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French politics in chaos after Macron loses majority

Far-right and far-left forces are making big gains in France's National Assembly, sending President Emmanuel Macron's second term in office off the rails and national politics into a period of turmoil.

(CN) — French President Emmanuel Macron suffered a stinging defeat on Sunday after his centrist coalition lost its majority in parliament, delivering a major blow to the president's neoliberal plans to overhaul France's economy and society.

Sunday's second-round election results for the National Assembly — the lower but more powerful of the two chambers in France's parliament — were described as a major setback for Macron, who was reelected in April by defeating far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Macron's Together coalition was projected to win 246 seats in the National Assembly, far short of the 289 seats needed in the 577-seat chamber to command an absolute majority.

It is the first time in more than two decades that France will have to contend with a hung parliament. Since 1988, French presidents have won majorities in parliament in elections that came quickly after a presidential race.

The elections saw a left-wing coalition led by hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon pick up 142 seats and Le Pen's far-right National Rally win a stunning 89 seats, a historic high for a party associated with xenophobia and anti-European Union sentiments.

“Absolutely no one predicted the RN’s (National Rally's) results,” said Philippe Marliere, an expert on French politics at the University College London, on Twitter. “(National Rally) won so many seats because voters wanted to sanction Macron.”

Meanwhile, the center-right Republicans won 64seats, a result that helps stop the party's decline. It is possible Macron will seek to from an alliance with the Republicans to assemble a majority to pass legislation, though Christian Jacob, the Republicans' parliamentary leader, said his deputies would not back Macron’s agenda.

“As far as we are concerned, we campaigned in the opposition, we are an opposition, and we will stay in opposition,” Jacob said.

Still, faced with the need to find allies, Macron may see working with the Republicans as his best option. Since winning the keys to the Elysee Palace in 2017, Macron has moved to the right by pushing pro-business policies, weakening social benefits and adopting the language of the far right about the need to rein in Islamic extremism.

Macron's electoral defeat was seen as a strong rebuke from French voters over his ambitious pro-business plans and throws into doubt his domestic agenda.

Macron has campaigned on raising the retirement age by three years to 65 and diluting France's generous social benefits system — for example forcing welfare recipients to work and raising college tuition fees.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, left, talks to a woman as she campaigns in a market in Pertuis, southern France, on April 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

But his plans are proving deeply unpopular, especially at a time of soaring inflation and economic turbulence caused by the war in Ukraine. Macron recently said he was imposing a “war economy” on France to boost military spending and allow the government to requisition civilian goods and factories for the war effort.

During his first term, Macron's Republic on the Move party commanded a comfortable majority in the National Assembly after a landslide win in 2017. But his reforms stirred up deep anger and unease among French voters, as seen with the months of protests by the so-called “yellow vests” in late 2018.

Signs of trouble have been obvious for months as Macron failed to stir up much excitement in his presidential run and then was largely absent from the campaign trail during legislative elections that saw his party perform poorly in the first round.
The biggest surprise of Sunday's election was the shocking success of Le Pen's National Rally. In 2017, it obtained only eight seats. The party has historically found it hard to win in France's first-past-the-post parliamentary voting system. Pundits said Le Pen's success was driven not just by anti-Macron sentiment but also by voters opposed to Melenchon's left-wing politics.

Le Pen gave a triumphant speech at her party headquarters after winning reelection in her northern district.

“We will embody a firm and responsible opposition,” she said.

With enthusiasm, she spoke about how her party helped to make Macron a “minority president.”

Melenchon, the head of France Unbowed, also crowed about diminishing Macron. He said Macron's party had suffered a “total defeat.”

“The rout of the presidential party is total,” he said. “We will never give up our ambition to govern this country.”

Protesters attend a demonstration in Paris, France, on July 24, 2021, against a Covid-19 pass that grants vaccinated individuals greater ease of access to venues. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

Melenchon's party joined other left-wing parties to form a coalition known as NUPES, or the New Ecologic and Social People's Union. Besides Melenchon's far-left party, the group includes Socialists, Greens and Communists.

Macron also saw key lieutenants and cabinet ministers defeated, including Christophe Castaner, the former head of Macron’s party in parliament, and Richard Ferrand, a force behind Macron’s centrist movement and the former head of the French parliament.

Also losing their seats were Health Minister Brigitte Bourguignon, Sea Minister Justine Benin and Ecology Minister Amelie de Montchalin. Macron's newly appointed prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, narrowly won reelection with 52% of the vote, weakening her position.

Macron's allies tried to cast the result as a victory.

“It’s a disappointing first place, but it’s a first place,” said Olivia Gregoire, a government spokeswoman, on French television.

She said the government would work with “moderates” to “move things forward.”

Bruno Le Maire, the economy minister, called the results a “democratic shock” because of the success of National Rally and reflected the “big worries” of French voters.

The election also was marked by low turnout with less than 50% of the electorate casting ballots.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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