Australian Outlook

In this section

A New Era for France or More Hurdles?

09 Jul 2024
By Daniel Steedman
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators crowded onto French streets on Saturday to denounce the rise of the country’s far-right political party. Source: Jeanne Menjoulet /

Two weeks until Paris hosts the Olympic Games, the French have spoken. In the highest voter turnout since 1997, and after three weeks of horse trading and politicking, the results of President Emmanuel Macron’s call for parliamentary elections are in.

The leftist alliance, the New Popular Front (NPF), has come out on top with 182 seats but far less than the 289 needed to form a majority out of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. Macron’s Ensemble will finish in second with 168. Most surprising of all, given their success in recent European legislative elections, Marine Le Pen’s Rally Nationale (RN) will finish third with 143.

So, what does this all mean?

There is no doubt that RN has cemented its place in mainstream French politics. Its right-wing policies, traditionally rooted in rural regions, have found fertile ground across the nation. Though it finished third, RN has continued to build support and has won many more seats than it did in 2022.

Equally and unexpectedly, the far left garnered the most seats. The unwieldy NPF alliance, including La France Insoumis, Ecologie, Socialists, Communists, and Place Publique, did not exist until Macron called the election. Even so, the NFP found a way via the Front Républicain to block the far-right for a convincing win.

The center in France, previously held by Ensemble, is tenuous, having seen its count eroded significantly since the 2022 election. The result? Another hung parliament. But this one is far more complicated than any the Fifth Republic has seen.

No party has secured enough seats to govern with any real authority. On the surface the three groups seem unwilling to work together. In particular, the hard right and hard left are very much opposed.

Furthermore, the parties inside the winning NFP alliance have widely differing views on many issues. Even so, they must find a way to work with each other, and then with Ensemble, if France is to be governed effectively in these trying times.

Where to for France and President Macron?

The election outcome reveals two things about France and its president. The first is that Macron’s gamble has paid off. Somewhat. It achieved his goal of repudiating the strong results achieved by RN in the recent European Parliamentary elections. And yet, in rejecting the hard right, it is still not clear what the French want.

Results indicate the French have pushed back on any notion of a majority right-wing parliament. Despite this, the RN has gained more seats than ever. For the first time since 1944, a far-right party holds a strong position in the French National Assembly. They will not be easy for the NFP to negotiate with.

But Macron’s call to reject far right populism has not nullified what looks like a drift for many French to the hard left. In that sense he has failed in his goal to see France come together in the center of the political spectrum.

The NFP consists of previously fractured leftist parties. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, dubbed a Trotskyist, is attempting to spearhead the movement. He is almost as extreme in his view as the leaders of the RN. This presents a new headache for Macron. He needs a prime minister he can work with.

Though doubtless harboring aspirations for the job, Mélenchon may not become the prime minister. It is possible Macron may find another person to appoint from within the NFP, such as the more moderate Raphaël Glucksmann or perhaps Marine Tondelier, to the post.

With his departure for the NATO Summit in Washington D.C. imminent, Macron may choose to wait for the final count to be resolved. It is in his interests for the assembly to be as close to the center as possible. The jockeying is not over just yet, and it may continue for a few more weeks until a prime minister is announced. With the Olympics in Paris only weeks away, extending the caretaker government may also be a possibility.

One thing is clear, the NFP, though they have a strong hand, do not have a majority. The incoming prime minister, given the numbers in the assembly, will have to find a middle ground to pass legislation given the nature of the alliance, and they will need to work with Macron’s Ensemble party. This will only happen with concession and compromise.

The second thing this election has shown is that Macron’s presidency is not the lame duck it was predicted to be after the EU elections.

Nevertheless, during his time in office he has not demonstrated an ability to construct able coalitions to achieve his goals. For some time Macron has been seen by many as out of touch and increasingly marginalised without any traditional political base to fall back on. He must address this with the NFP if he is to fulfil any of his policy agenda. This result has seen him lose some skin, but his position has not been undermined as it would have been under a cohabitation with RN and Jordan Bardella as prime minister.

Macron’s snap election call was intended to unite the French but it is too early to tell if it has healed the nation’s division in the face of emerging extreme left and right wing views. Marine Le Pen and the RN are likely to exploit the ongoing domestic issues facing France. They will seek to jam the new government and to maintain their momentum in their quest to replace Macron with Le Pen as president in 2027.

With the win of the NFP, France’s friends and allies breathe a sigh of relief.

The world is watching!

In Germany, Spain, and Poland the result has been welcomed. The United States has yet to officially make a statement, but it will be pleased with the result. It allows France to continue its vital role supporting efforts in Ukraine and to remain an important part of NATO.

Europe needs a strong France as it grapples with a tide of right-wing sentiment and a brand of nationalism unseen since the second world war. Revisionist states, such as Russia, are looking to sew division in Europe and between Europe and the United States. The election result is good for maintaining transatlantic relations. It also enables Macron to continue with his policies against Russia and in support of Ukraine.

Macron is a staunch believer in the EU and France’s historically significant place in it. The departure of Britain and the problems faced by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz allowed Macron to assume the “senior leader” role, and he has attempted to advance the EU project in strategic and defence policy. Without a strong domestic backing, Macron’s attempts to make progress on key issues facing the EU, such as strategic defence and supporting Ukraine,  will carry little weight. With this election result he will be able to continue his advocacy for a more muscular, more capable Europe.

Importantly, this comes as Hungary’s right-wing leader, Viktor Orban, has been meeting with Vladmir Putin in Moscow. This matters because Hungary has just taken over a six-month rotation as president of the Council of the European Union. Orban’s relationship with Putin, and his attitude toward Russia, is very much at odds with Macron’s hawkish line on Russia and the threat it presents to Europe.

The election results are unlikely to result in any major change in the French position on these or other important matters of foreign policy.

Three more years of uncertainty?

It remains to be seen how this new political alignment will govern France. Mismanagement of key issues, such as cost of living and immigration, and any further domestic turmoil will almost certainly play into the hands of the far right. Macron, who came to power in 2017 so full of promise, now faces new problems.

Guiding this new assembly will not be easy, his relationship with the NFP will be central. Many domestic problems must be solved. His remaining three years as president are vital. They will long leave a mark on France and will define his legacy. In the meantime, up to the 2027 presidential election, it is highly likely that turbulence and uncertainty will define French politics.

Daniel Steedman is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at Monash University. His research interests include US foreign policy, European politics, nuclear weapons and great power rivalries. He is a former Council Member at AIIA.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.