Conservative National Rally Scores Big Win in France

By Adeline Von Drehle
Published On: Last updated 07/02/2024, 12:34 AM EDT

The conservative National Rally (RN) made historic gains in the first round of France’s two-stage parliamentary election this weekend.

The party of Marine Le Pen came away with 33.15% of the votes cast for members of the National Assembly, the French parliament. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the left-wing New Popular Front (NFP) alliance came in second place with 28.14% of the vote. French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance came in third with 20.76% support.

Macron shocked the nation and the international community when he called the snap election after a humiliating defeat in June’s European parliament election. It was a risky gamble designed to stop the conservative advance by forcing French voters to choose a French parliament. The cards seem not to have fallen in his favor. C’est la politique.

Thirty-nine RN candidates won at least 50% of Sunday’s vote and so were elected outright to parliament, which is even more impressive when noting that the RN has never before managed to win a parliamentary seat in the first round of voting in a two-stage election. The RN increased its share of the vote in each of France’s 577 constituencies bar one.

The world is on stand-by as all the candidates who did not win an outright majority on Sunday head to a second round of voting scheduled for July 7, involving two or three top candidates. Polling predictions suggest the NR will have the most seats in the next National Assembly, but it is unclear whether it will win an absolute majority – 289 of the 577 seats.

“The French people have shown that they want to draw a line under seven years of [Macron’s] disdainful rule,” said Le Pen, president of the RN in the National Assembly, speaking at a party event in eastern France. “We haven’t won yet, the second round will be crucial … we need an absolute majority so that Jordan Bardella, in eight days, can be appointed prime minister by Emmanuel Macron,” she added. 

Bardella, the 28-year-old phenom who took over from Le Pen as president of the RN when she was elected to the National Assembly in 2022, would be the youngest prime minister in French history. Macron will serve out the rest of his 5-year term regardless of the parliamentary election results but would be forced to “cohabitate” with Bardella, whose policies would likely diverge from Macron’s own.

Bardella said he intends “to be a cohabitation prime minister who is respectful of the Constitution and of the President of the Republic’s role but uncompromising about the policies we will implement.”

The National Rally’s rivals are scrambling to keep it from winning an absolutely majority, which would put a right-wing government at the helm of France for the first time since World War II. The left-wing coalition said it would withdraw its candidates in districts where they finished third, to support other RN rivals. Macron’s centrist alliance is considering the same approach.

“Our guideline is simple and clear: not a single more vote for the National Rally,” said leader of the NFP Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Such a tactic has worked in the past, when the RN’s predecessor National Front was considered a political pariah. But now Le Pen’s party has wide support across the country.

The RN has tapped into voter frustration in France, particularly in small towns and farming communities that see Macron and Paris as out of touch. Meanwhile, Macron’s disapproval rating is at a stunning high of 71%, according to Politico’s polling.

French voters are struggling with inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, and the RN has taken a nationalist approach to soothing these fears. This nationalist rhetoric, which has come to be commonplace in Europe, could have disrupting effects on Western alliances such as NATO and the EU, which the RN is deeply skeptical of.

The second round of voting will have serious implications for domestic French politics and could result in an increasingly weakened Macron. But Sunday’s vote is proof enough that change is afoot.

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