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7 July 2024updated 08 Jul 2024 12:19pm

Can anyone govern France?

The hard-right surge has been blocked, but the country is irreconcilably divided.

By Megan Gibson

Emmanuel Macron had claimed he wanted to provide a “moment of clarification” for French voters by calling a snap election. Instead he’s prompted nothing short of political chaos for the Republic. According to exit polls from the second round of voting on 7 July, French voters turned out en masse to block the hard-right National Rally (RN) from taking control – and in a surprise move, propelled the country’s left-wing alliance into first place. But the shape of any future government is still uncertain, especially with the current prime minister’s immediate offer of resignation. All that is guaranteed is parliamentary deadlock.

Voters clearly recognised how high the stakes were in this election. By 5pm, nearly three hours before polls closed in many cities, 60 per cent of registered voters had cast their ballots in the second round run-off vote, slightly higher than the first round a week earlier and higher than any election in more than 30 years. Following Macron’s June announcement of a snap election – prompted by the surge in support for Marine Le Pen’s hard-right RN party at the European elections on 6-9 June – the RN took the lead in the first round of voting last week, while the four-party left-wing alliance the New Popular Front (NFP) came second and Macron’s centrist alliance limped in at third. 

Yet more than 300 districts initially went to the second run-off round with three-way races – that is until more than 200 candidates from the NFP or Macron’s centrist alliance strategically chose to drop out of the race in order to avoid splitting votes against the hard-right, and so prevent the RN from getting an outright majority. That strategy succeeded: when exit polls were released on 7 July, RN were predicted to have taken around 150 seats, far short of an absolute majority of 289. Meanwhile, the left-wing NFP came in first place with up to 215 seats, according to pollster Ifop, and Macron’s Ensemble took as many as 180. While the final result is sure to shift, it’s likely that no bloc will have a commanding majority.

The result marks a resounding success for the left and the centre’s “Republican Front” strategy of blocking Le Pen’s party from leading the government. But it in no way marks a period of stability. Though the left-wing NFP and Macron and his allies worked together in the second round of voting to stop the hard-right, the two blocs largely despise one another. These results mean weeks, if not months, of political turmoil as different factions fight for control of parliament.  

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (LFI) – a leading party in the NFP – has already indicated the election fallout will be fractious. In an interview following the exit polls, he said that Macron should give the NFP the first opportunity to form a government, adding that “the defeat of the president and his coalition is confirmed”. Yet Ifop’s initial polling breakdown of seats won by individual parties show that LFI took fewer seats than Macron’s party, while both parties individually took fewer seats than the RN.

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As the count continues, it’s not yet clear who will be chosen to lead the next government as prime minister. The current premier, Gabriel Attal, who hails from Macron’s Ensemble, announced on Sunday night that as his party hadn’t taken an outright majority: “Tomorrow morning, I will hand in my resignation to the President of the Republic”. In France, it is the president who selects the prime minister, usually based on which party gains the most seats in parliament. With no party commanding a majority, Macron could choose “cohabitation”, pulling a group of MPs from different parties to form a coalition. But given the deep ideological and policy divides between the left and centrists, such a deal might be impossible. 

While many centre and left politicians and commentators across Europe have celebrated the results, it’s hard to view Macron’s decision to hold the snap election in the first place as anything other than foolhardy. If, as suspected, his aim was to give French voters the opportunity to rout the hard-right and the hard-left in favour of his struggling centre, he has failed. The previously floundering left-alliance has been revived; Le Pen’s party might not have won an outright majority but they’ve won twice the seats they previously held. What was intended as a moment of clarification has left France’s future far from clear.

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