No punches land in France’s first major election debate

RN leader Jordan Bardella (left), French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal (center) and France Unbowed MP Manuel Bompard (right) take part in a televised debate, June 25, 2024. - Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Pool/Getty Images

Three of France’s highest-profile candidates in the country’s upcoming legislative elections sparred in the first major debate of the campaign on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal squared off against Jordan Bardella, the president of the far-right National Rally, and Manuel Bompard of the leftist alliance dubbed the New Popular Front in a wide-ranging, sometimes chaotic two-hour affair.

Attal, 35, and Bardella, 28, are two of the country’s youngest and most popular politicians. After serving in various positions in Macron’s government, Attal was named the youngest prime minister in French history earlier this year. Bardella led the National Rally to a dominant showing at the European elections on June 9.

Bompard, 38, does not have the same sort of name recognition or leadership position. He was elected to the French National Assembly in 2022 representing Marseille and is a member of the far-left political party France Unbowed.

None of the three candidates appeared to land any knockout blows or move the needle enough to sway the opinion of voters. Bardella didn’t appear to sufficiently address criticisms that his party platform is short of specifics. Attal didn’t seem to give angry voters a reason to opt for continuity. And Bompard’s presence on the stage served as a reminder to voters that the left has not yet decided who will lead them if they win the vote.

“There wasn’t really a punchline that was striking or impactful,” said Jean Petaux, a political scientist and expert in French politics.

French voters will head to the polls on June 30 and July 7 for a two-round snap election that President Emmanuel Macron called after the National Rally crushed his centrist political movement during the European elections.

The move took the French political establishment and society at large by surprise. Not even Attal was aware he was about to lose his job until shortly before the announcement.

Macron framed the decision as an exercise in democracy, an opportunity for the French to clarify who they want running the country.

But it’s incredibly risky.

Macron is gambling that the higher stakes national vote, which draws greater turnout and more scrutiny than European contests, will see the French spurn the National Rally’s anti-immigrant, euroskeptic agenda in favor of more moderate political forces. He’s also assuming that French voters use the runoff, as they have historically, to keep the far right out of power.

As things stand, however, Macron will lose his bet.

Opinion polls conducted since the snap elections were announced show the National Rally’s momentum has continued to hold, while France’s numerous left-leaning parties have put aside their various ideological differences to jointly field candidates across the country.

A survey released on Sunday by pollster IFOP found the National Rally leading all parties with the support of 35% of voters. The New Popular Front, the leftist alliance, came in second with 30% and Macron’s centrist Ensemble dropped to third with 20%.

If those results hold, the French legislature would be thrown into a state of political paralysis. No party would amass enough votes to meet the 289-seat threshold for an absolute majority in the 577-seat lower chamber, the National Assembly.

Macron’s party is already governing without a majority after its poorer-than-expected showing in the 2022 legislative elections, forcing it to either seek out coalitions to pass legislation or use a constitutional tool to force through new laws – including last year’s controversial pension reform that raised the retirement age to 64 for most workers – without a vote.

But falling behind to either the left or right could be the death knell to his agenda. A loss would force Macron to nominate a prime minister from whichever party wins – putting a political opponent in charge of running the government.

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