Skip to main content

French Centrists Must Decide: Support the Left – or Hand the Keys of Power to the Far Right?

French voters face a stark choice when they head back to the polls on 7 July: do they want some type of coalition government with a centre of gravity to the left of the current one, or do they want to give the far right the keys to state power....

Rassemblement National supporters react to a speech by Marine Le Pen in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, last Sunday, June 30.,Photograph: François Lo Presti/Agence France-Presse(AFP) // The Guardian

It was an impressive score for a coalition frantically cobbled together only three weeks ago. On Sunday, France’s broad leftwing electoral alliance, the New Popular Front, won about 9m votes, behind Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) but comfortably ahead of Emmanuel Macron and his allies.

As a result, French voters face a stark choice when they head back to the polls on 7 July: do they want some type of coalition government with a centre of gravity to the left of the current one, or do they want to give the far right the keys to state power for the first time since the second world war?

Whatever Macron was hoping for when he called the snap elections, this couldn’t have been it. His wild gamble relied on the assumption that leftwing parties wouldn’t unite – and they quickly proved him wrong. They agreed on a simple economic programme far more popular than what his floundering presidency has to offer: a rise in the minimum wage to €1,600 (£1,400) a month after social security contributions, more investment in public services and the return of the wealth tax. And they positioned themselves as defenders of France’s core democratic values, more effective opponents of the RN’s immigrant-bashing and race-baiting than the president and his allies.

Much will be made of the far right’s domination of rural France. The trend is real and shouldn’t be ignored. From the shores of Normandy to the Mediterranean coast, the brown-coloured wave rippling across the French heartland looks like something out of a US election, where the Republican party now sweeps county after county in much of the country.

But if you look more closely at the map, another France is there, too: cities such as Paris, Lyon and Toulouse, where the New Popular Front triumphed; working-class suburbs inhabited by large proportions of immigrants and their descendants who turned out to defend the promise of a diverse social democracy that guarantees their full rights as French citizens; pockets of rural France that still lean leftward, especially in Brittany and in the south-west, despite the RN’s historic gains. Young people also clearly turned out for the left: according to an Ipsos study, nearly half of those aged 18-24 cast ballots for the New Popular Front.

Given the painfully short campaign, the obvious internal tensions and the sheer level of hostility it faced from its foes, it’s remarkable that the New Popular Front even did this well. When compared with the first round of the last legislative elections in 2022, the left coalition actually increased its share of the vote by about 2.5 percentage points.

But it’s no mystery why the coalition didn’t do better. Over the past several months its parties were subject to vicious attacks from high-ranking Macronists including the president himself, who mocked a proposal from the New Popular Front to make it easier for citizens to change their gender. He also accused it of being “immigrationist”, an adjective used by the founder of the National Rally, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and which is still not in the French dictionary. Macron also warned against voting for “the extremes”, in effect equating the alliance with the National Rally. Although the president remains broadly unpopular, lines like these may have discouraged more moderate voters from casting ballots for the New Popular Front.

Meanwhile, under the control of the ultra-conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré, media outlets such as CNews, Europe 1 and the Journal du Dimanche have drummed up support for the farright, bashing left-wing parties as identity-obsessed, police-hating and antisemitic. The New Popular Front needed three years to get its act together, not three weeks.

But its leaders know they’re not going to be able to win enough of the National Assembly’s 577 seats to form an absolute majority of their own. And when it comes to blocking the RN from doing just that, the ball is in the hands of the Macronists.

The president’s coalition is now grappling with a simple question: is it willing to support leftwing candidates to prevent the far right from governing or not? Under France’s legislative election rules, if no candidate wins a first-round majority, then all candidates who win support from at least 12.5% of registered voters qualify for the second round. Thanks to the exceptionally high turnout, several candidates could theoretically be on the ballot in more than 300 districts next Sunday. Such division would benefit the far right in the current balance of forces.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

So far, the line from the left coalition has been clear: to defeat the RN, it is planning to withdraw candidates who place third behind Le Pen’s party, which translates into a boost for the president’s coalition. This line has been embraced by everyone from the socialist Raphaël Glucksmann to the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the left populist La France Insoumise.

Unfortunately, the reply from Macronists has been more vague. Some have admirably withdrawn from races or called to vote against RN candidates without condition, such as the minister of industry and energy, a leader of Macron’s youth movement and the minister of cities. Others, such as the former prime minister Édouard Philippe and the economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, have decided they’re ready to stand down in favour of candidates who accept France’s basic democratic values – but apparently that does not include La France Insoumise, the largest single force within the New Popular Front. The line from the prime minister, Gabriel Attal, and Macron himself, who issued a short statement on Sunday, appears to lie somewhere in the middle. They’ve called for broad unity against the RN, but their wording is open to interpretation about whether the pledge extends to La France Insoumise.

Any pledge that doesn’t unequivocally call to defeat the National Rally is a terrible mistake, but they still have time to correct it. Candidates have until Tuesday night to withdraw their presence from the second round.

On multiple occasions, France’s leftwing parties and voters have stepped up and defended French democracy from the dangers of Le Pen’s party. Macron owes his presidency to millions of French people who voted for him because they rightfully feared what a country governed by the RN would look like. Now it’s time for the centrists to return the favour – the very future of French democracy may well hang in the balance.

[Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Marseille and the author of Paris Isn’t Dead Yet]