French elections deadlocked as leftists make gains and far-right loses

France faced a hanging parliament and deep political uncertainty after early parliamentary elections on Sunday saw its three main political groups of the left, centre and right win large shares of the vote but fall short of an absolute majority.

The projections, based on preliminary results, overturn widespread expectations of a landslide victory for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration Rally National party, which dominated the first round of voting a week ago. Polling agencies say the left-leaning New Popular Front is now leading with 172 to 208 seats instead.

President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party, which called elections a month ago and plunged the country into turmoil, was in second place with 150-174 seats, the projections showed, followed by the National Rally, which won 113-152 seats.

While the details of the outcome may change, what is clear is that the efforts of centrists and leftists to form a “Republican Front” to oppose the Rally National in the second round of the vote proved remarkably successful. Candidates from across France withdrew from the three-way race and called for unity against Le Pen’s party.

“The president now has an obligation to hand power over to the New Popular Front,” said Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the charismatic but polarizing far-left leader of the Left Alliance. “We are ready.”

But with less than three weeks to go until the Paris Olympics, France was all but ungovernable. The left made gains and the Rally National gained dozens of seats in the National Assembly, but Mr Macron’s party suffered tough defeats, losing about a third of the 250 seats it and its allies held in the National Assembly.

As a result, in the lower house, where most legislative power is concentrated, Macron’s centrist party is sandwiched between the far-right and the far-left, who hate each other and Macron, making it unlikely that they will be able to form a governing coalition anytime soon.

Jordan Bardella, a protégé of Ms Le Pen who led the Rally National to victory in last month’s European elections and first round of parliamentary voting, hailed the party’s “most important breakthrough in its history.” He called the pact that thwarted the party’s bid for an absolute majority an “unholy alliance” and said Mr Macron had plunged France into “uncertainty and instability.”

Though it won fewer seats than expected, the Rally National now has a place in French politics, clearing the way for a post-war political landscape built on the idea that the far-right’s history of blatant racism and anti-Semitism made it unworthy of power.

Ms. Le Pen rejects that past, but her party’s new incarnation maintains its core message: that immigration dilutes French national identity and that harder borders and stricter controls are needed to keep them out or deny them French social security benefits.

France rejected the idea but voted overwhelmingly for the changes — a move that France did not want to repeat — and sent a scathing message to the business elite that has gathered around Mr Macron, who is term-limited and must step down in 2027.

“France is more divided than it’s ever been,” said Alain Duhamel, a prominent political scientist and author. “We’ve learned that it was a very bad idea for Macron to dissolve parliament and call these elections.”

Prolonged French political limbo could add to a volatile international situation as a shaky President Biden struggles to counter the nationalistic, America First message of former President Donald J. Trump. Ms. Le Pen, long a close ally of Russia, has sought to reposition herself as a cautious supporter of Ukraine, but Russia would certainly welcome the National Rally’s growing influence.

The New Popular Front campaigned on a platform of raising France’s minimum wage per month, lowering the legal retirement age from 64 to 60, reinstating a wealth tax and freezing energy and gas prices. Instead of cutting immigration as promised by the National Rally, the coalition argued for a more lenient and smoother asylum process.

The platform said the alliance supported Ukraine’s fight for freedom against Russia and called on President Vladimir V. Putin to “accept responsibility for his crimes before international justice.”

It is unclear how the alliance’s economic plans will be funded at a time when France faces a ballooning budget deficit, or how pro-migrant policies will be applied in a country where migration is likely to be the most sensitive issue.

The New Popular Front, which is largely divided between moderate socialists and the far left, did very well among young people in the first round of voting, as well as in areas around major cities, including Paris, where many North African immigrants live.

Mélenchon’s fervent pro-Palestinian stance made him popular in the region, but he drew outrage when he appeared to cross into anti-Semitism, accusing Jewish parliament speaker Yael Braun-Pivet of “camping in Tel Aviv to encourage genocide.” Regarding the large-scale demonstrations against anti-Semitism held last November, Mélenchon said, “Friends who unconditionally support the genocide are gathering here.”

Though Macron was not mandated to call early elections, he was still willing to gamble on being a symbol of unity against extremism, something that had lost much of its appeal during his seven years in office. When he came to power in 2017, he declared that left and right were outdated labels. Not anymore.

Still, Macron’s centrist coalition ultimately performed better than expected, allowing him to survive and fight again.

Short of resigning, Macron has been adamant that he has no plans to do so, but it appears he now has two options.

The first is to try to build a broad coalition stretching from the left to the remnants of moderate Gaullist conservatives, some of whom broke a taboo during the election to join the National Rally.

This seems unlikely: Mr Macron has made no secret of his intense dislike of Mr Mélenchon, a sentiment echoed by Mr Macron.

The second, less ambitious option is for Macron to try to form some kind of interim government to deal with the current problems.

For example, Macron could ask former prime ministers from centre-right parties such as his own, the Socialist Party and the centre-right Republicans to propose a government of technocrats and celebrities who could tackle a limited policy agenda for the coming year.

According to the constitution, at least one year must pass between the next parliamentary elections.

One area in which Macron may still be able to exert greater influence than if he were forced to “cohabit” with Bardella as prime minister is international and military affairs, the traditional prerogative of the president under the Fifth Republic.

An ardent supporter of the 27-nation European Union, which the National Coalition wants to weaken, he will no doubt push for a “Great European Power” with a more integrated military, defense industry and technological research, but weakness at home may weaken his influence.

Mr. Macron, once tempted by a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, has come to publicly support Ukraine’s fight for freedom, and with four months to go until the U.S. presidential election, doubts are growing about whether Western countries are willing to continue supplying arms and financial support to Ukraine.

Russia clearly believes France is wavering. “The French people want a sovereign foreign policy that serves their interests and a break from the dictatorship of Washington and Brussels,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement a few days ago. “The French authorities will not be able to ignore this major change in the attitude of the majority of their population.”

In short, France faces great uncertainty both at home and abroad. A constitutional crisis seems a possibility in the coming months. Outgoing centrist Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who announced his resignation on Sunday, declared: “Tonight, thanks to our determination and our values, no absolute majority will be controlled by the extremists.”

He claimed small victories, but of course there are no such majorities among the centrists.

Unlike many other European countries, such as Belgium, Italy and Germany, France has no tradition of months of negotiations or temporary alliances to forge complex coalition governments among divergent parties. In fact, Charles de Gaulle conceived the Fifth Republic in 1958 to put an end to the parliamentary turmoil and short-lived governments of the Fourth Republic.

One theory given for Macron’s puzzling decision to call elections is that if the Rally National takes power and Bardella becomes prime minister, it would undermine the far-right parties’ momentum ahead of the 2027 presidential election.

It was another gamble based on the idea that it’s easier to criticize from the sidelines than to make difficult government decisions: Mr Macron doesn’t want to hand over the keys to the Elysée Palace to Ms Le Pen in three years’ time.

In this sense, the outcome may embarrass Macron and give Le Pen an advantage: She has shown her popularity growing without the burden of a political party, while once again demonstrating the deep-rooted resistance of French people to the idea of ​​power handing over to the far right.

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