French elections: Why France needs to adapt to a more volatile political structure after Emmanuel Macron's poll setback

"It's a turning point for his image of invincibility," political researcher Bruno Cautres said of French president Emmanuel Macron, as the results of the French parliamentary elections came in.

France's president Emmanuel Macron waves as he leaves after casting his vote in the second stage of French parliamentary elections at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France on Sunday. Picture: AFP via Getty Images
France's president Emmanuel Macron waves as he leaves after casting his vote in the second stage of French parliamentary elections at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France on Sunday. Picture: AFP via Getty Images

The French press pulled fewer punches than Mr Cautres, from the Centre for Political Research of Sciences Po, as results came in showing Mr Macron’s Ensemble coalition had won 245 seats in Parliament. The last time a newly-elected president did not get an overall majority was in 1988, when the presidency was held by François Mitterrand.

“The slap," said the headline in the left-leaning Liberation's Monday edition, perhaps referencing the physical slap Mr Macron received from a disgruntled citizen when out campaigning last year. The man was later arrested.

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The second-largest representation of 131 seats came from a leftist coalition, Nupes, led by Jean Luc Melenchon. The surprise, however, was the success of the far right National Rally, headed by Marine Le Pen, which increased its presence more than tenfold, rocketing from just eight seats to 89.

Emile Chabal is a reader in history at the University of Edinburgh.

The result means Ensemble will likely seek a coalition with another party – a move that will inevitably raise questions over the president’s ability to deliver on his second-term agenda, including tax cuts, welfare reform and raising the retirement age.

“This situation constitutes a risk for our country, given the challenges that we have to confront,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said in a televised statement.

Charlotte de Montpellier, senior economist at ING, said the results were “a new era for French politics”.

“These results are a disaster for Macron, who finds himself in great difficulty in terms of his ability to govern and implement his programme," she said. “This is a new era for French politics, which will have to learn to deal with coalitions, agreements and consensus – something that most European countries are used to, but not France.”

Support for Marine Le Pen's far-right politics is growing in France (Picture: Francois Lo Presti/AFP via Getty Images)

Strong opposition parties in the new assembly could try to delay the passing of bills, which could see Mr Macron utilise article 49.3, which allows the Government to pass bills without the agreement of the Parliament, unless the opposition introduces a motion of no confidence, which if passed, would dissolve Parliament.

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“We're going to have very volatile politics,” said Emile Chabal, reader in history at the University of Edinburgh.

“There’s going to be a lot more noise from Parliament, literal noise from the opposition benches. It's going to be dominated by procedural attempts to stymie certain policies and even potentially stopping the Government by bringing repeated no-confidence votes.”

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Mr Chabal added: "I also think this result will empower social movements and protest movements in France. Certain policies could see a lot of opposition. I would hope that Macron will look towards greater dialogue with other parties and other partners, but in some cases, like the proposed reform to pensions, it may die, this policy just may fall apart."

Mr Macron's approval ratings have remained fairly high throughout his presidency, despite a slight dip to around 37 per cent in the week or so leading up to the parliamentary election.

"If you look at macro figures, it is hard to understand why there would be such an aggressive anti-Macron sentiment,” Mr Chabal said, adding that Mr Macron’s image as president represents a France that is prosperous and successful. Like many other European countries, France is struggling with a cost-of-living crisis, amplified by the conflict in Ukraine, which dominated the run-up to Mr Macron’s re-election as president in April.

"A lot of French people don’t feel that way and they feel that Macron not only does not speak to them, but fundamentally does not understand them.”

Mr Chabal pointed out the far right in France has not achieved as strong a performance in any elections since the mid-1980s and warned the president’s positioning as a bridge between the left and right will no longer work.

He said: “Here, the left has done better than in their wildest dreams, this is really in a different league for them. The other main blocks in Parliament are all going to have to contend with this in a way that they had not thought about.

"Now there's another really significant protest party in Parliament with diametrically opposed views on many issues, and that's going to be a real headache. It means that the left will be less visible, less audible than it would have been.”

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He said, however, that an extreme party on both sides with power could play into the hands of the president, who may allow them to fight it out until the electorate become tired of the volatile politics the unstable Parliament could produce.

"A cynical analysis might say that maybe Macron is secretly quite pleased that these two extremes have done quite well, because he can now let the left and the far right yell at each other for a year or two, before making all of the French yearn for a less divisive and conflictual politics,” he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not yet commented on the results. But Mr Chabal said he believed the pressure on Mr Macron could also cause problems for the UK Government.

He said Mr Macron could play on his “European credibility”, which has risen in recent months as he has attempted to broker peace between Ukraine and Russia, through phone calls with Russian president Vladimir Putin and visits to Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

"I think he could use Europe as a way of signalling to the French electorate that he is really a credible, powerful president who represents France on the world stage," he said. “And now, with Britain out of the European Union, it is a very easy issue to beat [Britain] around the head.

"Macron has, really ever since the beginning of his presidency, presented a classic French foreign policy: that is as someone who sees through Britain's duplicity, that Britain is not to be trusted. That’s the go-to Gaullist view.”

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