What's next for France after unprecedented legislative elections

The left surprises, Macron hangs on and the far right falls short: France’s parliamentary election produced no clear majority. Brussels-based French policy analyst Eric Maurice explains what that might mean for the country.
French President Emmanuel Macron after voting in the second round of France's parliamentary election on Sunday.

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

10 Jul 2024

France is peering into the unknown following the second round of snap legislative elections on Sunday. A cobbled together left-wing alliance called the New Popular Front (Le Nouveau Front Populaire) surprised almost everyone with a first place showing. Emmanuel Macron's centrist Ensemble coalition came in second, while Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) fell to third after a strong showing in the first round a week prior. Still, no party secured an absolute majority. 

The political upheaval is the result of Macron's surprise decision to dissolve the National Assembly and call for a fresh vote following European Parliament elections in June. The National Rally trounced Macron's electoral coalition, garnering more than twice as many seats in the EP.  

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal of Macron’s Renaissance party will remain in his post until a new government is formed. But given that no party secured a majority, France’s political future remains uncertain amid the possibility of a hung parliament. 

To get a handle on what's in store, The Parliament turned to Eric Maurice. The French policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels offered these early insights. 

Infographic: Left Wins But Right Gains After French Elections | Statista

The election result was a surprise. What happened?  

Mostly it's because of the electoral system, which consists of 577 local elections. A lot of candidates pulled out of the second round to avoid three or even four candidates competing against each other so that voters could gather around the remaining candidate against the RN. 

Another piece of the puzzle was voter mobilisation. It wasn’t easy to ask a socialist to vote for someone from outside of the community, or someone from [Macron's Ensemble aligned] Renaissance or even the centre-right to vote for a socialist or LFI [far-left La France Insoumise]. But people mostly did, because they felt there was a real danger of the RN getting an absolute majority.  

Another element is that during the last week we saw a lot of controversy about RN candidates on TV and social networks. Some were racist; others participated in local debates and didn’t know what they were talking about. One candidate was living under guardianship. People realised that the RN would-be MPs would be a disaster. 

Although people have been celebrating, more than ten million people did vote National Rally, as opposed to four million in the 2022 legislative elections. What's next for Le Pen's party? 

Of course there was a big relief on Sunday evening. But RN doubled their MPs compared to two years ago, which was already record-breaking. But politically the momentum is broken. They expected a victory and they were well defeated. 

On the other hand, the trend is there. They reached voters in all social and age categories, which is new. Not just workers and in rural areas but also white-collar workers and people in cities. We have to see what will happen with this phenomenon of RN becoming mainstream. It will be crucial for the presidential election [in 2027]. 

What is at stake is can the next government address people's needs? Will there be some kind of political stability, and will the potential coalition between the left and the centre produce one or two strong candidates to go against Le Pen three years from now? RN could succeed if the next government, the next coalition, cannot deliver. 

What kind of coalition can we expect? Macron has not appointed a potential prime minister yet. 

The French two-round system is made to produce a clear majority, and the president chooses the obvious person who can do the job. But without a clear majority, who to choose? 

Macron said on Sunday he would wait for the new parliament to structure itself. That’s very vague. It could mean waiting for the parliament to sit for the first time, which is on the 18th of July. He could also wait for the NFP to agree internally on a few names and have an idea of the balance of power within NFP—meaning for LFI to be sidelined. That’s clearly what everyone expects. And then they’re ​​so far from an absolute majority they need some kind of support system. 

He knows it will be difficult to choose a prime minister from his political family. He cannot rush to choose someone he likes, nor can he choose someone without working out the dynamics first. 

How long do you think this will take? Could this become a Belgian situation, with endless government formation talks?  

Prime Minister Attal immediately resigned, but Macron said he can stay on as long as necessary. We have to keep in mind that the Olympic Games are coming, and so we need not only a well-functioning government but also a chain of commands and responsibilities. This massive, complex and risky event gives more time to everyone because even the left doesn’t want to rush things in this situation. It’s not just a sporting event.  

But I don’t think we will have a Belgian situation. We don’t have this culture of endless talks. Everyone is aware that there is a budget to prepare. 

You mentioned LFI being sidelined, even though they seem to have won the most seats within the NFP. 

[LFI leader Jean-Luc] Mélonchon is so uncompromising, which we saw on Sunday evening. The more he says that someone from his party should become prime minister, the more probable it is that the left says, ‘we’ll do without you.’ LFI is using the current polarisation. As long as they’re in the landscape, it will be impossible to talk about a coalition.  

Does that mean, as has been suggested in the media, that the NFP without LFI might team up with Macron’s centrist alliance? 

It’s very difficult to anticipate. You cannot pass a budget with only 180 MPs or so. Some kind of coalition is needed. But if you listen to people, and if you look at their positions and programs, there are quite some red lines. The system was not made for this. The Fifth Republic was made to avoid this kind of thing. Now it was used to avoid a clear majority. If RN was a normal party it would have won an absolute majority.  

The current majority is made of non-compatible, non-aligned political families. That's a very unusual situation. 

Despite this unprecedented situation, you don’t expect a stalemate? 

There is another element to have in mind: There can’t be a new election before one year. Even if it's blocked you cannot continue with Attal remaining prime minister doing business as usual for one year. It's not possible. It's not Belgium. They will need to find a solution. 

It’s like in the EU. You need to find an agreement. You need to find a compromise. Even if at first you have no idea how to get there. But at EU-level there is a culture for that.  

Amidst all this, Macron remains president. Some see his position as weakened, others strengthened. What’s your view? 

Macron is stronger than on Sunday morning. But he will have to nominate someone as prime minister. He will not choose on his own. In contrast to the last assembly, the prime minister will not be from his political family and completely aligned with him, which makes him weaker.  

Secondly, even Attal said that he doesn’t owe anything to Macron anymore. On Sunday he said that he didn’t choose the dissolution. ‘Macron made his thing, but I am not with him.’ Especially in the second campaign run, Macron was not seen. They told him to stay in the Élysée. And he won’t be able to run again, constitutionally but also politically. The more they take their distance from Macron, the more likely they are to achieve a good result in the next elections. So Macron has less authority in his political family now. 

The third element is that RN is defeated in terms of seats, but the voters are still there. The uncertainty is there. The capacity to have a strong acting government is not there. The RN has not disappeared. Maybe it’s the beginning of the end for it, but it’s too early to say.  

I don’t think Macron is stronger than before the dissolution, but of course it could have been much worse for him.  

 

What does this mean for Macron’s position on the international stage and France’s role in the EU? 

Since there won’t be an RN government, I don’t think many things will change. It will be similar to the three previous cohabitation. Maybe apart from LFI, but they can be managed. They all share the European perspective of France, the importance of the EU, NATO membership, support for Ukraine. They do agree on that. There is no discussion. 

Then you can have differences on the extent and the nature of the support of Ukraine, or how to manage the relationship with the Israeli government. You can of course have differences on EU budget policies or free trade. But the fundamentals of the French position in the world are there.  

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