‘We were so scared’: France’s centrist and leftwing voters breathe sigh of relief

A nervous energy rippled through the crowd gathered at Lyon’s Place de la République. As the final polls closed in the most momentous election in recent memory, hundreds of people milled about, waiting to find out what would lie in store for France.

Just after 8pm, Florent Martins came running through the plaza, mobile phone in hand. “We won,” the 23-year-old yelled out, his voice shaking with disbelief as those around him exploded into cheers and hearty applause. “The left won!”

In a shock win, final results left the broad leftwing alliance as the biggest force in the French parliament, with the New Popular Front taking 182 seats. Emmanuel Macron’s centrist grouping, Ensemble, was in second place, with 163 seats, a stronger showing than expected. Marine Le Pen’s far-right, anti-immigration National Rally came third with 143 seats.

“It’s so good,” said Martins. “I’ve been in a panic all day.” Nearby, Veronique Leporte, 69, described the results as stunning. “It’s a huge relief,” she said. “We were so scared.”

It was a sentiment echoed across the country. In Paris cries of joy rang out as the projections sparked spontaneous hugs among strangers and several minutes of applause.

Thousands poured into Paris’s Place de la République to celebrate, waving signs that read “France is stitched together by migration” and “France says screw you to the RN,” echoing rallies in cities such as Toulouse and Nantes.

In the lead-up to the elections, polls had repeatedly suggested RN was poised to become the dominant force in the country’s national assembly. Early on Sunday, as voter turnout climbed to its highest figure in four decades, the question on everyone’s mind was whether the RN would win an outright majority.

By Sunday evening, neither suggestion had proved accurate. “I think this result is a surprise for everyone, whether you’re the fascists or, like me, on the left,” said Charles Domeignoz, 52, a longtime member of the France Unbowed (LFI) party.

“I think there are a lot of people who, like me, have been sleeping poorly and eating badly for a few weeks now,” he added. “And tonight it feels good, doesn’t it?”

For some, the sense of relief was marred by the realisation that the election had still bolstered the ranks of the RN, which has almost doubled the size of its 88-strong group in the outgoing parliament.

“I want Emmanuel Macron to resign,” said Stéphane, 37, calling on the French president to launch elections in the autumn. “If he has a little bit of courage and honesty, I think he should resign because after all, he participated in the rise of the extreme right.”

Some of Sunday’s result can probably be attributed to the concerted, weeks-long effort to block the RN, one which intensified in recent days after the RN came out on top in the first round ballot.

From Montpellier to Marseille, people sprang into action in a bid to keep the far-right from the gates of power. More than 200 candidates withdrew between the first and second round of the elections, in an effort to build a united “republican front” to prevent the RN from winning.

Historians, lawyers, and Muslim leaders were among those who rallied people to vote against the RN, their efforts bolstered by the 10,000 Christians who signed on to a column describing the RN as a political force that offered “nothing but manipulation and illusion” as it eschewed solutions to instead scapegoat foreigners.

The RN’s myopic focus had failed, said Ali, 40. “We’re happy because we don’t like racism,” he added. “The RN didn’t talk about salaries, retirement, pensions. All they talked about was foreigners and Islam.”

Still, the weeks-long election had proved divisive, emboldening some who targeted Muslims and people of colour as the RN vowed to bar dual nationals from certain jobs, scrap nationality rights for children born and raised in France by foreign parents, and work towards banning headscarves in public places.

The atmosphere in the country was “extremely tense,” Raphaël Glucksmann, who led France’s leftist ticket in the recent European parliament elections, told France Inter radio last week. “France is on the cliff-edge and we don’t know if we’re going to jump.”

In Lyon on Sunday, dozens of shops had barricaded their windows, bracing themselves for the risk of violent protests. About 30,000 police had been deployed across the country as France’s interior minister voiced fears that some would seize on the result to cause “mayhem”.

Launched in the early 1970s as the National Front, Le Pen’s party once included in its ranks former members of a Waffen-SS military unit under Nazi command during the second world war.

Rife with antisemitic, homophobic and racist views, the party was long a pariah and widely viewed as a danger to democracy. While she has spent much of the past decade working to soften the party’s image, its deep hostility towards immigrants and Muslims has continued.

On Sunday, as exit polls pointed to a polarised parliament, some wondered how exactly the results would pan out in the country’s national assembly.

Analysts warned that the election could usher in a prolonged period of paralysed politics in the eurozone’s second biggest economy, just as France gears up to host the Olympics in late July and as Europe continues to grapple with the war in Ukraine.

“It’s going to be complicated,” said one 29-year-old who asked not to be identified. “But that’s an issue for tomorrow. Because the left didn’t win an outright majority and we’ll see if they join forces with Macron’s centrists. But today is a good day.”