the highest second-round turnout since 1981—the NFP had won a total of 186 seats, making it the largest group in the new National Assembly. Macron’s Ensemble (“Together”) formation was in second place, with 166 seats, leaving the RN in the number three spot, with 143 seats. A further 65 seats went to various parties on the right, the once prominent Republicans (Les Républicains: LR) among them.

Hung parliament

France’s parliament now comprises three well-defined and distinctive blocks, with the Left in pole position but with no one block able to command a clear majority. In short, the situation is one of a hung parliament with an exceptionally strong Left presence.

It was not supposed to happen this way—for either of the two losing contenders. For Marine Le Pen, the savvy operator at the helm of the Rassemblement National, these results represent a shocking setback. Expectations were running high following the party’s breakthrough performance in election to the European parliament in early June. This was followed by an equally strong showing in the first round of national legislative elections on June 30, with the RN again emerging as the biggest single vote-winner. It seemed that the long-awaited moment had arrived, the storming into power towards which the Le Pen machine has been assiduously working since Marine Le Pen’s father, the avowedly fascist Jean-Marie, first cranked it into life back in 1972.

Then came the results, dashing the dream yet again.

Surprising outcome

Over at the Elysée Palace, meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron was perhaps rueing his decision, announced to a stunned nation on June 12, to dissolve parliament and set snap elections for the end of the month. By any reckoning, this was a high-stakes gamble with an obvious (to most people) capacity for going badly wrong. Macron seems to have foreseen or rather conjured up from his fathomless repository of vanity and self-belief, a campaign that would culminate in a grand stand-off between himself—the soi-disant incarnation of French republican values, the very soul of France—and Marine Le Pen. From this, he would emerge triumphant, reinvigorated and able to stride boldly forth into the remaining years of his second presidential term.

The elections were largely seen as a grand stand-off between Rassemblement National’s Marine Le Pen and French President Emmanuel Macron of the Renaissance party.

The elections were largely seen as a grand stand-off between Rassemblement National’s Marine Le Pen and French President Emmanuel Macron of the Renaissance party. | Photo Credit: AFP

This scenario rested on the assumption that the French Left, historically riven with divisions, would be unable to get its act together, particularly given the tight time frame. In fact, the Left was swiftly able to put differences aside (temporarily) and weld itself into a barrage against the far Right. The driving force behind this development—the big story of these elections—was France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”: LFI), the radical Left formation set up by the feisty Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2016.

The central role played by Mélenchon and fellow party activists in bringing about the elections’ outcome merits far greater emphasis than it is receiving in media commentary. Not a single stage of the barrage-building process, from the bringing together of disputatious, in some cases mutually hostile Left-leaning leaders to the successful hammering out of a common platform, could have happened without the LFI, a fact that helps explain the ferocity of the attack being mounted against it by political opponents and the mainstream media. Throughout the campaign, Mélenchon found himself a particular target, confronting character assassination and unhinged, evidence-free charges of anti-semitism daily in a replay of the methods used, across the Channel, to destroy Jeremy Corbyn’s run as leader of the Labour Party.

Also Read | A great leap forward for Europe’s far right? 

In the wake of what everyone around the world recognises to be a seismic electoral outcome, the Macron government and the country’s political establishment seem bent on denying that it has happened at all. As if ensconced in a parallel universe, they are proceeding as if nothing has changed, as if no one, least of all an upstart leftist alliance, has won a victory, as if there is no need to adapt to unfamiliar and tricky new political terrain.

According to established practice in France, the President invites the largest party or coalition in a newly elected parliament to form a government headed by a Prime Minister from within its own ranks. This precedent is one Macron seems determined to ignore. He has already brushed aside the pro forma resignation offered by his own Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal because the imminent opening of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games raises “security” challenges that can only be met via stability and continuity at the highest level. Meanwhile, efforts are on to prise apart the fledgling Popular Front by identifying weak links and striking deals with elements open to a spot of horse trading.

By holding the line and continuing to present the New Popular Front’s progressive, carefully costed common programme as the only workable way forward, La France Insoumise is buttressing its status on the French Left as the country’s most principled, reliable, and effective force for radical change. News that local-level committees to defend and build the Popular Front are already springing up (the first in the southern city of Marseilles) underlines the urgency of the situation—and people’s readiness to extend the battle lines and carry the struggle in new directions.

Susan Ram has spent much of her life viewing the world from different geographical locations. Born in London, she studied politics and international relations before setting off for South Asia: first to Nepal, and then to India, where fieldwork in Tamil Nadu developed into 20 years of residence.

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