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How France united, once more, to defeat the far right

A demonstrator holds a French flag as people gather at the Place de la Republique after partial results in the second round of the early French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France, July 7, 2024.
A demonstrator holds a French flag as people gather at the Place de la Republique after partial results in the second round of the early French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France, July 7, 2024. REUTERS/Yara Nardi.

After the far-right National Rally’s dominant victory in the European Parliament elections in France a month ago, President Emmanuel Macron called snap elections for the National Assembly to be held in two rounds on June 30 and July 7. In the Q&A below, Ted Reinert asks Brookings Visiting Fellow Tara Varma for her thoughts on the results.

Macron's gambit yields a surprise outcome

Ted Reinert:
On July 7, a coalition of left-wing parties won a surprise victory—but far shy of a majority—while the National Rally came in third, behind Macron’s coalition. How did this result come about?

Tara Varma:
The decision to call for snap elections came as a shock to most, especially as Paris is about to host millions for the Olympic Games starting on July 26. They also surprised many because the National Rally’s large victory in the European elections was predicted by most polls. In the span of mere weeks, a campaign had to be set up, and much to Macron’s surprise, the left announced the formation of a coalition, the New Popular Front (NPF), and presented common candidates across the country.

However, despite the left’s unity, the National Rally still came in ahead in the first round of the election on June 30, raising fears that it would secure a majority—over 289 members out of a total of 577—in the National Assembly, allowing the far right to govern France for the first time since the end of World War II. That fear—which was exacerbated by the far right’s proposal to ban dual citizens from strategic positions and revelations that over 100 of their candidates, 38 of whom were ultimately elected, were openly racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic—resulted in the National Rally coming in third place in the second round, after Macron’s political coalition, Ensemble, and after the NPF’s left-wing coalition.

The final results show that the NPF got 182 seats, Ensemble 168, and the National Rally—including its alliance with some defectors from the right-wing Republicans—143. So, we are effectively seeing three blocs emerge: the left including the far left, the center, and the far right. The mainstream right-wing Republicans managed to get 46 seats but are seriously marginalized, in part due to their leader’s decision to form an alliance with the National Rally—unbeknownst to anyone else and effectively breaking the “cordon sanitaire” policy instituted by former President Jacques Chirac—for which he was ousted.

Three days after the second round, Macron published a letter to the French people calling on political parties who believe in the rule of law, republican institutions, parliamentarianism, Europe, and France’s independence to form a coalition. He asserted that he would nominate a prime minister on the basis of this proposition.

A left divided

Ted Reinert:
How divided is the New Popular Front beyond the imperative of defeating the far right? What are the chances for it to govern given tensions with Macron’s bloc and difficult coalition math? 

Tara Varma:
The main left-wing parties were divided on a few key foreign policy issues—which is why they didn’t present a common list at the European Parliament elections in June. They disagreed on Israel/Gaza, on support to Ukraine, and on France’s future relationship with Russia. The far-left France Unbowed is fairly anti-NATO, very critical of the European Union, critical of the prospect of Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, and wants closer relations with Russia, while the Greens and the Socialists have a far more pro-European and pro-NATO stance.

While negotiating the formation of the NPF, these issues resurfaced and were settled in their manifesto, which asserted the necessity of defending Ukraine and peace on the European continent, notably via the delivery of weapons. On Israel/Gaza, the manifesto called to act for the liberation of the hostages held by Hamas, whose theocratic project they reject, since the terrorist massacres of October 7. It also called for the liberation of Palestinian political prisoners. Regarding the EU, the manifesto called for the end of free-trade agreements, a reform of the common agricultural policy, and to tax the wealthy to increase the EU’s budget. 

Historically, the left has always mobilized itself to fight the far right. That was true in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen arrived in the second round of the presidential election against Chirac, much to voters’ surprise and dismay, instead of then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, whose victory was considered almost a given. Left-wing voters acted again in the second rounds of the presidential elections in 2017 and 2022 to make sure the far right’s Marine Le Pen lost. 

The issue of who is the NPF’s natural leader remains difficult. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Unbowed, is known for being divisive and has been accused of antisemitism too. He aspires to be president but would certainly settle for prime minister. But he is too divisive and the other leaders on the left know it. Marine Tondelier from the Greens; François Ruffin and Clémentine Autain, formerly from France Unbowed; and Boris Vallaud from the Socialist Party are all viable and Macron-compatible prime ministerial candidates.

How French foreign policy might change

Ted Reinert:
How might French foreign policy change in the new political situation? Are there any areas of particular concern to you?

Tara Varma:
Had we been faced with a far-right majority at the National Assembly, and a far-right prime minister, we would have had an unprecedented situation where the president and his prime minister would have been at odds on major foreign policy issues such as support for the EU, NATO, and Ukraine, among others. If there have been cohabitations in the past between the left and the right, with some disagreements over foreign policy, they still managed to overcome them. If Marine Le Pen as president or Jordan Bardella as prime minister comes to power, we will be looking at vastly different takes on domestic and foreign policies, both on substance as well as on implementation.

The current situation, which points to Ensemble being part of either a center-right or center-left coalition, will probably lead to continuity in European and foreign policy issues. Even if there are disagreements between the future prime minister and the president, they wouldn’t be intractable differences. Macron will also continue to be a strong voice for Europe, both inside and outside the continent.

The National Rally and Europe

Ted Reinert:
Back at the European political level, the National Rally has just joined a new hard-right European Parliament political group organized by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Patriots of Europe, as its largest party by far. What does that tell us about the National Rally’s role in Europe?

Tara Varma:
The night of his concession speech, Bardella, the presumed prime minister for the National Rally, announced that his party was joining Patriots of Europe, a piece of news that got lost in the flurry of analysis on the French election results, and he was subsequently appointed president of that group. However, this decision positions the Patriots of Europe as the third-largest group inside the European Parliament, with 84 members, ahead of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists and right after the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats. Their plan is not to leave the EU anymore—Brexit served as a cautionary tale for most nationalists—but they still plan on undermining the Parliament and other European institutions from the inside. The nomination of Bardella as president of this new group points to their willingness to weaponize Europe to make it weaker and become more vocal. Despite having the word “Patriots” in their group name, they are nationalists whose close relationship with Russia is not secret.

Marine Le Pen's presidential prospects

Ted Reinert:
In response to her party’s disappointing result on Sunday, Marine Le Pen said “the tide [is] still rising” and “our victory … is only delayed.” Presidential elections to succeed Macron are in 2027. How do you assess Le Pen’s chances in her fourth attempt at the presidency in the wake of this result?

Tara Varma:
The republican front—strategic voting against the far right—prevailed once more, but it is hanging by a thread. It worked in 2017, 2022, and 2024, much to the surprise of most. The left-wing coalition coming in first really was the least likely of scenarios on the evening of the first round of the elections. It does seem for now that French voters do not want the National Rally to have a majority in the National Assembly.

However, they have significantly grown in numbers, from eight parliamentarians in 2017 to 89 in 2022 and now 143 in 2024. With growing ranks comes growing funding. So, they will have more capacity in the months to come to train assistants and researchers. The only way to decrease their vote share is to provide local and global solutions to citizens who feel lost and unheard. The disconnect between Paris and the rest of the country is real and needs to be mitigated.

The current situation, if fuzzy, provides an opportunity for French politicians to learn to govern differently: in a coalition, building and accepting compromise for the interest of the country. This is something that all our European partners do daily, and evidently something French voters aspired to when they refused to give any one party the majority. The tide is rising, and the current situation may set Le Pen up to be the next French president, but elections aren’t for another three years, and there is no fatality in politics.