Analysis: 'Dodged a bullet.' In France, voters deny far right a win. But what now?

People gather at the Republique plaza after the second round of the legislative election, Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Paris. Surprise polling projections in France say a leftist coalition that came together to try to keep the far right from power has won the most parliamentary seats in runoff elections after a high turnout among voters. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte)
People gather at the Place de la Republique Sunday night in Paris to celebrate parliamentary election results. (Louise Delmotte / Associated Press)

Strangers in Paris cafes raised joyful toasts to one another. In tight-packed crowds, people hugged and wept. A speeding bicyclist trailed a flapping French tricolor. Fireworks hissed and popped.

In Sunday's parliamentary election, the French far right made a thunderous knock at the gates of power — but one that seemingly dwindled at the last moment into insistent tapping.

The National Rally, whose ascendancy had been widely feared after it topped the field in first-round voting a week earlier, fell back to an unexpectedly weak third-place finish — surpassed by both a leftist grouping that took the largest share of parliamentary seats, and President Emmanuel Macron's centrists, who came in second.

Tallies showed no bloc achieving a clear parliamentary majority, a result that points to prolonged political gridlock. But French financial markets, which had been rattled by the prospect of a far-right surge, rallied somewhat on news of the result.

Macron, who has always had a fondness for audacious gestures, made a big gamble in calling these early elections. Reviews were mixed as to whether his bet had backfired.

“It’s not catastrophic for Macron,” said Christophe Chabrot, a senior lecturer in public law at Lumiere University Lyon 2. “But now everything is very, very complicated.”

The uncertainty of what would come was not lost on the revelers in Paris, but they were for the moment thrilled that voters had staved off what had been the specter of France’s first far-right government since the dark Nazi-collaborationist days of World War II.

A French flag waves over a crowd in a plaza.
People celebrate election results in Paris on Sunday. (Aurelien Morissard / Associated Press)

The newly formed coalition of leftist and environmental forces was the night’s surprise success story, garnering 178 of the 577 seats in the lower house of Parliament. That was well short of the 289 needed for an absolute majority, though.

“C’est Ouf,” was the headline in Monday’s early editions of the left-leaning Liberation newspaper — crazy, in slang usage — superimposed on a photo of a gigantic gathering in the Place de la Republique, a historic central Paris square.

Read more: France braces for potential political earthquake: a far-right surge. What to know about the election

The political disarray comes less than three weeks before the start of the Summer Olympic Games, although visitors to Paris were unlikely to experience much in the way of disruptions beyond the obstacle course that already exists in the city center.

Many among the throngs of tourists navigating the barricades and blockages on Monday said they were unaware of the previous night's commotion.

“We pretty much slept through it all,” said Jack Cherry, a 28-year-old Australian tourist who works in finance. “There were a few sirens and so forth that we heard, but that was about it.”

For the French, though, the contest was all-consuming.

Into the wee hours of Monday, long after the last late-summer evening light had left the sky, there was widespread rejoicing over the National Rally's defeat — but already, a dawning sense of the deadlock and instability that lies ahead.

Read more: A Ukrainian 'King Lear' comes to Shakespeare's hometown. Its actors know true tragedy

“I think you can say ‘dodged a bullet,’ yes?” said Leslie Laurent, a Parisian retail manager in her 50s. She said she had supported Macron’s bloc, but was relieved that the far right had not managed a triumph.

The vote’s stakes were reflected in unusually high tensions surrounding the race — and by a turnout that authorities described as the highest in decades for a parliamentary contest.

Read more: For Jewish voters in France, the election is 'a choice between the plague and cholera'

The government sent 30,000 police officers into the streets on election day, and dozens of candidates reported having been physically attacked during the run-up to the balloting.

But by Monday morning, there was little sign of the previous evening's raucous celebrations. The Place de la Republique was swept clean, with a sole cleaning crew scrubbing away at new graffiti on the base of the square's central monument.

Macron, whose term does not expire until 2027, can remain in his post, although some opponents, including Jean-Luc Melenchon, the head of the leftist alliance's largest party, were already calling on him to step down.

With Macron's centrists having lost one-third of their previous seats, the president's handpicked prime minister, Gabriel Attal, proffered his resignation Monday — which Macron rejected, citing the need for stability. Attal had already offered to remain in his post until a new government could be formed, which may be a long and difficult process.

Read more: Zelensky to Europe: A Russian victory in Ukraine would lead to the unthinkable

The National Rally — a successor party to the National Front, a xenophobic grouping that for decades was relegated to France’s political fringe — had high hopes heading into the vote, expressing confidence that it could even achieve an absolute majority and form a government.

But although it fell far short of that aim, the National Rally dramatically increased its number of parliamentary seats — a state of affairs that is likely to result in considerable hand-wringing once the initial euphoria wears off.

And not everyone, of course, is rejoicing.

The National Rally made its name with deep antipathy toward immigration and scorn for the European Union, but part of its appeal springs from hard-edged dissatisfaction with the cost of living and economic inequalities within France — sentiments shared even by many who felt that voting for the party would be an affront to France’s democratic values.

A crowd of people raise fists.
Supporters of the far-left France Unbowed party react in Paris as a coalition on the left won the most parliamentary seats in the snap election. (Thomas Padilla / Associated Press)

Initial reaction from Macron’s camp was muted. He made no immediate personal appearance, with his office saying he would ensure that the “sovereign choice of the French people will be respected.”

After the June 30 initial round of voting in which the National Rally came in first — which itself followed France’s June 9 elections for the European Parliament, in which the National Rally also performed best — centrist and leftist forces joined together, as they have in the past, to create a “Republican front.”

Read more: In Europe, even if 'center is holding,' far right ascends

That military-sounding endeavor is so named because it was intended to safeguard the French republic by blocking the far-right juggernaut.

The far right responded to the results with defiance. Its president, Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old who had hoped to become the next prime minister, referred darkly to “dangerous electoral deals” made to stymie the National Rally’s drive.

Leaning into the party’s narrative that it champions the forgotten against a powerful elite, Bardella told supporters in Paris that these machinations had “deprived” National Rally supporters of the government they wanted.

Calling the early elections had been a huge gamble on Macron’s part, and there was mixed opinion as to whether he had won his bet. He had counted on French voters repudiating the National Rally as a governing force, even if they were willing to lend it a protest vote.

Still, the battle was a deeply damaging one — and likely to leave Macron, deprived of a parliamentary plurality, a diminished figure in global affairs, including causes such as championing Ukraine and fighting climate change.

Read more: Nigel Farage, Trump ally and political flamethrower, shakes up British parliamentary vote

During the campaign, Macron described the far left as equally dangerous as the far right — a dynamic of enmity that will make it difficult for his centrists to secure even temporary tactical alliances with leftists.

At least at this juncture, none of the main blocs appeared willing to work with one another, and the successful leftist grouping in particular could be prone to infighting.

Marine Le Pen, the National Rally leader who did not contest this election but is expected to run for president in 2027, suggested in a post-vote television interview that it had taken the combined efforts of the left and center to keep her party down.

In the night’s setbacks, she told France’s TF1, she saw “the ferments that are those of tomorrow’s victory.”

A man in a dark suit stands with folded arms in a subdued crowd.
Supporters of the far-right National Rally react at their Paris headquarters after the release of vote projections that the party would come in third. (Louise Delmotte / Associated Press)

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.