French President Emmanuel Macron faces a seven-day battle to save his second-term agenda after a resurgence of left-wing parties fought him almost to a draw in the first round of parliamentary elections.
The results suggest the pro-Macron bloc in the National Assembly could fail to win a majority at the second round next Sunday, weakening the president and forcing him to co-operate with rivals for the next five years.
Although Mr Macron's centrists took a slight lead with 25.8 per cent of votes in the first round, an alliance of leftists and environmentalists forged for the election polled at 25.7 per cent.
“I call on our people to pour out to the polls next Sunday and reject once and for all the dire agenda of Mr Macron,” said Jean-Luc Melenchon, the face of the leftist bloc known as the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (Nupes).
A projection by Ipsos France showed Mr Macron’s bloc on course to win between 255 and 295 seats, with 289 needed for a majority. Polling company Elabe predicted a similar range.
The centre-right Republicans are expected to win a few dozen seats, with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in fourth and its leader likely to be re-elected as an MP. Rival right-winger Eric Zemmour was eliminated in his constituency.
More than 15 MPs would give the far-right a formal status in parliament, meaning it would have more time to speak and put issues on the agenda as well as extra resources.
The results show Mr Macron has had no honeymoon since being re-elected president in April, when he defeated Ms Le Pen in a final-round run-off and reached out to left-wing voters to stop the far-right.
Rising food and energy prices, rape accusations against one of his allies — denied by the minister — and recriminations after the chaotic scenes at the Champions League final in Paris have caused Mr Macron headaches since then.
After the left's divisions left it empty-handed in the presidential race, the Nupes alliance was formed with the hope of frustrating Mr Macron's pro-corporate agenda.
The president’s allies are this time trying to land political blows on the left, and equivocating over whether to support Nupes in seats where it faces a run-off with the National Rally.
Stanislas Guerini, a Macronist minister and senior official in the president’s party, said the left’s big-spending agenda was “made up of nothing but tax increases”.
Another Macron ally, Clement Beaune, Secretary of State for European Affairs, sought to expose splits in the tentative alliance by saying Mr Melenchon wanted to “kill off the Socialist Party”, the former flag-bearer of the left.
Some Nupes figures questioned the official tally and said votes for leftist candidates in France’s overseas territories should have given the alliance a first round lead.
Gabriel Attal, Minister of Public Action and Accounts, said the left “always calls the figures into question … it's their speciality”. Turnout was low at 47.5 per cent.
Mr Melenchon, who came third in the presidential race, wants to increase the minimum wage and block an increase in the pension age which is one of the central reforms envisaged by Mr Macron.
Mr Macron promised to reduce taxes and press ahead with pro-business reforms in his manifesto for a second term, after a first term sometimes overshadowed by Yellow Vest protests and the coronavirus pandemic.
He will retain broad foreign policy powers whatever the second-round result, but would have to make alliances with Nupes or right-wing MPs if his supporters do not win a majority.
Defeats for any ministers could force him into a reshuffle. Mr Melenchon said he wants Mr Macron to name him as prime minister if Nupes wins the election and called on young people and workers to support him.
Voters in modern France have never denied a majority to a newly elected president, but there is no recent parallel to Mr Macron’s party seeking a second term after ruling alone throughout the first.
Presidents Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand had to work at various times with opposition prime ministers in what is known in France as a “cohabitation”.