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French election results point to possible stalemate after left-wing shift
French election results point to possible stalemate after left-wing shift

PARIS — While left-wing supporters were still celebrating the unexpected electoral defeat of the French far right, attention on Monday turned to the sobering question of how to govern a deeply divided country that is entering new political territory.

While an alliance of left-wing parties came 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 won more than 160 seats, while the far-right Rassemblement National and its allies came third with 143 seats. Polls had predicted the far right would take first place and perhaps even win an outright majority.

The surprising result on Sunday could now lead to a longer political deadlock and a “new era” in French politics, Macron’s Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said on Sunday evening. Macron rejected Attal’s resignation on Monday and called on him to remain in office “for the time being” to “ensure the stability of the country.”

Only a week ago, when Macron’s party suffered heavy losses in the first round of voting, the French president seemed to be rapidly losing control of domestic politics. But the unexpected result of the final round puts Macron back at the center of the French political game – if perhaps only for a limited time.

Macron, who is due to attend a NATO summit in Washington later this week, must now decide who to appoint as the next prime minister. Normally he would give the largest political bloc – the left – a chance, but the constitution does not oblige him to do so.

France’s divided left has formed a surprise alliance ahead of this election to prevent a victory for the far right. The coalition was partly forged by deep frustration with Macron. To form a governing majority, however, the left would now likely need the support of at least some of Macron’s allies.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the controversial leader of the left-wing party “La France Inségoire”, who has declared himself spokesman for the left-wing bloc, ruled out that possibility on Sunday. “We refuse to enter into negotiations with (Macron’s) party,” he said in a speech. He did not explain how else he intends to achieve a majority, which would require over 100 more seats than his bloc has won.

Olivier Faure, first secretary of the centre-left Socialist Party, said on Monday that the alliance would propose its candidate for prime minister in the coming days. But its surprise victory surprised even left-wing politicians, some admitted on Monday. The search for a common candidate could deepen divisions or even break the fragile coalition.

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

But it would be wrong to assume that his gamble in calling new elections has paid off, Mathiot warned. “This is an unprecedented situation in the Fifth Republic,” he said. For now, the only alternative to a highly fragile left-wing coalition seems to be some kind of broad political alliance, common elsewhere in Europe but contrary to French political culture.

A broad coalition spanning the entire political spectrum could be “a way to govern France in the short term,” said Mathiot. In the medium term, however, there is a risk of “handing over power to Marine Le Pen in 2027,” he said, referring to the far-right politician.

This is exactly what Macron wanted to prevent when he called for new elections last month following the French far-right’s victory in the European elections. The country needed “a moment of clarification” at the ballot box, he argued at the time, because “I do not want to hand over the keys to power to the far right in 2027.”

Although he was correct on Sunday in his assessment of how the public would react to the possibility of the country’s first far-right government since World War II, he apparently underestimated the appeal of the left.

The left-wing alliance wants to lower the retirement age that Macron raised last year and massively increase government spending on social benefits, environmental protection and health care. When forming their electoral alliance, the left-wing parties had agreed on one candidate per constituency, which seemed to thwart Macron’s bet that his candidates would face the extreme right in runoff elections in most constituencies.

But the election has also exposed deep divisions within the left. Critics of Mélenchon say he is too polarizing to be considered as a possible prime minister. His proposed measures are unrealistic, too extreme to be accepted by moderates and would provoke conflict with the European Union, critics say.

Outgoing French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Monday that the left-wing coalition’s spending plans would trigger a “financial crisis.”

Critics also accused Mélenchon of stirring up anti-Semitic sentiments within his party.

Some left-wing politicians appeared to distance themselves from Mélenchon on Monday. Marine Tondelier, a key member of the Greens, said “many people meet the criteria” needed to become the left-wing alliance’s candidate for prime minister. She said the alliance would look for someone who could “appease and repair” the country and “build consensus” – qualities Mélenchon is not known for.

Faure, the leader of the Socialist Party, also appeared to dispute Mélenchon’s claim that there would be no negotiations with Macron’s allies. “Realism is essential,” he told French public broadcaster, meaning the left could seek like-minded MPs for any of its legislative proposals without having an absolute majority in parliament.

The new National Assembly will meet for the first time on July 18. However, some analysts on French television had already begun speculating on Sunday evening about how soon the National Assembly could be dissolved again.

Within the far right, Sunday’s worse-than-expected result may raise doubts about the preparedness of the party’s candidates, who in many cases lack political experience. But there is no doubt about the movement’s meteoric rise – two years ago it had fewer than 10 seats in parliament.

There is also ideological agreement.

“Unlike the New Popular Front or (Macron’s) Together, the Rassemblement National is made up of a single bloc,” the Ouest-France newspaper wrote in an editorial on Monday. Due to its electoral gains, the party will “benefit from significant new financial resources to prepare for the next elections,” it added.

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

By Everly