French say ‘non’ to Le Pen’s National Rally – but a messy coalition government looks likely

The French election results are everything except what predictions had forecast.

Only days ago, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party was tipped to win. But as results came in it became clear it was the loser of these National Assembly elections.

The far right National Rally is coming third, behind Macron’s centrist Ensemble coalition in second. And in first place, somewhat against the odds, is the three-week-old left-wing alliance the New Popular Front.

This is a major twist in the roller coaster that French politics has been since June 9 when Macron called a snap election. Macron, who will serve as president until 2027, now faces a turbulent period of government.

Results are still coming in, and will for another few hours. However, the New Popular Front is tipped to win 177 to 192 seats, Macron’s alliance 152 to 158 seats, and the National Rally 138 to 145 seats. Only a week ago polls were predicting 200 to 260 seats for the National Rally and a decimated Centrist coalition. The latter certainly did better than expected, so did the moderate right of the Les Républicains party, with 63 to 67 seats in the new house.

However, the results mean that no party will likely be able to form a parliamentary majority on its own, and France is heading for what will likely be a turbulent coalition government.

Overall, this election is a significant victory for the left. However, the New Popular Front is unlikely to be able to deliver on its key electoral promises, contrary to what divisive hard-left populist Jean-Luc Mélanchon claimed in a victory speech he gave on behalf of La France Insoumise, the lead party within the New Popular Front coalition.

Why will the coalition that came first not be able to form a government on its own?

The French parliamentary system under the Fifth Republic was designed for two large blocs: the moderate right and the moderate left, with a small centre in the middle and even smaller extremes on the far left and far right. This is how it’s been working since 1958, with only two exceptions in over six decades: President Valéry Giscard D'estaing (1974-1981) and President Macron (since 2017), two centrists presidents who took the nation by surprise.

Today, however, the situation is unheard of with three major coalitions very close to one another in the French lower house. None will be able to form a government on their own: they simply do not have the numbers. To achieve a majority in the French lower house, a coalition needs 289 of the 577 MP seats. Even today’s winner – the New Popular Front – is far from this magic number.

So, how do you govern France with no leading majority coalition?

In theory, any French government must have the support of the lower house – the National Assembly – in order to govern effectively and pass legislation. If a majority of MPs do not support the government, the government falls and a new government is constituted from that majority.

With today’s results, potential crossbenchers have multiplied in the French lower house, creating what is likely to be France’s most unstable political landscape since the French Fourth Republic that went through 22 governments within 12 years, between 1946 and 1958.

That being said, France’s next government will be left-leaning. It is unclear for now whether it will be uncompromisingly left or simply mildly labour – this will depend on how elected members of the new house decide to work with one another and transform election coalitions into government coalitions.

What is clear, however, is that the New Popular Front will need to broker a deal with Macron’s coalition if it wants to govern and soften its agenda of reforms. The problem is that the most radical fringe of the New Popular Front (populist left-wing party La France Insoumise) does not wish to work with Macron, which they have spent the last two years detesting loudly.

Although it is victorious today, the New Popular Front may very well implode, shortly or in a few months. Macron still has enough MPs to assemble a motley coalition spanning from the moderate labour of the Socialist Party and the Greens to the most moderate members of Les Républicains. But the Socialist Party is initially likely to try to work with its new unexpected ally of the France Insoumise (far left) to deliver a more left wing agenda and act as a power broker between the hard left and Macron’s centrists.

In most other European countries, today’s results would not be an issue. Italy, Belgium and Germany for example are used to having coalition governments in office.

France does not know how to do this. Its institutions are not designed for such types of government precisely because Charles De Gaulle wanted to avoid coalition government when he drafted the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic under which France is still operating.

Besides institutions, French political culture is a little more sectarian and flamboyant by tradition, and collaboration is seen as a sin and a betrayal rather than a virtue. If the left and Macron’s centre are not able to collaborate for at least 12 months (the minimum constitutional delay for a new election), they can be sure that they will pave the way for the National Rally to win the next election as a result of popular exasperation.

What do the results mean for Europe and the rest of the world?

For now, and after much upheaval, very little is likely to change with regard to French foreign policy, regardless of the government that will emerge in the coming days or weeks.

This is because although the National Rally has increased its MPs in the house – a small victory within a bigger defeat – the other parties are generally pro-European and pro-Ukraine. They are divided on internal politics, but much less so on foreign policy. French sovereignty, nuclear deterrence, multilateralism will remain keystones of French foreign policy.

One notable difference with the former Macron government is that with a larger left in the lower house, pressure on Israel to stop the war in Gaza is likely to increase.

A democracy in crisis?

These elections have clearly shown that the French are unhappy with their political class, despairing of unresponsive centralised state services that seem to work for forms and permits rather than for the people, tired of waiting weeks and sometimes months to get a doctor’s appointment in rural areas, tired of restrictive green legislation they are not consulted about. The yellow vest movement was a violent eruption of frustrations that are now being voiced at the polling booth.

France’s type of democracy is in crisis and its next government is unlikely to resolve structural issues and practical problems that plague French peoples’ everyday life, because such issues cannot be fixed overnight.

Within a month, the French have voted three times. Never before has the far right done so well despite its ultimate defeat. Whether this was a vote sanction (a vote used to protest, rather than to show support to a political program) or a genuine move toward the far right, these results remain a warning that the French are longing for change.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Romain Fathi, Australian National University

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Romain Fathi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.