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What just happened in France is astounding

National Rally’s lead candidate, the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, insisted that he’d agree to become prime minister only if he had Parliament behind him.

What just happened in France is astounding

NEW DELHI: The far right was at the gates of power. In the initial round of voting on June 30, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally came first with 33 percent support, topping more than half the local races. With the party projected to fall just short of an absolute majority, France was in a frenzy of speculation and anxiety. National Rally’s lead candidate, the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, insisted that he’d agree to become prime minister only if he had Parliament behind him. On the evidence of the polls, he seemed well placed to demand a mandate.

But Sunday’s second round proved him wrong. Mr. Bardella not only fell far short of winning the prime minister’s office; his party came in third, with 143 seats. Although an expansion from its previous tally of 89, this was a far cry from what was projected just days ago. President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition, which had lagged throughout the short campaign, flouted expectations to come in second, with 168 seats. The biggest surprise was who came in first. The left-wing New Popular Front, a coalition of four parties hastily put together before this election, emerged as the largest force, with 182 seats.

This is a truly astounding result. Through a stunning act of collective responsibility, the far right has been stopped. But France is not suddenly fixed. With no group taking more than one-third of the National Assembly’s 577 seats, there is trouble ahead. The far right, though chastened, is in a stronger position than ever before, commanding a growing electoral coalition and decently placed for the presidential election in 2027. But France, on the back of pragmatic collaboration between parties and enthusiastic resistance from voters, has won a brilliant reprieve.

Cooperation among National Rally’s opponents was central to the turnaround. After the first round, over 200 third-place candidates from the New Popular Front and Mr. Macron’s coalition stood down, allowing other candidates clear runs. In what the Green leader Marine Tondelier called a “new republican front,” nodding to the tradition of French voters combining to thwart the far right, voters were asked to back whoever could beat the National Rally candidate.

They answered the call, left-wing voters especially. According to a poll, in duels in which either Mr.

Macron’s allies or conservatives faced National Rally, seven in 10 left-wingers turned out for the anti-Le Pen candidate, with most others abstaining. The front held less well in duels between the left and Ms. Le Pen’s party: About half of Mr. Macron’s supporters backed the left, and one in six voted for the far right.

The result, though, was stark. In seat after seat, the far right’s strong position wasn’t enough to overcome its combined opponents.

The strength of this mobilization was especially remarkable, given the mixed messages from government figures. In the days after the first round, the president’s camp split between those who called for a vote for any anti-Le Pen candidate and others who refused to stand down in favor of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed — the biggest and most radical force on the left. Many on the center-right called on voters to block both Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen, undermining the suggestion that the main issue was to stop the far right.

The New Popular Front is far from united. Mr. Mélenchon — who does not have a seat in Parliament — has tumultuous relations with the center-left Socialists and Greens, as well as the Communists, who will all want to avoid his taking the lead. On Sunday night, center-left figures in this camp gestured toward the need for broader dialogue and a change of political culture, already hinting at a rapprochement with Mr.

Macron and a split with the more radical left. The New Popular Front, with barely a moment to enjoy its success, may soon begin to splinter.

Yet the problem runs deeper than bickering among parties. While the far right was stopped — as it was before in France — it has still advanced significantly. In parliamentary elections, the party has historically performed poorly because of its weak local roots: In recent decades it had only a handful of deputies.

Now it has 143, a historic high. It will fight the 2027 presidential election from a much stronger starting point, including through an expansion of its support into the mainstream right-wing electorate.

That support is considerable. Since 2022, National Rally — which has long had a strong base among blue-collar workers — has nearly doubled its support among white-collar employees, so-called

midranking professionals and top managers. Its vote still tilts toward low-income and less-educated people, but it is rising fastest among those earning over 3,000 euros a month. Its more recent messaging — summed up by Mr. Bardella’s offer “to restore order in the public accounts, as well as in the streets” — resonates with homeowners and people with middle-income jobs. The party’s rise derives not from a working-class revolt, as some would have it, but from the support of a widening cross-section of French society.

In this election, an ad hoc alliance ensured the defeat of National Rally candidates. But the New Popular Front’s relatively good score relied on its bedrock of lower-income voters, built through opposition to the current government. As in Spain last year, a broad-left coalition headed off the far right by both warning against the reactionary threat and offering real material benefits to its own supporters. Yet for this same reason, the anti-Le Pen vote is full of contradictions. The left has sharply opposed Mr. Macron not only on economic policy but also on questions of identity and border controls. More ructions are surely to come.

Beyond relief, the real result of this election is gridlock. The new National Assembly will be even messier than the last one, with Mr. Macron possibly tempted to play fast and loose with alliances to strengthen his authority. His decision to call snap elections has not been quite the disaster for his presidency that it had seemed to be. Still, shedding 77 seats was not a stroke of political genius, and Parliament is now extraordinarily fragmented. Mr. Macron has already rejected the resignation of his prime minister, Gabriel Attal. What comes next is unclear.

But one thing is certain. Thanks to an energetic campaign — and a healthy dose of flexibility — France won’t be getting a far-right government. And that is something to celebrate.

NYT Editorial Board
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