As Macron fades and far right surges, French left senses an opening

CREIL, France — The collapse of support for French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance in legislative elections Sunday has ignited hope among the French left that it can recast itself as the primary competition to the rising far right in the country.

An alliance of leftist parties, the New Popular Front, came in second in the election, garnering 28 percent, behind the far-right National Rally, which won 33 percent. Macron’s centrist alliance secured only 21 percent, and is projected to lose more than half of its Assembly seats.

As France now braces for a second round of voting Sunday that could bring a far-right government into power, the New Popular Front coalition has become “the only alternative” to National Rally, far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said Sunday. But centrist critics say the leftist alliance is too divided and too extreme to be the far right’s primary opponent.

Macron’s centrist alliance suffered defeat in the first round of elections on June 30 showing the political strength of the far-right in France. (Video: Rick Noack, Anthony Faiola, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

The balance of power in the lower house of Parliament could have profound implications for France and Europe. “France is entering a new political era now and one that’s going to be very different from what came before,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.

While it’s unclear whether any alliance or party can win a majority Sunday, Parliament is likely to be composed of a large far-right faction, a sizable leftist bloc and a vastly diminished center.

In calling snap elections last month, Macron bet that the possibility of a far-right government would mobilize his supporters and reinforce his party’s mandate. But he appears to have underestimated the French left, which — despite deep divisions — was able to cobble together a broad alliance that may have cost Macron’s alliance crucial votes.


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“He no longer matters. He’s done,” said 65-year old leftist voter Mathilde Boukhelif, a resident of Creil, a working-class town north of Paris.

The leftist alliance’s candidate here, Amadou Ka, was back on the campaign trail early Monday. In the first round, he garnered 31 percent of the vote, falling behind National Rally’s candidate, who won 43 percent, but still qualifying for the runoff vote. Macron’s candidate did not qualify with only 19 percent of the vote. (To qualify for the runoff, a candidate must have been backed by at least 12.5 percent of registered voters in the first round.)

The New Popular Front consists primarily of two moderate leftist parties — the center-left Socialist party and the Green party — as well as two far-left movements: Mélenchon’s France Unbowed and the Communist Party. The alliance wants to lower the retirement age, which Macron raised last year, and vastly expand government spending on social welfare, environmental protection and health care.

But Macron’s supporters say the left’s pledges would push France into a debt crisis. Priorities differ vastly among the members of the leftist alliance, which was forged primarily over common frustration with Macron and alarm over the rise of the far right.

Ka, who is backed by the far left, thinks an ambitious program is needed to reverse the impact of Macron’s pro-business agenda on places like Creil, where government policies resulted in the underfunding of hospitals and cuts to unemployment benefits, he said. Despite such criticism, Ka hopes that he will be backed Sunday by centrist voters.

Macron, however, has at times portrayed the far left as equally dangerous as the far right, particularly targeting France Unbowed.

French President Emmanuel Macron called for a surprise early election, after far-right parties surged in the European Parliament elections on June 9. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Last month, Macron alleged that the leftist alliance includes parties that propagate antisemitism or have violated French republican values in other ways. “Things are simple,” Macron said. “We have unnatural alliances at both extremes of the political spectrum that agree on almost nothing.”

Boukhelif, the leftist voter in Creil, said it was Macron’s portrayal of the left in recent weeks that had rallied voters like her on Sunday.

Ka rejects the Macron camp’s sustained criticism as “fake news and caricatures” but worries it could hurt the left’s electoral chances. Macron and his allies must realize, he said, “that the real threat is the extreme right and not the left.”

Macron and his allies are now under pressure to back far-left candidates over the far right in the runoff races or withdraw their candidates in favor of a left-wing opponent who would have higher chances to win against National Rally. (Mélenchon said Sunday that leftist candidates would drop out of races where Macron’s candidate or another contender stood a better chance of beating National Rally.)

So far, signals from the presidential camp have been mixed. Le Havre mayor Édouard Philippe, who leads a center-right party allied with Macron, on Sunday put National Rally and France Unbowed in the same category, saying the victory of their candidates needs to be prevented.

Macron’s outgoing prime minister, Gabriel Attal, said Macron’s centrist candidates would only drop out of races where they came in third if National Rally’s remaining opponent was “another candidate — who, like us — defends the values of the republic.”

Rahman, the political analyst, said only a “handful” of candidates might be deemed too extreme by Macron’s alliance to be supported. He expects a high degree of mobilization to prevent far-right victories in individual constituencies Sunday.

But if the far right scores another big win this weekend, Macron’s allies could be blamed for their reluctance to support leftist candidates. So far, it’s primarily candidates from the left, including France Unbowed, that have renounced a second-round participation to minimize the chances of far-right victories, according to France’s Le Monde newspaper.

Bruno Rodriguez, a 61-year old resident of Creil, said he will vote for the “National Front” — National Rally’s original name, until Marine Le Pen changed it to move the party away from its antisemitic and racist roots.

But he worries that Macron might eventually throw his full backing behind the left in the second round, derailing a National Rally victory. “Macron is afraid,” he said. “Because we — the people — want real change.”

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