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The French Left is celebrating too soon Le Pen's loss is far from the republican's victory

People gather in front of Le Triomphe De La Republique statue during election night. (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

People gather in front of Le Triomphe De La Republique statue during election night. (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)


July 9, 2024   3 mins

Contrary to those punching the air and heaving enormous sighs of relief, it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about the recent legislative election in France. The ecstasy felt by many at seeing the National Rally (RN) fall far short of winning a majority had little to do with reality and much to do with wishful thinking and media hype.

After the rapidly cobbled together New Popular Front (NFP) alliance agreed to act tactically with the centrist Ensemble block, it was clear the RN would not win a majority in the National Assembly. What was always more likely is what has indeed happened: no single party or group of parties has managed to win enough seats to form a majority. Indeed, if anything, the real surprise here was the degree to which the logic of the cordon sanitaire still animates French politics. In spite of the significant differences between centrists and the Left block, the desire to block the RN was strong enough to result in cooperation between the first and second round of voting.

Given its importance in determining the results of these elections, it is worth exploring the merits of this anti-RN tactic. Most obviously, it appears to elevate republican institutions above party politics, implying that an RN victory would be against the spirit of the French republic and should be avoided at any cost. The practical consequence of this is to bring together political parties and groups whose programmes diverge widely and whose leaders excoriate each other on a daily basis. The achievement of the republican front thus comes at the cost of providing voters with a clear choice between rival political programmes. Moreover, it merely pushes into the post-election period the fundamental problem of how to constitute a government that is able to legislate and command the authority of the National Assembly. If the lesson of the election is that the RN cannot govern with a majority, it is also that no other political force can either.

There is another lesson of the elections, which is that we now have what we might call les deux Frances. The formation, over the past 30 years, of a solid hard-Right electorate is one of the important developments in French society. The strength of the NFP, however, and in particular the prominent role played by La France Insoumise within the NFP, is evidence of the formation of a very different electoral block on the Left. This one has its own codes and culture. It is also generative of its own language around progressive change. These electorates inhabit the same country but are worlds apart. Most significantly, neither of these two electorates comes close to a governing majority.

If the RN is able to achieve its long-term goal of the Union of the Rights (l’Union des Droites), then it could aspire to government — though the reaction to the centre-right leader Eric Ciotti’s decision to align with the RN suggests this union des droites is still some way off. On the Left, however, the route towards a majority is full of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. For starters, there are major divisions between the LFI and all other political forces on the Left. At the same time, the Left alliance would need to dismantle the centrist block and absorb significant parts of Macron’s electorate. Yet as things stand, there is evidence that the centrist bloc feels that things should go in the opposite direction: that they should divide the Left alliance by offering to govern with its more moderate elements — the Greens, the Socialists and Raphael Gluckmann’s movement — leaving the LFI on its own as a rump far left.

“There are major divisions between the LFI and all other political forces on the Left.”

Celebrating the strong score of the NFP, Clémence Guetté, one of the leading figures of La France Insoumise summarised it thus: “Tonight we taste joy; tomorrow we govern.” The truth is rather different. Precisely by choosing to keep the RN out of power through tactical voting, NFP and Ensemble voters have created a situation where no party or coalition can form a government. For the moment, we know that prime minister Gabriel Attal offered his resignation, which the President rejected for now. We also know that the new National Assembly will sit from 18 July for two weeks, during which time it could vote on a motion to bring the government down.

Yet what happens next is less clear. Macron, after all, could reject this and keep his caretaker government in place at least until the beginning of October. However, without anything like a majority, any government that is formed will struggle to survive. For all of the relief felt across France, we should not forget that the RN was kept out of power by an alliance between two political forces who are unlikely to be able to govern together. Unless that changes, the survival of the republican front will come at the cost of being able to govern the country.


Christopher Bickerton is a Professor in Modern European Politics at the University of Cambridge.

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Danny Kaye
Danny Kaye
1 day ago

It is really only the peculiarities of the respective seat allocation system that made the “left” the big winner in the UK, and the “right” the loser in France. In fact both Labour and RN (first round) received the same share of national votes: 33%. Labour’s share has gone down and the right’s share has gone up in the UK, whereas RN’s share has doubled since 2022 in France. So the notion that the electorate has moved left in both countries is an optical illusion.

Kat L
Kat L
1 day ago
Reply to  Danny Kaye

Thank you for pointing that out.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 day ago
Reply to  Danny Kaye

Just to further the point: in the UK election, Labour won a huge majority with 33.7% of the vote. RN gathered 37.1% whilst the coalition of the left sought to exclude them from power… for now.

0 0
0 0
1 day ago
Reply to  Danny Kaye

The RN share of votes has gone up and that’s not surprising given their efforts at moderating their tone and programme. Important to remember though that a good part of that has come from attracting voters from across half a dozen right wing fractions in a similar way to Meloni in Italy.

Another thing to note is that the alienation of voters from Macronism began on the left and has always been somewhat more to the left than right, for the reasons you’d expect, opposition to raising the retirement age for example. The impact of this has been limited until recently by quite strong differences between LFInsoumises, socialists and environmentalists.

But perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is that in France not all votes mean the same. EU parliament selections are on a PR system and rarely much connected with any substantial policy alternatives. And the second round of legislative or parliamentzry elections institutionalises tactical voting on a massive scale. It’s often more about voting against what you don’t want than anything else. And what we see now is that despite Le Pen’s efforts a substantial majority of French voters don’t want a RN government. Even if it means they have to hold their nose and vote for Macron’s people.

It thus appears that the increase of the RN vote is provoking a reaction to the extent it raises the possibility of an eventual RN government. The so called Republican barrier to the RN was supposed to be a played out Establishment game and it certainly has been reinterpreted as a barrier to left as well as right extremism. But it turns out that most French people maintain a clearer idea of what they don’t want than what they do.

David McKee
David McKee
2 days ago

Alas, poor France!

So much for the theory that Macron wanted a RN government, in order to inoculate France from a RN presidency in 2027.

All his gamble has done, I suspect, is to push centrist voters who are not keen on a being forced into a shotgun coalition with the left, straight into Le Pen’s arms.

The odds of seeing President Le Pen in three years’ time have just shortened dramatically.

Dr E C
Dr E C
1 day ago
Reply to  David McKee

I hope so. I’m sick of seeing Paris burned by thugs who hate France.

0 0
0 0
1 day ago
Reply to  David McKee

These results don’t prove anything about what Macron would have preferred. They’re certainly not the results he actually worked to achieve.’, he attacked the far left more than the far right.

Centrist voters abandoning Macron have been shifting to the Left lire than the far right for some time now and the proportion in increasing. There won’t be a left coalition forced down people’s throats now in the way you expect. What’s more likely is that there’ll be a broader base for Left candidates in 27 than anyone expected, including for the Presidency. The largest and fastest growing sector of French public opinion is hoping the leaders of left parties will continue to raise their game. Place your bets on that. France is not drifting to the right any more then Britain is.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 day ago

Self-inflicted wounds are self-inflicted. For some inexplicable reason, France is going with “more of the same,” which flies in the face of everything that has been seen and heard from there. Okay; good luck with that. I have heard that there is a word which applies to this type of scenario.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
1 day ago

Did the author mean to describe French conservatives as “a solid hard-Right electorate”? Where can I go if not UnHeard, to escape references to far-right and hard-right, which hardly exist at this point in Europe?

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 day ago

I too am weary of the “far right” appellation being applied to everything that is not left. People on the right seem fairly adept at parsing all the varieties and nuances of “leftness” from communists, to progressives, to wokeness, to socialists, and the rest. But the left cannot bring itself to acknowledge that the term “far right” implies that there is necessarily also something less than far right. They prefer the disingenuousness of a spectrum that condemns anyone who might tip-toe an inch past centrist to be equated with Hitler.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
1 day ago

One explanation for Macron’s gamble is that France’s finances are in a bad way, and it is thought likely that the EU will reject any budget later this year, leading to problems for the government. Macron chose to let either the RN or the far left bear the brunt of the blame, after which he would sail back into the rescue. That is probably what will play out now, with Melenchon taking the fall, but at the expense of strengthening MLP for 2027. He probably thinks the centre can beat her then, too, so for him, it is ‘one down, one to go’.

0 0
0 0
1 day ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

Keep an eye on Le Maire, he’s Mr Responsible.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 day ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

The problem is, that Macron is so hated in France, that it will be very hard for him “to sail back”

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
1 day ago

It’s a long shot!
Remember, the EU, markets & Davos crowd have a way of getting the outcomes they want. Look at Meloni.

R Wright
R Wright
1 day ago

The funniest part of this is that by being forced to work with ardent communists this outcome will lead to the radicalisation of a number of Frenchmen on the centre-right. Instead of a minority government Le Pen may now get more votes next time.

0 0
0 0
1 day ago
Reply to  R Wright

Guess you’re using the term ‘communists’ metaphorically. Your actual French Communists are more ‘conservative’ than Starmer’s Labour Party. Even. In an attempt perhaps to appeal to that disillusioned centre right.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 day ago
Reply to  0 0

Mélenchon is a communist. The best comment on the situation in France came from Andrew Neil yesteray. You got on the left the radical leftist Mélenchon and on the right LePen, who is a socialist. Bet the rich and also many Jews are packing their suit cases.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
1 day ago

One thing I didn’t see in the article is that the LFI make up some 40% of the seats held by the New Popular Front (NPF). If they choose to leave because they feel pushed out by Macron and perhaps more “moderate” partners in the NPF coalition, things go to pot very quickly. If that happens, the number of seats for the NPF drops to 108 and even if the remaining elements (including the communists) sided with Macron’s group, that wouldn’t be enough for a majority. The only option for continued governance is for Macron to cave to Melenchon in the LFI, thereby undo all his reforms, or govern by decree. It’s just an absolute joke at this point and I don’t see it ending well.

Well, maybe for the RN in the medium term. All they have to do is sit back and try not to look smug as everything falls apart around them.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 day ago

Bit of a side topic, but I am glad that RN haven’t done so well – because that Bardella fella (sorry – couldn’t resist) who was the candidate for PM was way too young. Attal is pretty young too, but putting someone in their 20s in such an important position is pure folly.
I’m still scarred from the whole Sebastian Kurz episode!
Understandably, the talk at the moment is about upper age limits for high political office because of Biden – but a minimum age is just as important.

Peter B
Peter B
1 day ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Agreed.
One of the many problems with the Conservative party in recent years was the lack of experience of its leaders. Liz Truss was only an MP since 2010 and Rishi Sunak since 2015. Neither had served time in opposition. Boris Johnson was an MP for only 15 years. As was David Cameron.
Collective lack of experience and lack of breadth of experience (what perhaps might once have been called “diversity”). Almost a recipe for poor judgement and decisions.

0 0
0 0
1 day ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Yes, indeed. The big news of this election is that Bardella’s blandishments have invited such a strong negative reaction. Even while and perhaps because if increasing RN support.

0 0
0 0
1 day ago

OK sort of, but focuses on politics between would be leaders rather than political orientations in the country. Le Pen and Co. have done a lot to broaden their appeal by moderating both their tone and programme. That’s enabled them to pick up centre right sheds of the disintegrating support for Macron and even compete with a fragmented left. They’ve also benefitted from the general sense of insecurity conveyed by news bulletins to the many whose personal situation is not at risk. Their greater reach seemed to be confirmed by the EU election results and those of the first round of the parliamentary ones. The RN garnered most of the votes available on the right even though most of those abandoning Macron shifted left.

And yet, when the French people were then presented with a stark choice between no government and a far right one, they voted overwhelmingly for the former. And mainly for a new left alliance established three weeks ago. This was not a result confected by the French establishment, which has for some time been attacking left wing extremism more than right as a threat to the Republic. It came from within.

The mood at our village lunch on election day -in a southern area-of small farms- was surprisingly clear. Normally reticent ‘conservative’ farmers spoke openly about their support for the Left in a straight fight with the far right. They didn’t denigrate the latter but preferred not to talk about them. Despite all of Le Pen and Bardella’s efforts the prospect of a RN government evoked intolerable insecurity. And, the values espoused by the Left resonated warmly even if there was little prospect of them forming a government. These people will have been pleased when the results were announced that evening and perhapsless surprised than the leaders of the various left fractions

But, you might say, how can people be happy with the prospect of no government or at least none with the power to legislate? Well, that’s already been the situation in France for a while. And the last bits of legislation people can remember, raising the retirement age and restricting immigration, are ones most people opposed and regret. While there are things people could like from government, they’re not expecting results anytime soon The lack of a viable coalition can be met with a shrug. But the prospect of a RN government produced a shudder.

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
1 day ago
Reply to  0 0

That may change, especially if a new government feels forced (by the EU) to impose unpopular policies when the only outlet for opposition is either the RN or LFI. There is also an important aspect of regional tensions. In Italy first the Lega Nord and then the Fratelli have mobilised the widespread contempt that northerners have for Rome and the South. In France it is likely that several regional governments will be taken over by RN before the national government. If they are competent, this will exacerbate tensions with a paralysed administration in Paris and normalise the idea of RN administrations.
The other lesson from Italy – and several other EU countries – is that you cannot maintain a cordon sanitaire in the long run against a party that attracts the consistent support of 30-40% of the population. The RN isn’t going to give up. Sooner or later they will absorb more parts of the centre-right, at which point the choice will be between LFI + allies and RN + allies. That takes us back to the instability of the 1930s.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 day ago

Three millennia ago when Zhou overthrew a failing government in China he legitimized his dynasty through the enduring Chinese concept of “The Mandate of Heaven”. Unlike Western hereditary monarchies also founded upon divine legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven has always rested upon what Chinese historians call “performative legitimacy”. The test for that legitimacy was vested in the ability of the emperor to effectively deal with the cyclical natural disasters embedded in the collective Chinese consciousness such as flood and famine. When an emperor failed that test and brought poverty and suffering to his people, regime change was justified by heavenly mandate. Modern Western democracies, whose performative legitimacy has dwindled to the present incompetence, are closing in on losing their Mandate of Heaven. When that inflection point arrives it will matter not whether left or right or center orientation prevails; the inevitable political entropy will birth autocracy.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
1 day ago

Not only will there be no government, but the forces of Muslim disorder are unleashed again. More infants will be stabbed, more men and women murdered, more young and not-so-young women raped. The illegals are an existential threat to Europe, and all the hatred of fascism statements cannot disguise or evade this fact.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
6 seconds ago

Unclear the NFP would have so many delegates without 3rd place center parties dropping out when they placed 1st or 2nd in round one. That agreement that brought great advantage but artificially inflated their victory. If LFI won only 40% of the left vote, they too can be cordoned. One wonders what % of the Islamic immigrant vote LFI received? The French don’t record that but do exit polls? That constituency will make LFI vulnerable in the long term in many areas.