In a crushing blow for newly re-elected President Macron, Ensemble has lost their majority in the French National Assembly. Falling short of the 289 seats needed to control the legislature, Macron’s coalition saw significant losses at the hands of Mélenchon’s left-green NUPES alliance and Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National, formerly known as Front National. This has raised concerns over the President’s ability to pass his legislative agenda in his second term.
Mélenchon’s alliance, which now makes up the main opposition bloc in the National Assembly, garnered 131 seats, largely owing to the support of young urban voters. The unprecedented success of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National posed a mightier than expected challenge to Macron’s parliamentary majority, with a late surge that secured them 89 seats in the legislature – an immense breakthrough after winning only 8 seats in 2017. The evident success of these extreme parties, once on the fringe of French politics, reflects France’s increasingly divided electorate.
The results of this election are in keeping with a broader trend of partisan dealignment in French voting behaviour, where the electorate increasingly rejects party identification and support for established or mainstream parties, and the rate of abstention continues to increase. This year’s record-breaking low turnout is in part explained by a sense of apathy permeating the electorate, where voters increasingly feel alienated from political parties – the abandonment of party identification arising from a perceived lack of responsiveness from parties to the demands of citizens and policy convergence between established parties.
Those that do vote increasingly tend to switch party allegiances between elections – political parties are no longer natural representatives of voters’ political preferences, and defined demographic groups have eroded along with their associated traditional cleavages.
Equally, popular discontent over living and working conditions fuels support for peripheral parties, while mainstream parties, failing to address these grievances, are deemed incapable of effecting positive socio-economic change.
The success of Rassemblement National under Marine Le Pen often leads discussion on the growing appeal of peripheral parties in France.
Many turn to the ‘modernisation losers’ thesis to explain this phenomenon, which paints the rise of the radical right in particular as the result of a transforming socio-economic system that generates winners and losers – the ‘losers’ being those unable to cope with an increasingly modernised society. Populist parties capitalise on these alienated voters, insecure in a society increasingly concerned with post-materialist values. The effort by Rassemblement National to propagate values that favour these voters – including anti-immigration sentiment and hostility to ethnic minorities – creates a viable option for those challenged by cultural change. This is evident in the party’s past assertions that the French “civilisation” is under threat by immigration, and repeated instances of anti-Islam rhetoric.
The importance of leadership should also be addressed when explaining the success of Rassemblement National in recent years. Historically, the party’s ideology has been associated with nativism, authoritarianism and a Eurosceptic position since the mid-1990s. Under Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party was plagued with blunders, including the use of racist imagery and inflammatory language. The current leadership is decidedly different. Taking over from her father in 2011, Marine Le Pen has appeared to pursue a so-called ‘de-demonisation’ strategy – on the surface, the party’s xenophobic rhetoric has been somewhat tempered in a bid to appeal to voters’ current attitudes and concerns.
In this way, the rise of the periphery in France is best characterised by a ‘feedback loop’, where popular grievances are read and shaped by extreme parties, who in turn strategically manoeuvre their policy preferences to achieve the most electoral success.
Macron’s defeat in the legislative elections is evidence of not only his failure to galvanise mass support, but also of an unstable French political system, characterised by declining party identification and electoral volatility.
French voters, undefined by traditional cleavages, are increasingly turning to the extremes to voice their disillusionment with the status quo, where they are met with an apparent eagerness to address these needs. The challenge that Macron now faces, in a fragmented parliament, is to avoid political paralysis through the formation of successful alliances and consensus-building, after years of uncontested power. This is just a glimpse, however, of the future volatility of the French political system.