French National Assembly election: What’s at stake and what to expect?

President Macron appears poised for major losses in Sunday’s snap poll, which could see the rise of the far right.

A relief panel sculpture is pictured in the hemicycle of the French National Assembly before the first round of the early French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France, June 27, 2024. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
A relief panel sculpture is pictured outside the chamber of the French National Assembly before the first round of the early French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

French voters will cast their ballots on Sunday to elect 577 members of the National Assembly, as the country looks set to enter a new political era.

The elections come after French President Emmanuel Macron called for a snap vote triggered by a crushing defeat to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) party at the European Parliament elections on June 9.

Polls suggest the coming elections will confirm the trend. RN leads strongly with 36 percent of the vote, followed by left-wing bloc Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) at 28.5 percent, trailed by Macron’s centrist alliance – Ensemble – with 21 percent.

If the results echo the polls, Macron might have to cohabitate with an antagonistic prime minister, regardless of who is elected.

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How do the French elections work?

Voting opens at 06:00 GMT and is expected to end at 16:00 GMT in most of the country, but polling stations in Paris and other major cities will stay open until 18:00 GMT.

To win a majority in the National Assembly, a party or alliance needs 289 seats — just over the halfway mark in the House. Macron’s outgoing coalition fell short of that number, limiting its ability to push through its legislative agenda.

For the verdict on any of the 577 seats to be called on Sunday, July 30, two conditions need to be met. First, the voter turnout needs to be at least 25 percent. Second, a candidate needs to win an absolute majority of votes cast.

In a multiparty system like France’s, that typically means that many, if not most, contests go to a second round of voting – scheduled this time for July 7.

Only those candidates who secure at least 12.5 percent of the vote in the first round can stand in the second round, effectively narrowing the field of contestants.

Why is this election so different?

Traditionally, National Assembly elections are held straight after the presidential vote, and so reflect the same popular mood. The result is a prime minister from the same political party as the president, who then can implement policies with a strong mandate.

But those power dynamics have now shifted and for the first time in 22 years, France will have a state of cohabitation: a deeply unpopular president ruling alongside a government elected in as a vote of dissatisfaction against Macron himself.

“It will mark the beginning of a new way of governing and the end of the presidential agenda,” said Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for European Perspective and Security Studies, a think tank on diplomacy and political analysis. “Macronism has already almost collapsed and it will exit the election totally wiped out,” he said.

Election boards are seen ahead of the June 30 and July 7 French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France, June 19, 2024. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Election boards are seen ahead of the June 30 and July 7 French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

How did we get here?

Macron first came to power in 2017 riding a wave of support, as he pledged to create a centrist bloc, lacing the moderate left and right together. But it didn’t take long before his language started sounding too aloof to the ears of people in the suburbs – he got the nickname Jupiter. His economic reforms were too right wing to liberals who had previously backed him; and his way of governing was seen as too despotic by many right and left voters.

Now, the election could mark an end to Jupiter’s solo show, as France looks set to enter a new political era.

“He runs the country like a CEO of a company,” said Samantha de Bendern, associate fellow at Chatham House. “But a country is not a company and he failed to build alliances with partners – Macron is a loner,” de Bendern said.

One of the starkest signals of his isolation was the Yellow Vest movement – a period of violent protests in 2018. What started as workers on lower-middle incomes infuriated by planned increases in diesel taxes snowballed into a wider movement against the president’s perceived bias in favour of the elite. His second mandate was marked by a highly contested bill in 2023 to raise the country’s retirement by two years which turned into another huge domestic challenge as he faced widespread opposition.

And while he won a second mandate in 2022 – in good measure by scaring, rather than attracting, voters over the prospect of the far right taking over the presidency – the tactic seems to have tired many. “There is a feeling of anger – people are fed up with showing this scare for Le Pen while being forced to vote for Macron to keep out the far right,” de Bendern said.

What is Le Pen’s ‘dediabolisation’?

Meanwhile, Le Pen has meticulously crafted a so-called dediabolisation – de-demonisation – strategy over the past two decades, aimed at broadening the party’s base while tempering its radical discourse to distance itself from many references that had made the RN too toxic to several voters.

The party has long been associated with notorious racists, and xenophobic and anti-Semitic slurs. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, once convicted of hate speech for saying that Nazi gas chambers were “a detail of history”, was expelled from the party in 2015. Le Pen convinced the moderate right instead that she was not a threat to democracy and conquered areas traditionally close to the far left, especially in the Communist Party, promising social welfare policies and tight restrictions on migrants.

Marine Le Pen, President of the French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National - RN) party parliamentary group, and Jordan Bardella, President of the French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National - RN) party and head of the RN list for the European elections, attend a political rally during the party's campaign for the EU elections, in Paris, France, June 2, 2024. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella attend a political rally during the party’s campaign for the EU elections, in Paris, France [File: Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

“Many [by voting NR] are expressing their opposition to a system that they feel is depriving them of what they deserve in favour of people, mostly foreigners, who are getting benefits that are not due,” said Baptiste Roger-Lacan, historian and political analyst with a focus on far-right parties in Europe.

Today, the party’s candidate to be the country’s prime minister is Jordan Bardella, an impeccably dressed 28-year-old man who looks like a mix between a Wolf of Wall Street and Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent. Yet he comes from the suburbs and speaks to his tens of thousands of followers not just on the street but also on TikTok. He has no experience in governance.

On the other side, far to centre-left parties have united under the New Popular Front. Its most vocal cause has been its support for the Palestinian cause amid the war in Gaza, a position that has earned the grouping popularity among young voters and the Muslim community.

By contrast, the NR has firmly supported Israel condemning “pogroms on Israeli soil” and attacking the leader of the far-left La France Insoumise party, Jean-Luc Melenchon, for failing to call the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel “terrorism” – something that has caused friction within the bloc itself.

What would a far-right win mean?

The most serious repercussion of a win for the RN is going to be on the domestic front. While the party now says anti-Semitism is a problem of the left-wing party, it has shifted its focus against migrants and Muslims. France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim community, with families settled there for several generations.

While Bardella did not specify what “specific legislation” he would push for to fight “Islamist ideologies”, he said in the past the party would work to ban the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in public spaces and to make it easier to close mosques.

The RN has also made its top priority the adoption of stringent border controls, the scrapping of birthright citizenship – a practice that for centuries has been granting citizenship to those born in France to foreign parents – and the introduction via constitutional referendum of the “national preference”, a system by which someone would be excluded benefits from social security rights unless with a French passport.

“Clearly the NR is still xenophobic so any foreigner has something to lose, any foreigner who has not a European heritage would have to lose something if the NR were to be elected,” Roger-Lacan said.

A woman passes by the election boards placed ahead of the June 30 and July 7 French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France, June 19, 2024. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
A woman passes election boards placed ahead of the June 30 and July 7 French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

And what about foreign policy?

With his eyes on power, Bardella has been softening or reversing some of the party’s traditional positions. He made a U-turn on Ukraine saying he was committed to keep providing military support to Kyiv, while pushing back against critics’ allegations of some party members’ links to the Kremlin.

Still, considering Macron’s unwavering stance on Ukraine and France’s role as a pillar of the European Union, a Bardella-led government not committed as much to the European project, would mark a shift.

During a news conference on Monday, Bardella said he opposes sending French troops and weaponry capable of striking targets on Russian soil.

“He is in a phase where is trying to reassure the non-NR electorate, and possibly future EU partners, but clearly the party gaining power would add a lot of tension between France and the rest of the EU,” said Roger-Lacan, who is also former deputy editor-in-chief at the think tank Le Grand Continent.

Unlike Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who had transitioned towards more Atlantic, pro-NATO, pro-EU positions years before her election victory in 2022, Roger-Lacan explains, the NR’s conversion “sounds extremely contextual”.

Still, should the far right win the elections, observers note, it could end up abstaining from creating too much tremor, should it win the elections, as the group is playing the long game. It’s ultimate goal: capturing the presidency in 2027.

Source: Al Jazeera