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Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally, or RN) made historic gains in Sunday’s French parliamentary election second round, on track to win 90 seats according to projections by Ipsos – a score way beyond the record gains polls predicted. Emmanuel Macron’s centrist bloc, meanwhile, underperformed polling expectations and fell well short of a majority – leaving a deal with conservative Les Républicains (LR) as his best hope for governing unencumbered.
After a presidential campaign all about the distracting focus on the Ukraine war, Macron’s desire to drift to re-election and Le Pen’s submarine-like rise, it looked like the parliamentary election campaign was all about Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Le Pen was a muted presence. She even went on holiday after losing the présidentielles second round to Macron.
The extreme-leftist firebrand Mélenchon defied expectations and united France’s flagging, divided left behind his banner. Amid an otherwise lacklustre campaign, he created and rode momentum to put his NUPES (New Popular Union) alliance neck-and-neck with Macron’s centrist bloc in the first round.
NUPES have indeed performed well – set to win 141 seats according to Ipsos projections, just months after the French left looked unpopular to the point of near irrelevance. However, it is far from radical leftist hopes of winning a National Assembly majority and forcing Macron into a state of “cohabitation” with Mélenchon as his prime minister.
‘No polls predicting this’
Instead, what grabbed everybody’s attention on Sunday night was the historic gains for Le Pen’s RN in the législatives, as the parliamentary polls are called in France.
Polls and analysts expected RN to make unprecedented National Assembly gains after their better than expected performance in the législatives first round, albeit nothing like the gains they made. The last surveys by Ipsos forecast RN would get 20 to 50 seats – a major advance on the eight seats they got at the previous polls in 2017, easily crossing the 15 seat barrier to acquire their own official parliamentary group, affording them a major funding boost and giving them significant powers of the pulpit.
RN’s performance at 90 seats is a “seismic event; an extraordinary result for them”, said Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University. “There were no polls predicting this and I haven’t seen anybody predicting it. Le Pen was looking washed up after the presidential second round; so many people thought that was it for her – and she herself wasn’t really campaigning for the législatives. But, clearly, that wasn’t it.”
A large section of French society admires, even loves Macron – as witnessed by his topping the polls in the first presidential round, where voters have a menu of options, not to mention his Ensemble (Together) alliance remaining the biggest parliamentary party even as it loses its majority. But Macron is also hated by swathes of French voters to his right and left alike, who regard him as the absolute embodiment of an aloof, callow technocratic establishment. This divide has been the thread running through all the twists and turns of France’s election season.
Millions of Mélenchon voters cast their ballots for Macron in the présidentielles second round to keep Le Pen out of power – showing it was a vast exaggeration to assume that voters for the extreme left would flock to the extreme right out of a desire to tear down the status quo, as embodied by Macron in their eyes.
Nevertheless, this time it looks as if a significant number of NUPES voters switched to the far right in RN-Ensemble face offs, Paul Smith said: “The simple explanation for RN’s success tonight is that this was an anti-Macron bloc. My suspicion is that, even though Mélenchon said not one of his supporters should vote for Le Pen, quite a lot of them did. It’s clear that hatred of Macron is sufficiently intense for a lot of NUPES voters to be able to vote for RN.”
Parliament to become ‘Le Pen’s platform’?
Enthusiasm for political engagement in any form is subdued by historical standards: The overall turnout looks woeful – projected to be just over 53 percent, a small improvement on the record abstention rate in 2017.
Such poor turnout underlines the extent of the anti-system sentiment in France, and as such is linked to RN’s strong performance, said Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester: “Abstention from the ballot box is a form of protest, a marker of disillusionment, and in much the same way RN’s performance was driven by a desire to protest as much as it was driven by support for their policies.”
RN will have a big opportunity to continue their long ascendance with their National Assembly gains. Few big beasts of French politics will be sitting in the chamber. But Le Pen will be there after her re-election in her fiefdom in the northern Pas-de-Calais region with 61 percent of the vote.
Hence Le Pen will be an outsized figure in the National Assembly with outsized influence, Paul Smith noted: Macron’s former PM and France’s most popular political personality Édouard Philippe “won’t be there; Mélenchon won’t be there – he’ll be sending something like his third or fourth in command to lead his grouping; and Le Pen will be there with 90 MPs behind her”.
In light of this, he continued, “we can see the National Assembly becoming Le Pen’s platform, and it will likely have ramifications for their performances in local and regional elections. In short, to many people RN is suddenly going to look like a serious party.”
And seeing as NUPES is an electoral alliance of convenience, not a union of very different parties across the French left, it is worth underlining that “this result makes RN the biggest party of parliamentary opposition”, added Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University.
Conservatives to Macron’s rescue?
However, RN is not the only party that surpassed expectations in the législatives: France’s traditional conservatives Les Républicains are on course to win 75 seats, Ipsos projections say. Although on the surface a step down from the 136 seats they got last time, this marks something of a renaissance for a party whose candidate Valérie Pécresse won just 4.8 percent of the vote in the présidentielles first round, operating in a squeezed ideological space between Macron and the far right.
“RN will of course be delighted with their score tonight – but LR will also be over the moon,” Andrew Smith said. “They have absolutely bucked the assumption that they were sliding into irrelevance after Pécresse’s poor performance. It’s a result that speaks to their formidable machinery across France’s regions and its ability to get out their vote across provincial France.”
Macron pulled Philippe and many other cabinet ministers out of LR, before the centrist president moved rightwards along with the centre ground of French politics on issues like immigration and security. Given that LR is the closest party to Macron ideologically, speculation has long abounded that he would reach some sort of deal with them – rumours that only intensified thanks to LR ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy fulsomely backing Macron in the second round and meeting him at the Élysée Palace after his re-election.
Ensemble’s failure to win an absolute majority makes it hard to imagine how Macron could control parliament without support from LR (Ipsos has Macron’s bloc on course for 234 seats, far short of the 289 they need). Macron’s bloc have “really got to count on someone coming to their rescue”, Paul Smith said.
Outgoing LR leader Christian Jacob said on Sunday evening his party will remain part of the opposition to Macron – underlining his declarations to that effect during the législatives campaign.
But Jacob’s statement should be taken with a pinch of salt, Andrew Smith pointed out: “Jacob is on his way out, he’s served his term, and his pronouncements are about preserving the best role possible for LR in alliance with Macron. LR’s kingmaker rule gives them a considerable opportunity to press their priorities, and it’s likely Macron will lean rightwards to court those Macron-compatible LR MPs.”