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Divided France enters uncharted political territory after historic vote

4 days ago 36

PARIS — Even as left-wing supporters were still celebrating the unexpected defeat of France’s far right at the polls, attention turned Monday to the sobering task of how to govern a deeply divided country as it moves into uncharted political territory.

While an alliance of leftist parties came in first, with more than 180 seats, it is far from the 289 seats needed for a majority in the National Assembly, the powerful lower house of Parliament. President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Together coalition got more than 160 seats, while the far-right National Rally and its allies were third, winning 143 seats. Polls had predicted that the far right would come in first and perhaps even win an outright majority.

Sunday’s upset result could now prompt prolonged political gridlock and “a new era” in French politics, Macron’s prime minister, Gabriel Attal, said Sunday night. Macron on Monday rejected Attal’s resignation, asking him to stay on “for the time being” to “assure the stability of the country.”

A week ago, when Macron’s party suffered major losses in the first round of voting, the French president’s grip on domestic politics appeared to be loosening rapidly. But the final round’s unexpected result puts Macron back at the center of France’s political game — if, perhaps, only for a limited time.

Macron, who is still expected to attend a NATO summit in Washington this week, now needs to decide whom to appoint as the next prime minister. It would be customary for him to give the biggest political bloc — the left — a chance, but the constitution does not require him to do so.

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France’s divided left formed a surprising alliance in the lead-up to this election to prevent a far-right victory. In part, the coalition was also forged by deep frustration with Macron. To form a governing majority, however, the left would now probably need the backing of at least some Macron allies.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the controversial leader of the far-left France Unbowed party who has asserted himself as the spokesman of the left-wing bloc, excluded that possibility on Sunday. “We refuse to enter negotiations with [Macron’s] party,” he said in a speech. He did not clarify how else he intends to reach a majority, which would require over 100 more seats than his bloc garnered.

Olivier Faure, first secretary of the center-left Socialist Party, said Monday that the alliance will propose its candidate for prime minister in the coming days. But their upset victory took even leftist leaders by surprise, some admitted Monday. The search for a joint candidate could deepen divisions or even break their fragile coalition.

The fragmentation of the National Assembly into multiple blocs with no clear path to a majority might give Macron some room to maneuver, said Pierre Mathiot, a political scientist at Sciences Po Lille, and he could try to nominate a moderate as prime minister.

But it would be wrong to assume that his gamble to call elections has paid off, cautioned Mathiot. “This is an unprecedented situation in the Fifth Republic,” he said. As of now, the only alternative to a highly fragile leftist coalition appears to be the kind of broad political alliance that is common elsewhere in Europe but goes against France’s political culture.

A broad coalition that spans the political spectrum may “in the short term be a way of governing France,” Mathiot said. But in the medium term, it would risk “handing power to Marine Le Pen in 2027,” he said, referring to the far-right leader.

The Washington Post’s Rick Noack explains the political situation in France after the far right's surprisingly poor performance in elections. (Video: Rick Noack, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

That would be exactly what Macron said he wanted to prevent when he called elections last month, in the wake of the French far right’s victory in European parliamentary elections. The country needed “a moment of clarification” at the ballot box, he argued then, because “I do not want to hand the keys to power to the extreme right in 2027.”

While he appeared Sunday to have been correct about how the public would respond to the possibility of the country’s first far-right government since World War II, he seemingly underestimated the appeal of the left.

The leftist alliance wants to lower the retirement age, which Macron raised last year, and vastly expand government spending on social welfare, environmental protection and health care. To form their election alliance, leftist parties had agreed on one candidate per constituency, which appeared to derail Macron’s bet that his candidates would end up in runoff votes against the far right in most constituencies.

But the election also resurfaced deep underlying fractures within the left. Mélenchon’s critics say he is too polarizing to put forward as a possible prime minister. His proposed policies, critics say, are unrealistic, too extreme to be accepted by moderates and would provoke clashes with the European Union.

France’s outgoing finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said Monday that the leftist alliance’s spending plans would prompt a “financial crisis.”

Critics have also accused Mélenchon of stoking antisemitic sentiments within the ranks of his party.

Some leftist leaders appeared to distance themselves from Mélenchon on Monday. Marine Tondelier, a key member in the Green party, said “a lot of people tick the criteria” needed to become the leftist alliance’s candidate for prime minister. She said the alliance would seek someone who can “appease and repair” the country and “build consensus” — not qualities Mélenchon is known for.

Faure, the Socialist Party leader, also appeared to challenge Mélenchon’s assertion that no negotiations with Macron’s allies will take place. “Realism is essential,” he told France’s public broadcaster, suggesting that the left could seek like-minded lawmakers for each of their proposed bills without having an overall majority in Parliament.

The new National Assembly will convene for the first time July 18. But on French television, some analysts had already begun speculating Sunday night about how soon it might be dissolved again.

Within the far right, Sunday’s poorer-than-expected performance could pose questions about the readiness of the party’s candidates, who in many cases lack political experience. But there is no argument about the movement’s meteoric rise — two years ago, it had fewer than 10 seats in Parliament.

It’s also ideologically united.

“Unlike the New Popular Front or [Macron’s] Together, the National Rally is formed of a single bloc,” the Ouest-France newspaper wrote in an editorial Monday. As a result of its electoral gains, the party “will benefit from considerable new financial means to prepare for the next elections,” it added.

“A long period of political stagnation,” the paper concluded, “will play into the hands of the National Rally.”

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