By Jan Rovny (Science Po, Paris)

A strange mix of relief, apprehension, and disorientation permeates through Paris after the second round of the extraordinary legislative elections. Relief because, despite projections of a possible absolute majority for the radical right Rassemblement national (RN), the RN was held back from power by a historically high level of electoral participation (66.6% of the electorate), and strategic coordination by other parties to prevent RN victories. Apprehension, because, despite the barrage against the radical right, the RN recorded its highest seat score, electing 143 representatives. Disorientation, because, ultimately, no political block received an absolute majority in parliament, making government formation uncertain and difficult. Despite these, there are two victors of the election — the republic and parliamentarism.

The republic won
The 2024 elections were surprisingly called by President Macron in the evening of the European parliamentary elections, in which the Rassemblement national received an unprecedented first place with over 31% of the vote. President Macron was criticized for his unexpected move. In an atmosphere of victorious confidence of the RN, electoral commentators feared that the march of the radical right was unstoppable. Macron justified his move by placing the voters’ hand on the trigger of democracy and daring them to pull it. While the results of the first round of voting in the legislative elections on June 30 confirmed the progression of radical right support, the final results of the second round on July 7 partly vindicated Macron’s gamble.

The Rassemblement national was held back and received only 143 seats, well short of an absolute majority of over 289, and third over all. The largest seat share went to a newly formed left-wing alliance, le Nouveau Front Populaire, which received a total of 182 seats. Surprisingly, the parties loyal to President Macron came in second with 168 seats. Les Républicains, the traditional centre right party, came in a distant fourth with 68 seats.

These results are largely a function of strategic cooperation between non radical right parties, that coordinated their action in the second electoral round. Third candidates stepped down in favor of the leading opponents of the radical right, which maximized the chances of beating the RN. Importantly, the voters followed. Results suggest that 72% of left-wing voters supported moderate right-wing candidates, while 54% of moderate right-wing voters supported left-wing candidates against the RN in the second round.

This is an important victory of the French republic, which was able to unite most politicians and voters behind its vision of a civic nation. It demonstrates an ultimate weakness of the French radical right which simply cannot convince an electoral majority of the acceptability of its claims, no matter how softened their rhetoric. While the leader of the RN, Jordan Bardella, argued that RN was held from power by “unnatural coalitions”, the fact remains that while some 30% of the French electorate is willing to vote for the RN, the remaining 70% would rather vote for parties distant to them, than support the radical right.

Parliamentarism won
The current distribution of forces in the National Assembly is unprecedentedly atomized. There are effectively three blocks: the left-wing alliance, the center right parties loyal to President Macron, and the RN, none of which hold an absolute majority. This level of parliamentary fragmentation is uncharted territory for the fifth French republic, used to its comfortable majorities, most often in the service of the acting President.

This is a very different parliament, one which will have a hard time finding a coalition and leader that could be nominated Prime Minister, and that could garner steady parliamentary support. As negotiations over the form of the next government proceed, there are various hypothetical scenarios. There could be a technical government headed by a non-partisan personality, but one close to the centre left, such as Laurent Berger the head of the moderate CFDT union. Alternatively, the President could nominate some centrist personality to attempt the creation of a government spanning from the left to the center.

This situation is potentially perilous to the newly ascendent left-wing alliance. First, the alliance is a rather eclectic group made up of radical left forces of the French Communist Party and the France Unbowed of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, as well as the more moderate ecologists and socialists. In the immediate hours after the second round, they were able to maintain their unity, however, their long-term ability to present a united front is not certain. Second, while the left-wing alliance cannot govern alone, their inclusion in any government with the presidential parties is likely to dilute and compromise their political program. This may be electorally costly in the long run, as many minor government coalition partners of Europe can attest.

In any case, the political forces of France, facing the need to cooperate in order to pass any laws, must learn the lesson of parliamentarism. Continuous negotiation and compromise, well known to highly proportional parliamentary systems like, for example, that of the Netherlands, are not typical in the context of French centralist and adversarial political culture. Nevertheless, most French political leaders realize that stalemate would be political suicide. If they are to stem the continuous rise of the radical RN, they must provide functional solutions to the pressing problems of French voters, particularly in the areas of social inequality, the cost of living, security, and cultural tolerance. And there is no better teacher than necessity.

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