Political paralysis looms in France after shock election result

<span>An alliance of leftwing parties surprised pollsters by coming first, though it fell well short of an absolute majority.</span><span>Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA</span>
An alliance of leftwing parties surprised pollsters by coming first, though it fell well short of an absolute majority.Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA

For more than 50 years, whenever France held a parliamentary election, voters would know the next morning which party would be in government and with what political agenda.

This time it is different. After Emmanuel Macron called a surprise snap election, and after the shortest campaign in modern history, French people delivered a spectacular rush of tactical voting to hold back a surge of far-right support. The resulting political landscape is divided and the outcome is complicated. Macron will take time to let the dust settle, his entourage has said.

An alliance of parties on the left, the New Popular Front, surprised pollsters by coming first with a strong result of 182 seats. But it fell significantly short of the absolute majority of 289 that would allow it to instantly form a government. This means the eurozone’s second largest economy, which is also the EU’s biggest military power, is entering a period of uncertainty with no clear roadmap, less than three weeks before it hosts the Olympic Games.

It could take weeks of dialogue and potential coalition-building to come up with a government and a prime minister. But France – with a powerful president and conflictual political system where parties reach vicious standoffs – does not have a recent tradition of building coalitions.

The French parliament is now roughly split into three blocs. In the lead is the New Popular Front, which blindsided Macron and the opposition when it managed to swiftly and efficiently unite four weeks ago to counter the far right. It is a rainbow grouping that in parliament will run from the firmly leftwing France Unbowed (LFI), which has the greatest number of seats at 74, to the Greens, who increased their seats to 28, through to the more centrist Socialist party, which significantly increased its seats to 59.

The broad left alliance’s deliberately strident policy manifesto included capping prices of essential goods such as fuel and food, raising the minimum wage, reversing Macron’s increase in the pension age to 64 and imposing a wealth tax.

It took care not to push forward one leader during the campaign. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the veteran leftwinger and firebrand orator who founded LFI, regularly made TV appearances during the campaign. But each time he did, other parties in the alliance would carefully state that he was not in charge and was not necessarily their choice for prime minister.

The Green leader, Marine Tondelier, on Monday called for a calming consensus figure to be proposed as prime minister. It is uncertain how the parties on the left will choose a figurehead, and who it could be.

Macron’s centrist grouping finished in second place on 168 seats, only 14 seats behind the New Popular Front. The centrists, previously in government, lost 80 seats amid voters’ clear anger and rejection of Macron. But the president’s entourage immediately pointed out that although they were reduced in number, they were still standing.

Beaten back into third place came Marine Le Pen’s far-right, anti-immigration National Rally (RN) and its allies with an unprecedented 143 seats.

The key takeaway of the election’s final round is the renewed strength of the French tradition known as the “republican front”, in which voters from all backgrounds group together in tactical voting to hold back the far right.

In the space of one week, the far-right party and its allies went from a first round in which it topped the vote in more than half of the constituencies in France and was within reach of forming a government, to being knocked back into third position in the second round.

The left is now fearful of writing off the far right too quickly. The RN improved from the 89 seats it won in June 2022 to a historic 126. It expanded its presence to new areas such as the Dordogne in the south-west. Le Pen said victory had simply been deferred. She will now focus on the presidential campaign of 2027. The party leadership will face a reckoning over its strategy and haphazard vetting of candidates, one of whom dropped out after photos circulated of her wearing a Nazi cap.

The Socialist party leader, Olivier Faure, recognised the fractured and bruised nature of French society after a divisive campaign. For many on the left, the immediate priority is to address key issues for Le Pen’s millions of voters, including the cost of living and poor access to public services in rural and peripheral areas. This is essential if the left is to present a credible alternative and continue to hold the back the far right’s slow but steady rise.

Constitutionally, it is possible for a group in parliament to govern without an absolute majority. But to do this, that group would have to ensure that opposition forces do not club together to form a majority of 289 to vote them down.

The first session of the new parliament is on 18 July. It may be that only then will possibilities for coalitions become fully clear.