Politics

What's next for the French? The future of France – and Europe – is uncertain after shock election result

The anti-immigrant RN had stormed to victory in last week’s elections, but were beaten back to third place in the second round of voting

Marine Le Pen. By Vox España - https://www.flickr.com/photos/voxespana/53732861384/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148607949

There’s no exact French translation for ‘schadenfreude’, the German term describing how it feels to derive pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. But left-wingers who want a dose of it can just rewind footage from the National Rally’s election-night parties.

On Sunday (7 July) night, the France’s-right was ready to celebrate. The anti-immigrant National Rally, also known as RN, had stormed to victory in last week’s elections, and were widely expected to emerge from the second-round vote – a feature of the French electoral system – as the country’s largest political force.

As the polls closed, social media live streams showed the RN faithful gathered around TV screens, champagne glasses and miniature tricolores held aloft.

The exit poll was met with stunned silence. A left-wing grouping (the New Popular Front) and president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Together alliance pushed RN into third place, wildly outperforming expectations.

The RN came third with 143 seats, beaten back by tactical voting.

“France has said no to the far-right coming to power,” said Olivier Faure, the socialist leader of one of the left-wing alliance parties. It is a shock win, said Jason Moyer, a program associate at the Global Europe Program. But what comes less is next certain.

“This was absolutely a victory for the left, and for Macron as well,” he said. “This was the best possible outcome for Macron’s centrist party. His party and New Popular Front worked closely together to stymy the National Rally and limit their victory.

“But the left-wing alliance that came out on top is a group of various parties with competing priorities and interests. It was easy for the left to unite to prevent the National Rally from winning, but assembling a coalition government, coalescing their sometimes-conflicting policies into a single agenda, and governing will be a challenge.”

There are 577 seats in France’s National Assembly, and to govern a party needs to win 289. No one group reached this total, resulting in a hung parliament split between three distinct blocks.

For their part, RN officials claim their victory has merely been “deferred”. Leader Marine Le Pen said she “sees the seeds of tomorrow’s victory in today’s result”.

The party – which secured at least 50 more seats than they did in the last parliamentary elections – remains a “real threat”, said Moyer.

“All eyes are focused on 2027, the next major elections. It will be truly difficult to beat the National Rally, and they may very well rebuild and come back stronger in 2027.”

What can France and Europe learn from the election result?

There are broader lessons for politicians across Europe, Moyer suggests. Firstly, it is possible to tactically “box out” the far-right with tactical voting – but beating them in the longer term will require effective governance.

“I think the main country to look at for a similar trend is Germany, where the AfD (a far-right political group) is polling as the number one party,” he said.

“Similar to France, Germany is grappling with the poor performance of the traditional political parties in the European Parliament elections last month. In general, the far-right is gaining momentum across the continent… and in the UK too with Reform doing well in the general election.”

Parties like RN, AfD and Reform capitalise on poverty and disillusion with politics, Sébastien Maillard, a special advisor to the Jacques Delors Institute, told the Big Issue last week.

“[There is] a feeling against so-called establishment politics and politicians. The sense that ‘they don’t understand us, they don’t represent us’”, he said.

Across Europe, the cost of living crisis has contributed to a populist surge. In Germany, for example, food prices are up 15% year-on-year, and inflation has spiked energy bills. Meanwhile, a UK report by the Fairness Foundation called on Labour to take “drastic action” to tackle inequality and prevent “opening the door to a far-right victory at the 2029 general election”.

Amidst failing public services, it is easier for far-right politicians to weaponize rhetoric against immigrants, Moyer said.

“[the far right surge in Europe] reflects a deep-seated frustration and angst about the future of their countries. Immigration remains a prevailing theme across the continent, along with economic policies as people are faced with high levels of inflation, housing shortages, and the rising cost of living.

“Addressing these concerns in meaningful ways will help curb the appeal of the far-right.”

The election result assuaged the worst fears of those on the centre and left of French politics. But the chaos and infighting will threaten pan-European cooperation to deal with the issues that matter to voters.

“Ultimately, we’ll have to see how Macron’s centrists operate with the new prime minister and the left-wing New Popular Front. The far-left may prove challenging to work with for Macron – not as challenging as the National Rally – but there may still be limitations on his ability to implement his vision,” Moyer said.

“Macron may not have been defeated as badly as expected, but he did not win, and still emerges from this election with limits to his ambition to create a stronger and more capable Europe.”

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