Opinion & Analysis

The most incredible election in French history

With many losers and very few winners, the French election has only added to the confusion, fragmentation, and paralysis that was already afflicting the country and clouding its economic prospects. The situation is unlike anything France has experienced in recent memory.

PARIS – By calling a snap parliamentary election in the wake of his party’s defeat in the June European Parliament election, French President Emmanuel Macron hoped to “clarify” the political situation for his own benefit. Clearly, he failed. The election produced no parliamentary majority, only a great deal more confusion. With many losers and very few winners, it is the most astonishing election in the country’s modern history.

Among the many losers is National Rally (RN), the far-right party that clinched a decisive and shocking victory in the European elections just weeks earlier. Though RN has increased its seat count and emerged as the largest party in the National Assembly, it fell far short of expectations. The second round featured a powerful anti-RN mobilization, as voters shifted tactically from the center to the left, and from the right to the center. Many French apparently concluded during the campaign that RN’s candidates were ill prepared to hold power.

Most pundits had come to believe that the French electoral system’s natural immunity against the far right no longer worked. But this election disproved that. Though the far right is now the country’s leading political force, it cannot do anything without allies, and it has none.

The second loser is Macron, whose party lost around 100 seats. Before the election, his Ensemble grouping could anchor a relative majority. Now, it is dwarfed by the left-wing New Popular Front (NFP), which won the most seats overall.

But while Macron probably will be forced to appoint a new prime minister from the left, the NFP remains around 100 seats short of an absolute majority. Moreover, it is a loose coalition whose members disagree on much and whose leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Unbowed (LFI), has only one objective: to radicalize public debate and create the conditions for a face-off between him and RN’s Marine Le Pen in the 2027 presidential election. Thus, it is not necessarily in Mélenchon’s interest for a left-wing government (under a different figurehead) to succeed.

To benefit Mélenchon personally, the NFP would need to be able to execute on its entire electoral program; but that will never happen without an absolutely majority. Moreover, the next government – whatever shape it takes – will soon have to answer to the European Commission, which recently launched an “excessive deficit procedure” against France.

Still, the NFP is not likely to break up anytime soon. While the Socialists and Greens drew much criticism for allying with Mélenchon despite their fundamental differences with him, the arrangement paid off electorally. Of the 40 additional seats won by the left, all went to the Socialists and Greens, whereas LFI made no new gains. One is reminded of the left-wing union that French President François Mitterrand led after his election in 1981: by forging an alliance with the Communists, he was in a better position to weaken them later.

Looking ahead, the most likely scenario is that a moderate minority government will be formed to serve as a caretaker for the next year (the president cannot dissolve the National Assembly again until June 2025). But with Macron on the defensive and lacking a parliamentary majority, France will be in uncharted waters. Specific political personalities will play a much larger role than labels like “left,” “right,” or “center.” As in every political system, some French politicians want to pursue stability and compromise, while others are bent on crushing perceived enemies.

Thus, the coming year will be marked by deep political uncertainty, which will not help France’s economic outlook. No matter what, though, the next government must agree on the 2025 budget within the next few months.

Perhaps the new National Assembly will find some common ground on electoral reform. The current two-round procedure is suited for a bipolar political system, but this election provided further confirmation that French politics is now tripolar. Given the emergence of distinct left-wing, right-wing, and centrist blocs, the only solution is to introduce proportional representation, with each party establishing its level of support and then pursuing voluntary coalitions after the votes are counted. Within the left, for example, the Socialists would not have to tie themselves to LFI to get elected, and they could form alliances with others – such as Macron’s party – once in parliament.

France’s fragmented politics are not so different from those of other European countries. But its political culture and institutions are unique in the degree to which they favor confrontation over coalition-building.

Will this election outcome spur French politicians to see things differently, or will everyone just keep behaving as they always have? In the latter scenario, RN need only bide its time, capitalize on the government’s ineffectiveness, and sooner or later win everything.

About the Author

Zaki Laïdi is a professor at Sciences Po.

Access the original publication here