Macron battling to avoid hung parliament and unpalatable deals

Divided France heads into second round of parliamentary voting on Sunday

In Strasbourg, eastern France, a supporter of hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon pastes an electoral poster ahead of the second round of the legislative elections. AP
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From the glitzy Mediterranean resort of Saint-Tropez to working-class suburbs of north-eastern Paris, French voters have exposed the frailty of consensus politics and the rise of extremes.

A mixture of apathy, disappointment and outright hostility could deprive President Emmanuel Macron of his majority in parliament when the decisive second round of voting takes place on Sunday.

Amid mutual mudslinging, with the far right and far left denouncing each other and Mr Macron’s camp labelling both as threats to civil order, an uncomfortable era of instability looms for France.

Opinion polls suggest a hung parliament as the most likely outcome, forcing the newly re-elected president to turn enemies into allies if he hopes to see his policies enacted.

For those who despise the divisive, Islamophobic polemic of the radical populist Eric Zemmour, there was pleasure in his humbling elimination from the poll in an area that stretches inland from Saint-Tropez and the surrounding Riviera coastline.

But the legacy of his campaign to enter parliament, ultimately as unsuccessful as his bid for the presidency in April despite energetic campaigning in both contests, tells a different story.

With just 800 more votes, Mr Zemmour would have reached the run-off and, in all probability, won. But if he is seen as the defeated champion of the far right in XXL format, the XL variety ― Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party (RN) ― could now benefit from his absence from Sunday’s voting slips.

Sereine Mauborgne, representing Mr Macron’s centrist alliance Ensemble, won the first round but by less than four percentage points. While much depends on what left-wing and centre-right voters now decide, not many of Mr Zemmour’s supporters would need to switch to another far-right candidate, the RN’s Philippe Lottiaux, for him to overtake her.

“She is definitely in trouble,” Sabine Cristofani-Viglione, the beaten candidate in Nupes, a left and green alliance, told The National.

“Away from the coast, there is plenty of poverty and people turn to parties offering radical solutions. And on the coast, the rich blame immigrants for everything that goes wrong in France. Voting for the extreme right makes them feel they are defending their privileges.”

One of her campaigners, Thomas Hinderyckx, described far-right appeal in the area as a product of historic grievances dating from France’s loss of its North African colonies and the resettlement in the south of France of people of French origin who fled Algeria after the war of independence.

For Zemmour supporters, he said, it amounted to revenge for the failure of plots to assassinate Charles de Gaulle for failing to preserve “l’Algerie francaise”. “For Le Pen, it’s a case of conservatism and nostalgia for the French empire, a fascist version with Mussolini-like tendencies.”

But the main stumbling block for Mr Macron arises on the left, now strengthened by the support of environment campaigners.

Led by the combative Jean-Luc Melenchon, a Trotskyist when young and still regarded by conservatives as a dangerously hard-left figure, Nupes poses a serious threat to Mr Macron’s legislative powers.

His alliance emerged from Sunday’s results neck and neck with the president’s Ensemble, close enough for Mr Melenchon to claim the government manipulated voting figures to put Macronist candidates slightly ahead.

Nupes is estimated in opinion polls to be on course to win up to 219 of the 577 seats. With Ms Le Pen expected to make a huge breakthrough, increasing her party’s representation from eight seats to between 23 and 45, sufficient to qualify as a parliamentary group, Mr Macron may be forced to seek an unwelcome coalition with the centre-right.

Critics say the Nupes programme makes no more economic sense than the protectionist idealism of Ms Le Pen. “It proposes that the French work less, for fewer years, while getting paid more [and it creates] one million government jobs,” the writer Stephane Lauer lamented in the centre-left Le Monde newspaper.

On the basis of the first-round results, voters do not necessarily agree. In Paris, where Mr Macron and allies dominated parliamentary elections after his 2017 presidential victory, the “red and green” Nupes coalition approaches the second electoral round in pole position, leading in 12 of the 18 constituencies with four candidates already elected without having to face deciders.

Ms Le Pen is accustomed to being described as far right but some analysts believe the president’s supporters are making a grave error in suggesting that Nupes is also an extremist movement intent on fomenting chaos and disruptive protest.

Before leaving for a visit to Moldavia and Romania, Mr Macron said this week at Paris’s Orly airport that a solid majority was essential “to ensure order both outside and inside our borders". Even moderate left-wingers accuse him of implying that his opponents are necessarily “anti-republican”.

The high level of abstention in the first round, with more than half the electorate failing to vote, makes it difficult to predict Sunday’s outcome and its effect on Mr Macron’s second presidential term.

What does seem clear is that France is now divided into four separate camps: Macronists, far right, far left and those who see no point in voting at all.

Updated: June 18, 2022, 6:00 AM