July 21, 2024

Brighton Journal

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French elections reach a dead end as left advances, far right fails

French elections reach a dead end as left advances, far right fails

France faces a hung parliament and deep political deadlock after the three main political groups of left, centre and right emerged from Sunday’s early legislative elections with large shares of the vote but nowhere near an absolute majority.

The preliminary results overturned widespread expectations of a clear win for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Rally party, which dominated the first round of voting a week ago. Instead, the left-wing New Popular Front won 178 seats.

President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition, which threw the country into turmoil a month ago by calling elections, came in second with 150 seats. The National Rally and its allies came in second with 142 seats.

The results were compiled by The New York Times using data from the Interior Ministry, and confirmed previous projections that showed no single party or bloc would win a majority.

The details of the outcome may change, but it is clear that efforts by centrists and leftists to form a “Republican Front” to take on the National Rally in the second round of voting have largely succeeded. Candidates across France have pulled out of three-party races, calling for unity against Ms Le Pen’s party.

“Now it is the president’s duty to call on the new Popular Front to govern. We are ready,” said Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left leader who is the charismatic but polarizing voice in the left-wing coalition.

But France seemed almost ungovernable, with the opening of the Paris Olympics in less than three weeks. The left surged, the National Rally added dozens of seats to its National Assembly, and Macron’s party suffered a devastating defeat, with the 250 seats held by his party and its allies in the National Assembly reduced by about a third.

The result was that in the sharply divided Chamber of Deputies, where most legislative power resides, it was impossible to immediately form a governing coalition, with Mr Macron’s centrists caught between far-right and far-left groups that hated each other and him.

Jordan Bardella, a disciple of Ms Le Pen who led the National Rally to victory in the European Parliament elections and the first round of legislative votes last month, said the deals that thwarted his bid for an absolute majority were a “dishonest alliance” and said Mr Macron had condemned France to “uncertainty and instability”.

Even with fewer seats than expected, the National Rally has now gained a place in French politics that has erased a post-World War II political landscape built around the idea that the far right’s history of overt racism and anti-Semitism made it unworthy of positions of power.

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Ms. Le Pen has renounced that past. But even in its new form, the party’s core message remains that immigrants are diluting France’s glorious national identity and that tougher borders and more stringent regulations are needed to keep them out or prevent them from benefiting from France’s social safety net.

France rejected that vision, but voted overwhelmingly for change. It doesn’t want more of the same. And it sent a stinging message to the pro-business elites who have coalesced around Mr. Macron, whose term has expired and who must leave office in 2027.

“France is more divided than ever,” said Alain Duhamel, a prominent political scientist and author. “We learned that dissolving parliament and calling these elections was a very bad idea for Mr. Macron.”

As a struggling President Biden struggles to counter former President Donald J. Trump’s nationalist “America First” message, a prolonged French political vacuum could further destabilize the international situation. Ms. Le Pen, long close to Russia, has tried to recast herself as a cautious supporter of Ukraine, but Moscow would no doubt welcome the growing influence of the nationalist group.

The New Popular Front campaigned on a platform that would raise France’s minimum monthly wage, lower the legal retirement age to 60 from 64, reintroduce a wealth tax, and freeze energy and gas prices. Rather than cut immigration, as the National Rally had promised, the coalition said it would make the asylum process more generous and smooth.

The platform said the alliance supports Ukraine’s struggle for freedom against Russia, and called on President Vladimir Putin to “answer for his crimes before international justice.”

It remains unclear how the coalition’s economic programme will be financed at a time when France is facing a ballooning budget deficit, and how a pro-immigration policy will be implemented in a country where it is perhaps the most sensitive issue.

The New Popular Front, which is sharply divided between moderate Socialists and the far left, did very well among young people in the first round of voting, and in projects heavily populated by North African immigrants around major cities, including Paris.

Mélenchon’s staunchly pro-Palestinian stance has proven popular in these areas, even if he caused outrage when he appeared to cross the line into anti-Semitism, accusing Yael Braun-Pivet, the head of the Jewish National Assembly, of “camping out in Tel Aviv to encourage pogrom.” “The friends of unconditional support for pogrom have met,” he said of a massive demonstration last November against anti-Semitism.

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Mr Macron had no compulsion to call early elections, but he was prepared to gamble that he could still be a unifying figure against the extremists. Indeed, he had lost the appeal to do so over his seven years in office. He declared left and right obsolete when he took power in 2017. That is no longer the case.

However, Macron’s centrist coalition did better than expected in the last election, and managed to survive to fight another day.

Mr Macron now appears to have two options, short of resigning, which he has vowed he will not consider.

The first option is to try to build a broad coalition that might extend from the left to the remaining moderate Gaullist conservatives, some of whom broke a taboo during the election campaign by allying with the National Rally.

This seems unlikely. Mr. Macron has made no secret of his intense dislike of Mr. Mélenchon, and the feeling is mutual.

The second, less ambitious option is for Mr Macron to try to form a transitional government to handle current business.

For example, Macron might ask former prime ministers from parties across a centrist bloc — his own, the Socialists, and the center-right Republicans — to propose a government of technocrats or prominent figures capable of handling a restricted agenda over the next year.

Under the constitution, at least one year must pass before the next parliamentary elections are held.

One area where Mr Macron may still be able to exercise considerable influence, more than he would have if he had been forced to “coexist” with Mr Bardella as prime minister, is international and military affairs, the traditional preserve of the president in the Fifth Republic.

Macron, a staunch supporter of the 27-nation European Union that the National Rally wants to weaken, will undoubtedly continue his push for a “European power” with more integrated militaries, defense industries and technological research, but his influence may be diminished by domestic weakness.

Mr. Macron, once drawn to a rapprochement with Mr. Putin, has become an outspoken supporter of Ukraine’s struggle for freedom. And with the U.S. presidential election just four months away, doubts are growing about the West’s willingness to continue arming and funding Ukraine.

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Russia clearly believes that France will waver. In a statement issued a few days ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: “The French people are seeking an independent foreign policy that serves their national interests, and a break with the dictates of Washington and Brussels. French officials will not be able to ignore these profound shifts in the attitudes of the vast majority of citizens.”

In short, France is facing a state of extreme uncertainty, both internally and externally. A constitutional crisis in the coming months seems unlikely. Gabriel Attal, the outgoing centrist prime minister who resigned on Sunday, declared that “the absolute majority tonight will not be taken over by extremists thanks to our determination and our values.”

He claimed a small victory, but of course the Centre does not have any such majority either.

Unlike many other European countries, including Belgium, Italy and Germany, France does not have a tradition of months-long negotiations to form complex coalition governments between parties with divergent views, or of temporary alliances. In fact, Charles de Gaulle designed the Fifth Republic in 1958 to put an end to the parliamentary turmoil and short-lived governments of the Fourth Republic.

One theory put forward to explain Macron’s mysterious decision to call the election was that with the National Rally in power and Bardella as prime minister, the far-right party’s lustre would have faded before the 2027 presidential election.

It was another gamble based on the idea that it is easier to criticise from the sidelines than to make tough government decisions. Mr Macron does not want to hand over the keys to the Elysée Palace, the presidential residence, to Ms Le Pen three years from now.

In this sense, the election result could confuse Mr. Macron and benefit Ms. Le Pen. She has demonstrated her growing popularity without her party having to bear the burden of office. On the other hand, it has once again demonstrated France’s steadfast resistance to the idea of ​​power shifting to the far right.