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30 June 2024updated 01 Jul 2024 11:12am

A staggering first-round victory for Marine Le Pen

Emmanuel Macron’s political gamble has backfired.

By Megan Gibson

When Emmanuel Macron announced France’s snap election on 9 June, following the surge in support that weekend of Marine Le Pen’s hard-right National Rally (RN) party at the European elections, he must have known it was a gamble. The RN has swelled in support in the country in recent months, while Macron’s centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority in 2022 and has been plagued by divisions and disorder. The unexpected elections, Macron announced, could provide a “moment of clarification” for French voters to choose who they wanted to lead. As the exit poll for the first round of voting was announced on Sunday night, it seems that bet has backfired.

Initial projections after polls had closed, according to pollster Ipsos, showed that Le Pen’s RN took first place with 34.2 per cent of the vote. The New Popular Front (NFP), a four-party left-wing alliance led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, came in second with 29.1 per cent, followed by Macron’s allies Ensemble on 21.5 per cent of the vote. Though the final count could shift, particularly given how unusually high the turnout for this vote was, it’s already clear that voters aren’t willing to reward Macron for his gamble. 

The French people clearly recognised the importance of this election: turnout by late afternoon was already at 59.39 per cent, making it the highest at this stage since the 1980s. (By contrast, only 39.42 per cent of eligible voters turned out in 2022.) Yet the turnout makes Macron’s miscalculation even more pronounced: not only did he come in a humiliating third, but it was a majority of French voters who turned out to put him there. 

As a result of the surging turnout, the second round of voting on 7 July will likely include many three-sided run-offs. Qualifying candidates for the second round must have secured at least 12.5 per cent of registered voters; a higher turnout makes a three-way run-off more likely for a greater number of seats. One pollster predicts that as many as 315 out of 577 seats will have three-candidate run-offs based on the first-round results.  

Though the left-wing alliance NFP and Macron’s party and allies more or less despise one another, a pragmatic desire to shut out the hard right could – repeat, could – see the two blocs work together to stop RN candidates. By standing down candidates or urging their bases to choose candidates from other parties, the left and the centre could, theoretically, just about manage it. But in any such strategy discussions, it would be the NFP that would have the real leverage – based on its first-round performance, pollsters say it could win as many 165 seats, making it the second-largest parliamentary party.  

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What next? The second round of voting will take place on 7 July, and if that vote sees a repeat of the first round, Le Pen’s party could feasibly form a government. If that does happen, Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old candidate representing Le Pen’s party, will become France’s next prime minister; he has said he won’t take the position unless the RN wins an outright majority. Such a scenario will mean the hard right will have unprecedented power in modern France. It will also throw the country into a period of unprecedented political instability, with the president and the prime minister opposed on some of the most fundamental issues.  

But even if the left and centrist alliances manage to prevent this from happening, one thing is already clear – Emmanuel Macron’s authority has been extremely damaged from this election wager. 

[See also: How Ukraine shattered Europe’s balance of power]

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