Turnaround for the Left, Big Gains for the Far Right in French Legislative Elections

Yves here. Please welcome Jonah Birch, who came to us through a good friend of the site, Tom Ferguson. Jonah is a sociologist who most recently was an assistant professor at Marquette University and has just returned to New York City.  His areas of interest include political sociology, social movements, European politics, work and labor markets, and comparative political economy which overlap strongly with our interest in class war and power dynamics. In addition to his academic work, Jonah has written for Tribune and Jacobin. He reads French, which should help improve our coverage of European economic and political developments in what is providing to be a time of serious stress and potential upheaval…..as these French elections are showing!


Yesterday’s parliamentary elections in France (the results of which can be found here) offered a stark reminder of how quickly the political situation can change these days. Just over a month after incumbent Emmanuel Macron bested far right candidate Marine Le Pen in a run-off for the Presidency, Macron’s parliamentary supporters found themselves in a surprisingly close race with France’s new left coalition, the The New Ecologic and Social People’s Union (or NUPES by its French initials). In an election marked by low turnout, the President’s party emerged with the largest share of deputies – 234, down roughly 100 from 2017 – in the 577 seat National Assembly, but will now have to rely on the mainstream right Republicans (LR) to govern, or face the prospect of five years of gridlock.

This result marks a major defeat for Macron. 

For the left, which ended up with 141 deputies, the impressive showing marks a surprising turnaround. Formed under the impetus of the left’s presidential standard-bearer, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the NUPES brought together a broad array of forces, ranging from Mélenchon’s own France Insoumise (FI), to the Greens, the Communists, and the rump of the nearly-moribund Socialist Party. It will now serve as the primary opposition to the Macronists in the next legislature.

The left’s success is a reversal of the pattern in French politics during the past decade, when it was largely the far right that set the terms of debate. Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) emerged from Sunday’s election with the third most seats in the National Assembly, increasing their representation from 8 deputies to 89. Still, after two successive elections in which Le Pen made it to the run-off of the presidential vote against Macron, the NUPES’s ability to provide a serious alternative to Macron’s brand of economic liberalism and state repression is an impressive achievement.

During the campaign, the image of an ascendant left provoked a flurry of denunciations from the press. Polls showing the NUPES running neck-and-neck with Macron’s electoral front, Ensemble! (Together!), provoked paroxysms of fury from the media and more conservative voices. Fears of a triumphant left winning a majority in parliament have led Macron and his allies to reverse the traditional “Republican Front” against the far right. The Macronists basic message is that between the “extremes” of the NUPES and the RN there is nothing to choose (although in the aftermath of the election, Éric Dupond-Moretti, Macron’s Justice Minister, floated the prospect of an alliance with the RN).

The NUPES rise has been fueled by widespread concerns over the skyrocketing cost of living. Inflation, which passed 5% in May, the highest level since the early 1980’s, was a key concern for voters during the election campaign. The left offered several proposals for dealing with the issue: first, a set of emergency price controls on essential items. Second, a double-digit hike in France’s national minimum wage (the SMIC) to 1500 Euros a month. Third, a boost in pension benefits, public sector pay rates, and minimum welfare benefits to protect living standards.

The NUPES’s electoral program (a French version of which can be found here) also included measures like a Green New Deal-style infrastructure plan for the environment, a million new public sector jobs, a 32-hour full time workweek, a cap on executive salaries, and substantial new taxes on the wealthy. All of these proposals were met with anger and derision from the French press.

Mélenchon used his post-election address to emphasize the left’s differences with Macron and strike a defiantly radical tone.

For Macron’s part, he and his party have spent the weeks since his reelection pretending the campaign was already over. Macronist candidates repeatedly avoided public debates with their opponents in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote.

The President, who in April defeated Le Pen 59% to 41% in the second round of the presidential tally, has made it clear that his second term will focus on extending plans for restructuring the French economy, after COVID forced a brief pause in his reform offensive. 

In July of last year, Macron used a national address on France’s post pandemic recovery to call for a sweeping reform of retirement benefits. While offering few concrete details, the President’s speech signaled a possible renewal of his government’s pre-Covid battle with French unions over retirement benefits. Prior to the start of the pandemic, that conflict boiled over in late 2019, when the government’s announcement of a controversial pension reform bill sparked a wave of of strikes and demonstrations that continued into early 2020. This measure would have transformed the current pension system in three key ways: first by abolishing the employment-based occupational schemes that have traditionally been a pillar of the French retirement model, in favor of a unified public system; second, by introducing a points-based formula for determining benefit levels which would make the system less generous; and third, by imposing new restrictions on eligibility, including a hike in the retirement age from 62 to 64.

If the government goes forward with the plan, it’s sure to find itself in a showdown with the left and the unions. Polls show public opinion is opposed to raising the retirement age, and the government’s plan has garnered sharp criticism from labor. In the past, proposed measures to roll back retirement pensions have led to widespread public protest. Notably, in late 1995, a proposal to cut public sector pensions provoked a six week long strike wave that forced the conservative government of then Prime Minister Alain Juppé to retreat. Subsequent pension reforms in 2003 and 2010 also resulted in widespread public protests. A repeat of those experiences is something Macron will be keen to avoid this time around.

For the left, this situation poses both dangers and opportunities. Such a stark turnaround in the course of just five weeks raises the prospect of a progressive, anti-liberal agenda once again returning to the center of French political debates.

Correction: This piece originally stated that the last time a French president lacked a parliamentary majority was 1986. But of course that’s incorrect – it’s a situation that’s existed several times since then. – Jonah Birch

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  1. Cocomaan

    Raising retirement age, great idea. Everyone loves austerity! I wonder how this will turn out.

    Every time I think Macron can’t screw the people any more than he has, he manages to pull it off. Must be a good politician.

    Thanks Jonah. We promise not to start the Jonah Birch Society.

    1. Oh

      We need to lower the retirement age of all politicians in all countries by at least 20 years and cut their benefits by at least 75%.

  2. Zodiac Movement

    So Macron got 40% of the seats 234/577.
    50% of 577 is 289.
    289 – 234 = 55.

    Macron will easily continue to destroy France. Those 55 people will easily be found in Le Pens party, among the republicans as well as the third-way social democrats that are still out there roaming and promoting privatization and neoliberalization.

    Or have I missed something that works agains our little Jupiter?

    1. voislav

      I think that the missing piece is that Le Pen would like to force another election as soon as possible to take advantage of the deteriorating economy. She has a solid, disciplined voting base that will turn out no matter what, while left and left/center voters are becoming more and more disillusioned and are abstaining.

      For example 2012 elections, where socialist had the majority, had 57% turnout, while these election had only 47%. So Le Pen would likely stay away from broader issues that would turn elections into a single-issue quasi-referendum.

  3. ChrisRUEcon

    Welcome Jonah! And thank you!

    > …a hike in the retirement age from 62 to 64. If the government goes forward with the plan, it’s sure to find itself in a showdown with the left and the unions [ … ] pension reforms in 2003 and 2010 also resulted in widespread public protests. A repeat of those experiences is something Macron will be keen to avoid this time around.

    Do it! Do it! I double-dog-dare Macron to do it! LOL

    His government won’t last a year. He’ll be forced to dissolve and the ascendant rage will put paid to his horrid neoliberal excursion.

  4. vao

    This result marks the first time since 1986 (when the right’s victory in legislative elections led to two years of “cohabitation” between conservative PM Jacques Chirac and Socialist President François Mitterrand) the incumbent president lacks a parliamentary majority, a major defeat for Macron.

    Ahem, no. The French political system has gone through three such “cohabitations” in the past 36 years:

    March 1986 – May 1988, President (socialist) Mitterand, right-wing parliamentary majority, Prime minister Jacques Chirac.

    March 1993 – May 1995, President (socialist) Mitterand, right-wing parliamentary majority, Prime minister Édouard Balladur.

    June 1997 – May 2002, President (right-wing) Jacques Chirac, socialist parliamentary majority, Prime minister Lionel Jospin.

    1. Bugs

      Absolutely. Missed that.

      The 1986 election was also the last time the nationalist right (FN at the time) had enough deputies to form a parliamentary group, which opens funding for staff, gives more time on the floor, allows the right to call votes, etc….but the electoral system was proportional representation at the time. So this was a much more substantive advance for them. Marine Le Pen has transformed the party into a mainstream force. The taboo is nearly gone.

  5. Bugs

    Welcome Jonah.

    My takeaway here is that we’re going to experience scrambling by the neoliberal think tank class to find a replacement for Macron. He will not be able to get pension “reform” passed in this 5 year term and that was the ultimate goal for shifting French wealth to rentier hands. They’re not left nor right but are the gutting of the state by any means necessary, and they _will_ have their way.

    As for NUPES getting all those votes – very happy. Though we’re not quite back to where we were in 2011 before Hollande blew up the PSF.

    A weird fringe benefit may be that Macron has some freedom on the international stage to pull the EU back from its suicidal position wrt RU-UKR

  6. orlbucfan

    That low voter turnout is depressing. Low voter turnout has been a bugaboo/curse here in the U.S. for decades. The FRighties and neocons/libs depend on it. It’s a big reason why nothing but corrupt, backwards dung gets elected, and continues to ransack/ruin this country. Welcome, Jonah. Congratulations and Bonne Chance, NUPES!

    1. ChrisRUEcon

      > That low voter turnout is depressing.

      I feel the same way, especially given the recent Aussie elections – Australia being a country that has mandatory voting and where there was a teal (neither Labour nor Conservative) wave that help unseat the horrible Morrison regime.

      If only …

  7. David

    The political situation in France hasn’t changed since April, except in a superficial statistical sense. For the last few years, we’ve had a combination of an increasingly-unpopular President with a freak majority in Parliament, traditional parties of Left and Right in pieces, and an unfocused populist sentiment that spawned the Gilets jaunes movement, and has convinced many (including former communist voters) to support Le Pen’s Rassemblement national as the only party that takes the concerns of ordinary people seriously.

    Taking those in order, Macron is a poor campaigner and widely disliked. He eventually got some grudging respect for the French handling of the Covid crisis, but he would have lost to any competent opponent. So he had to avoid facing a competent opponent. His strategy, and the only one which could have worked, was to manoeuvre himself into the second round, faced with an opponent he was sure he could beat. His preference was Le Pen, but he would not have minded facing Mélenchon, whom he would have beaten easily as well. By weakening the Socialists and the Republicans, and by manoeuvring between Left and Right, he managed to hang onto enough of his 2017 voters to get into the second round. It’s a mark of how unpopular he was that the level of abstention was historically high, and his margin of victory over Le Pen was much smaller than it had been in 2017. As was obvious at the time (and a number of us pointed this out) his political position was not strong, and his parliamentary majority was looking extremely fragile.

    And so it turned out to be. Macron’s 2017 majority was largely due to defections of soft-left voters disgusted with the disastrous Presidency of François Hollande (the Socialists were almost wiped out). This time, enough of them re-defected to take that majority away, but they went back not to the moribund Socialists, but to LFI. Some of his 2017 electorate also went to the RN: in effect, yesterday saw a better and more organised “anyone but Macron” movement.

    Mélenchon did a decent job bringing an electoral alliance together, and his own party gained substantially, in part because he took take a leaf from Le Pen’s book, and began to talk about the economy and living standards, rather than the IdPol agenda he was best known for. But, as with the RN, people voted for LFI primarily to get Macron out. (For all his declarations, there was never the remotest chance Mélenchon would become Prime Minister). So the Left has recovered from its near-annihilation in 2017, and is a political force again, but it has a mountain to climb to even get near to the situation in 2012, when Hollande’s coalition had 331 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. As it is, the wider Left’s performance in these elections has been consistent with the 25-30% of the vote it’s been able to achieve elsewhere, and its standing in the opinion polls. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to be able to improve on that, although if it continues with a populist economic agenda, it may be able to take votes from the RN, or encourage abstentionists to vote.

    Macron is a soulless technocrat who reads spreadsheets in bed, and there’s no doubt that he would like to make the French work longer for lower pensions. But he no longer has an automatic majority for that kind of thing. (Many of Macron’s 2017 voters were well-off pensioners all in favour of reforms for others.) Given the confused make-up of the new Assembly, it’s not clear that the political will exists to batter through resistance to what is widely perceived as an unjust reform. In any case, as over the last two, years, it’s very possible that Macron will effectively lose control of the agenda anyway.

    The real victors are the RN, and it’s striking how muted the calls to “stop fascism” are today. It may just be beginning to dawn on conventional politicians that talking about things that ordinary people worry about is a way of getting votes. Who’d ever have thought it.

    1. ChrisRUEcon

      > As it is, the wider Left’s performance in these elections has been consistent with the 25-30% of the vote it’s been able to achieve elsewhere, and its standing in the opinion polls. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to be able to improve on that, although if it continues with a populist economic agenda, it may be able to take votes from the RN, or encourage abstentionists to vote.

      [Emphasis mine]

      That’s the key for me – getting people off the sidelines by convincing them that something can and will be done about their plight; which point you make in saying: talking about things that ordinary people worry about is a way of getting votes.

      Tangible. Material. Benefits.

    2. Dave n Austin

      In an election with an under 50% turnout the passionate and frightened people came out on both ends. And, yes: “Macron is a soulless technocrat who reads spreadsheets in bed”. But with the cleavage in French society, I think they may miss the soulless center when its gone.

      And in a cometative world I don’t think a 62 year-old retirement age can last forever.

    3. eg

      I suppose it’s difficult to arrange a full-throated “stop fascism” at home whilst simultaneously overlooking some unsavoury elements of Ukrainian nationalism abroad, eh?

    4. Lambert Strether

      Am I correct in my vague recollection that Macron and Melanchon’s parties mutually supported each other against the right in the first round, but in the second round, when Melanchon’s party led the right, Macron’s party stayed neutral?

      1. Bugs

        Each side independently called for “not a single vote to the extreme right” in the first round. In the second, there was some initial scrambling for a position for LREM, in the end they asked voters to not vote for the far right but there was some cacophony and the more right-leaning members were calling to only support “republican” candidates, which was a coded way of excluding LFI and RN. PM Borne, to her credit, eventually told voters directly that they should vote LFI in head to heads with RN. The whole thing was unclear until election day and I’m unimpressed. I’m not sure if I’m right but I feel like Macron’s coalition is fraying and could end up a different entity by fall.

  8. JustTheFacts

    I’m delighted by this result.

    NUPES + various Left = 131 + 22 = 153
    Ensemble = 245
    Les Républicains + various Right + Souverainistes = 61 + 10 + 1 = 62
    Rassemblement National = 89


    President Putin mentioned in a recent speech that in most democracies the electoral choices are between parties that are so similar they could be twins. It seems to me that he certainly has a point, but I’m delighted that France is providing a counterexample. Liberal democracy requires debate before consensus.

    The most interesting dynamic will be whether La France Insoumise et al. will be able to put aside its distaste and work with Le Rassemblement National. Many of their policies are similarly populist / anti-globalist-capitalism. Given that Macron’s justice minister is happy to put aside his qualms about working with the RN, NUPES would be fighting with one arm tied behind its back not to do the same.

    1. Acacia

      Putin also mentioned that certain groups of countries can no longer be considered sovereign, by which he pretty clearly meant the EU.

    2. Ignacio

      A rant:

      I have been thinking on these results, and results in other constituencies and any time I look at it what i see is that we name the Left has very little chances of winning anywhere in the neoliberal order. Why is it? Incompetence of leftist leaders? Well, given now how incompetent are the liberals everywhere I don’t think this is the most important reason.

      I might be wildly mistaken but I perceive that people perceive that the Left will always be incompetent or at least will always disappoint their putative electorates because in the neoliberal order they don’t have enough room for manoeuvre. There is little they can do to advance their supposedly progressive agendas in a world where, admittedly or not, laissez faire, laissez passer is the rule. A rule written down hard in treaties. These very same rules prevent also stark action against climate change which would require taking bold restrictions and measures. There are very few fields in which the neoliberal order is broken in favour of something. An example of this is fisheries in the EU and other regions. Fisheries was traditionally a free thing until the development brought brutal overfishing and has now turned one of the most regulated activities to the point, for instance, where EU’s control regime wants to put and turn on CCTV in fishing vessels to monitor what the hell they do with their catches (particularly to monitor compliance with the landing obligation). The EU admits, in Common Fisheries Policy, as in CAP, that free markets and competition only turns into resource depletion and policies here include subsidies where subsidies are sin, tight control and, importantly, fairness and equal opportunities that are not applied in most other economic activities. It is necessary for the survival of the industry.

      We need to understand that it is in the interest of humanity in general to put a brake or eliminate neoliberalism, free markets and competence and start thinking on fairness, equal opportunities and control of the all powerful corps if we just want to survive and this seems to be the duty of the Left that has been so widely ignored so far so they can’ win.

      TINA, must be understood, is a recipe for catastrophe. Macron and the likes of him can only take all us to catastrophic ends.

  9. voteforno6

    I have family in France…they’ve joked about becoming one-issue voters, that one issue being opposition to Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age. I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be joking about this, especially if Macron presses forward with that plan.

    I assume that Macron will turn to either LR or RN to form his government. Has there been any reporting on what price they would extract from him, for their cooperation?

    1. David

      The RN would be a non-starter : the media would have fun with comparisons of von Papen and Hitler in 1933, just for starters. The French PMC’s heads would explode, and anyway the RN wouldn’t want it. LR have firmly said that they will be in opposition, which gives them certain rights in the Assembly, and I think the general belief is they’ll be prepared to cooperate with Macron on a case-by-case basis only, and in return for some hefty rewards. Anything else would be political death anyway. Macron’s only hope is to split LR and entice some away with the promise of jobs, but by itself that’s not going to do it. Who wants to join a sinking ship?

  10. Matthew G. Saroff

    I find it profoundly interesting how the success of the left is basically ignored.

    Every story that I have read about this is about the amazing success of the Rassemblement national, and next nothing about the left being the largest party in opposition.

    It really is remarkable just how much the chattering classes hate the left.

    1. Monosynapsis

      Indeed! Mélenchon pulled of an impressive stunt with NUPES – so far the only substantial left coalition in EU to be seen. Reading the D and NL (yes , even the friggin Zeit, which is as frl left there is in MSM in D) press one would think that they are a tiny fraction, barely mentionned as ‘also running’.

      It probably won’t last, but… oh well, maybe a sign for the bitterly fragmented ‘left’ in other countries to notice.

    2. Bolivar

      While it is true that the media is largely hostile to the France Insoumise, people are not talking about its success because it was not one.

      In 2017 the current parties of the left wing NUPES coalition got 5 772 313 votes. This year they got 5 836 079. They got more seats this time, because the two-round system favors regrouping voters under one unique candidate per voting district, but in term of sheer support they have not progressed at all since 2017 and are still very far from the 10 million votes the left totaled in 2012.

      A big failure was the inability to mobilize poor and working class voters for this election despite it being a core aspect of Jean Luc Mélenchon’s campaign. He constantly tried to rally young and working class voters, but to no avail. 70% of young people did not show up (18/24) as well as 60% of blue collars. Even worst when young and working class people did show up they often favored the Rassemblement National, or split even between them and the NUPES.

      By uniting together, the left parties avoided being completely wiped out like they were 5 years ago and managed to rally their traditional troops, people who still define themselves as “left wing”. The alliance of the different shades of left was a long time dream of their militants, but it is indifferent to young and working class people who don’t define themselves as left wing or right wing anymore. Due to his alliance with the socialists and the greens, Mélenchon had to seriously tone down his fiery populist and “anti-establishment” rhetoric, and that lost him a lot of the people he had managed to bring to the voting booth or steered away from the Rassemblement National during the presidential election.

      1. Matthew G. Saroff

        So the success was about the left not turning on each other, as opposed to actually generating more votes.

        Great, Now that they have stopped shooting themselves in the foot, perhaps they should work on voter turnout.

  11. eg

    Is there a glimmer of hope that this result represents the first ebb of the long tide of neoliberalism?

    1. David

      Well, you can certainly argue that parties particularly associated with economic neoliberalism did badly, and this must mean something. Macron’s party lost half its seats, and those parties seen as other elements of the neoliberal consensus, notably the Socialists and the Republicans, did pretty badly as well. A lot of French voters, disgusted with neoliberalism and especially disliking the caricatural version of it exemplified by Macron, either stayed at home or voted for the party that seemed to them to be the best way of protesting. For many rural voters, the older and the less well-off, it was the RN or the Communists. For the more urban, often younger and better-off it was LFI. (There are some interesting technicalities in the relative success of different parts of the NUPES alliance.) The difficulty is that there’s no alternative ideology to rally around: the social consensus that extended across the spectrum in the pre-neoliberal days doesn’t exist anymore, and opposition is split between those who have assimilated Anglo-Saxon liberal individualism (as with much of LFI) and those who haven’t (like the RN and the Communists). Put simply, perhaps, neoliberalism has been damaged, but no single alternative has been strengthened.

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