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France election: Far right’s rise suffers unexpected blow as left surges

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PARIS — France’s left-wing New Popular Front alliance and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition thwarted a far-right victory in legislative elections on Sunday, staging one of the greatest political upsets in recent French history.

The results were a major defeat for Marine Le Pen’s populist, anti-immigrant National Rally party, which had hoped that Sunday would mark the final step in its transformation from a fringe neofascist group into a mainstream political force.

Instead of ushering in France’s first far-right government since World War II, the French voters who turned out in high numbers on Sunday boosted the left and the center, which unexpectedly came in first and second, even appearing to stun some of their own lawmakers.

France may now face political paralysis and uncertainty that could last months. Neither the left nor any other alliance was able to secure the 289 seats needed for a majority in the National Assembly, the powerful lower house of Parliament.

France's leftist coalition emerged as the surprising victor July 7 after the second round of voting in legislative elections. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

The left-wing alliance garnered at least 181 seats and Macron’s Together coalition got more than 160.

The far right had been comfortably ahead in the first round, with the support of 1 in 3 voters. An absolute majority of seats appeared to be in reach, and some polls had suggested that the party could end up with 200 seats more than Macron’s alliance.

But on Sunday, National Rally and its allies were third, winning 143 seats. At the party’s election night event, where jovial supporters had gathered to celebrate what they thought would be historic gains, the results were met with shocked silence. Some activists cried, observers said.

The Macron camp, meanwhile, had appeared so certain of its defeat that it had not even organized a public election party.

“The ‘republican front’ performed far better than expected,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.

National Rally’s chances shrank significantly over the course of the past week, as left-wing and centrist candidates voluntarily dropped out of more than 200 multicandidate runoffs to prevent splitting the vote in a way that would enable far-right victories.

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On Sunday, National Rally leader Jordan Bardella — who would have been prime minister in a far-right government — condemned the “alliance of dishonor and the dangerous electoral arrangements” that he suggested had not only blocked his party from obtaining a majority but disrupted the democratic process.

“By deliberately paralyzing our institutions, Emmanuel Macron has not only pushed the country toward uncertainty and instability,” Bardella said, “he has also deprived the French of an answer to their daily issues for a long time to come.”

Now, the key question is who will be able to seize the moment?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, asserted himself as the spokesman of the left-wing bloc and said they were “ready to govern.” He called on Macron to invite them to form a government.

“The defeat of the president of the republic and his coalition is clearly confirmed. The president must bow and admit this defeat without trying to circumvent it,” Mélenchon said.

It would be customary for Macron, who can stay on as president until 2027, to offer the prime minister’s office to the leader of the biggest alliance or party in Parliament. But Antoine Jardin, a political researcher, said the leftist alliance “seems too weak to be able to form a relatively stable government.” It would struggle to find enough allies, he said.

“The extremes have no majority,” said Gabriel Attal, Macron’s outgoing prime minister, in a speech Sunday night.

Attal said he would offer his resignation Monday, “in keeping with Republican tradition and in accordance with my principles.” But he hinted at the need for stability weeks before the start of the Olympic Games in Paris. “Our country is going through an unprecedented political situation and is preparing to welcome the world in a few weeks,” he said. “So, I will of course assume my functions as long as duty requires.”

Macron could ask Attal to stay on until a political compromise for a new government has been found.

The left may have a realistic chance to form a government if it can overcome its internal differences, which it had papered over in pursuit of the common goal of blocking the far right.

To form their election alliance, leftist parties had agreed on one candidate per constituency. But to the frustration of the moderate left, which includes the Socialist Party that long shaped French politics, Mélenchon’s France Unbowed was able to put forward the biggest share of candidates — and ended up securing the most seats among all leftist parties on Sunday.

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 backed by moderates and would provoke clashes with the European Union. Critics have also accused Mélenchon of stoking antisemitic sentiments within the ranks of his party.

Even before the vote, the unity of the alliance was fraying. On Thursday, François Ruffin — one of the most charismatic figures on the left — broke with Mélenchon.

Macron, who was declared politically dead by his opponents a week ago, may get another shot at salvaging his legacy, his supporters hope. Macron’s camp may be hoping to form a broad centrist government with the remnants of former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party and moderate leftist lawmakers, who are part of the leftist alliance with Mélenchon.

On Sunday night, talk show hosts and analysts disagreed on French TV about whether Macron’s gamble to hold snap elections had paid off, but even the existence of such a debate may signal a comeback of sorts.

“The French electoral results prove that Macron’s decision to call for snap elections wasn’t a gamble, but a strategic choice,” said Alberto Alemanno, a professor of European Union law at the business school HEC Paris. “Despite the uncertainties linked to the formation of the next government, Macron remains in the picture as does his party.”

Others assessed that the Macron camp’s unexpected resurgence in the second round of voting had little to do with the president. “Macron was much less visible in this second round, which undoubtedly facilitated the strategy and approach of candidates who, locally, played on their personality and their roots,” said Jardin, the analyst.

Vincent Martigny, a political researcher, said Macron’s dissolution of Parliament will remain “the most ill-considered decision of the Fifth Republic.”

Martigny called Macron “a gambler and pure strategist who plays the country’s destiny by the dice. He has murdered his political majority, and if the Together candidates are holding up well, it’s thanks to the left’s republican front.”

Regis Corre, a 57-year-old unemployed resident of Pontoise, 20 miles to the north of Paris, voted for the left on Sunday. He named immigration, insecurity and a lack of civility as the defining political issues in France.

“It’s gotten worse and worse,” he said, adding that “we can’t continue with Macron.”

But given France’s history as a once Nazi-occupied country, the far right was not an option for him. “It seems like people forget,” he said, “what the Germans did.”

Le Pen has sought to reinvent the French far right and overcome its historical association with racism and antisemitism. She pushed out her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had been one of the party’s founders — and who was repeatedly convicted for hate speech, including calling the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of history.

Marine Le Pen has positioned herself as a strong defender of Israel since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, and Bardella pledged to be “a shield for our compatriots of the Jewish faith.”

But dozens of National Rally candidates have been accused of racist, Islamophobic and antisemitic statements — bolstering the impression that the movement has changed less than its leaders say.

Casimir Bathia, a 60-year-old French professor with Congolese roots, said an election victory for National Rally would have been a “denial of French history.”

“France is not Norway or Sweden,” the leftist voter said. “France is shaped by immigration and the movement of people. A third of the French has foreign roots.”

Sunday’s election showed how France is increasingly polarized, however. The Interior Ministry said 30,000 police officers had been deployed in anticipation that a far-right victory might have prompted violent protests.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said 51 candidates and campaigners had been physically assaulted and about 30 people arrested since Macron called early elections last month. Some attacks were “extremely serious” and required hospitalization, Darmanin said in an interview with BFMTV, noting that the attacks affected candidates from “all sides.”

Timsit reported from London and Rauhala from Washington.

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