The battle for the future of France is only beginning

The Left has scored a major victory against National Rally’s far-right populism. But there is no time for complacency.

France election left
France Unbowed founder Jean-Luc Melenchon, right, clenches his fist with other party members after the second round of the legislative elections Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Paris. [AP Photo/Thomas Padilla]

A coalition of left-wing parties, the New Popular Front (NFP), has won the highest number of seats in the French National Assembly, preventing a much-feared landslide by the far-right National Rally (RN) in legislative elections.

Sunday’s landmark victory of the leftist alliance – made up of previously deeply divided Socialists, Greens, Communists and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed – did not come easy. Since its formation last month, the NFP has faced a barrage of vitriol, both from centrist elites and the far right, and was demonised as a danger to the future of the republic. The media environment was also deeply hostile with the discredited horseshoe theory – that the far right and far left are closer to each other then either is to the political centre – dominating the discourse surrounding the elections.

Marine Le Pen and her protege, RN President Jordan Bardella, spent the weeks in the run-up to the elections trying to complete their party’s rebranding as the new “centre-right” and casting the NFP as the real “extremists”. The left-wing alliance and especially Melenchon were accused of anti-Semitism for their support for Palestine while the RN – a party founded by a convicted Holocaust denier – was recast as a strong force against anti-Semitism due to its pro-Israel stance.

The whitewashing of the RN’s racist legacy and the demonisation of the NFP as “anti-Semitic” was so extensive that the prevailing media narrative after the first round on June 30 was that a leftist victory would be as harmful, if not more so, than a far-right one.

With centrist President Emmanuel Macron already having blurred the line between the centre and the right by assuming a variety of right-coded authoritarian policies in recent years, it seemed the conditions were ripe for the RN to complete its rehabilitation as a mainstream, right-wing party and finally take control of the  French Parliament

And yet, despite pollsters forecasting a clear RN victory, the French electorate once again rejected Le Pen’s hard-right offerings on Sunday, instead putting its trust in the left.

The NFP came first, winning 182 seats, followed by Macron’s centrist, neoliberal Ensemble, which secured 163. Le Pen and Bardella’s RN could manage only 143, leaving them with no real path to form a government.

Election night was dramatic with tearful RN supporters and many journalists covering the elections seemingly struggling to comprehend the results delivered by the French people. So where did it all go wrong for the RN?

Appointment of the then-26-year-old Bardella as president in 2022 was the beginning of a new era for the RN. Bardella embodied many qualities that excite the far right: youth, hypermasculinity and an immigrant background combined with a hard stance against immigration, bolstered by the usual “anti-woke” schtick. He expertly promoted a far-right agenda, opposing abortion rights, spreading Islamophobia and demonising immigrants while selling himself as a mainstream political operator. He most importantly tried to erase the party’s anti-Semitic history and neo-Nazi views prevalent among its core base by offering unconditional support to Israel’s far-right government and its bloody war on Gaza. He took advantage of the centrist government’s failings and authoritarian tendencies, presenting his party as mainstream and rapidly increasing its political influence. Macron’s flirtation with hard-right policies, such as social media bans during protests, significantly helped Bardella’s efforts to present the movement he leads alongside Le Pen as representing mainstream, patriotic populism.

His work to raise the profile of his party culminated in the RN securing a decisive 31 percent of the vote in last month’s European Parliament elections and gaining the largest percentage of the vote in the first leg of the national parliamentary elections Macron called in response.

But when it came to the second round of the elections, and a French government led by the RN became a real possibility, the electorate made it clear that it does not want the far right, however normalised and media trained, to take the helm of the country. Furthermore, by shifting its support to the leftist coalition, it made it clear that it does not sign up to the horseshoe theory or buy in to the narrative that criticising Israel and its war on Gaza is anti-Semitic or hateful.

On Sunday, Melenchon and his newfound allies across the French left undoubtedly scored a monumental victory. They demonstrated that it is the left and its unapologetic demand for meaningful reform and social justice and not centrist offerings of “more of the same” that is the antidote to the rising popularity of the far right. However, it is premature to celebrate.

The RN still managed to secure well over 100 seats – more than it has ever held. The left does not have the majority to form a government on its own, which means there is political turmoil in the immediate future. Once the government is formed, the RN may not be in it, but it will certainly have a stronger voice in parliament. There is every reason to believe the party will put up an even stronger fight in future elections.

Nevertheless, the left is still faced with an important, unmissable opportunity.

The French electorate has made it clear that it has grown weary of centrist, ideologically ambiguous governance offered by Macron. It was the French president’s failure to fix the economy and authoritarian policies that normalised the far right that pushed many French voters into the arms of the RN. Now, voters have rejected what the RN is offering, and the left has a real chance of enacting its agenda and drawing a new path for France based on social justice, care for the environment and a foreign policy that in line with the views and values of the French people.

The NFP’s platform includes raising the monthly minimum wage, lowering the legal retirement age from 64 to 60, building one million new affordable housing units in five years and freezing the prices of basic necessities like food, energy and gas. The state would also cover all costs associated with children’s education, including meals, transportation and extracurricular activities – all funded by taxing the wealthiest more. The leftist alliance has also promised to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians and put an end to the current French government’s conflation of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel and its far-right government.

Implementation of this ambitious agenda could restore balance to the French political system, act as a true, long-term counterforce against the far right and pave the way for a left-wing future in a country that must urgently recover from Macron’s neoliberalism. As it stands, the left now has the clear mandate to lead, and hopefully, the centre will not obstruct left-wing forces from forming a coalition, allowing Melenchon to guide France towards healing from its internal divisions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.