Marine Le Pen’s allies celebrated a major advance in the opening round of France’s elections. Emmanuel Macron’s snap election gamble was a miscalculation — but the far right’s rise is also a product of his whole presidency.

Emmanuel Macron and his wife exit a polling booth in Le Touquet, France, on June 9, 2024. (Hannah McKay / AFP via Getty Images)

Cohabitation is the situation where a French president has to deal with a prime minister and parliament from some different political side. It’s happened three times before, with a Socialist president and center-right prime minister, or vice versa. Now, it may occur again: but with nominally liberal president Emmanuel Macron standing atop a government potentially dominated by the far right.

Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) was the big winner of Sunday’s first-round votes for the National Assembly, which picked candidates for the final ballot on July 7. With 33 percent, Le Pen’s list came first in 297 of 577 constituencies, as against 159 for the left-wing Nouveau Front Populaire (28 percent) and just seventy for Macron’s Ensemble (21 percent). If a humiliating setback for the president, this doesn’t yet guarantee a majority for Le Pen. In the runoffs her opponents could bloc together. Her candidates, for their part, may expect to add on the support of mostly rather weak right-wing losers.

But early calls for second-round deals (or not) show how much Le Pen has conquered the right-wing space already. Before this election, Éric Ciotti, president of the conservative Les Républicains (LR) — heir to the main Gaullist party — allied with Le Pen. Almost all his colleagues refused. Yet last night, even the Gaullist opponents of Ciotti’s LR-RN alliance declared they wouldn’t take sides in the runoff ballots. Macron and various ministers called for a “republican front” but often more or less explicitly said this didn’t involve backing France Insoumise (the biggest left-wing force) against Le Pen.

What’s the main lesson? Macron didn’t have to call this election, and did so three weeks ago with some expectation that the far right could win, just as it had done in the June 9 European elections. The reaction to the first result also makes clear: France’s pro-business political establishment isn’t afraid of a cohabitation with Le Pen.

Mainstreaming

In this campaign, Le Pen’s top candidate, Jordan Bardella, repeatedly sought to cast the RN not as a disruptive force but as leader of a broad right-wing camp, even a force for “national unity.” The slick twenty-eight-year-old promised he could “get France back on its feet”: but an RN government would, he insisted, be a stronger defender of France’s position in the EU and NATO; it would push for more European cash but not seek a real break. His party’s policy would not be “high spending,” but target migrants who use the French state as a “benefits office,” and would prioritize French citizens for jobs. It would tackle social injustice through a “minister for fraud prevention.”

If once Le Pen claimed to be neither left nor right, this campaign adopted many bluntly right-wing positions even on budget issues, returning to her father’s more Reaganite notes. In a three-cornered TV debate, Bardella hammered the incumbent premier Gabriel Attal for a government that had “the biggest public debt in the EU” in absolute terms — a theme taken up by Le Pen in February in a column for business daily Les Echos. Bardella’s offer to working and middle-class voters was a string of tax cuts, for instance on VAT on fuel for motorists (ambitious plans to remove under-thirtys from income tax were postponed). But there was also a message to corporate France: you needn’t be afraid. Even the RN’s proposed change to pensions does not simply undo Macron’s raise in the retirement age but hardens the principle of personal contributions.

Macron’s rule has handed victory to Le Pen on a plate, and not only through the apparent tactical error of calling snap elections. For years, we have seen a president arrogantly posturing as the providential force who would teach the French how to accept nasty-tasting medicine (later pensions, higher taxes on consumption in the name of the green transition, and lower purchasing power). Even electoral setbacks like the loss of his majority in 2022 allowed no change in his program, and this has helped Le Pen pose as the champion of ignored “ordinary people” across class divides, especially outside the main cities. More than that, Macron’s bid to unite the centrist space of French politics against either “extreme” has strongly undermined any idea of a “republican front” against Le Pen. When also directed against the “far left,” it implausibly paints any consequential opposition as illegitimate.

In his offensive against the Left, Macron’s own government has ramped up an obsession with security, identity, and the threat of Muslim France that has made Le Pen’s preferred talking points the center of national debate. There is a strong convergence around the language of cultural and civilizational threat — the specter of Islamic “separatism” — even where Le Pen has reined in more frankly racist ideas like “great replacement theory.” These messages are spread not just on Bardella’s TikTok, or right-wing channels CNews and BFM, but also by government ministers who say that French people’s security is threatened by a grave “Islamo-leftist” conspiracy allegedly masterminded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and France Insoumise. In the Gaullist camp, Les Républicains’ press release ahead of the second round, justifying its failure to bloc against Le Pen, calls the main left-wing party “a threat to our civilization.”

But we should also confront another key problem: if Macron is so unpopular, then how come the far right is benefiting, not the Left? And if Le Pen often wins thanks to mass abstention, why didn’t the massive rise in turnout this time help? The moderate increase in the left-wing score (from 25.7 to 28 percent) since the first round of the 2022 contest is better than a divided left could have feared a few months ago, but is dwarfed by the RN’s parallel rise (from 18.7 to 33).

Part of the answer apparently lies in the defeat of recent social movements and the cynicism thus spread about the prospect of reversing Macron’s remodeling of French welfare and labor law. If last year’s movement against pension reforms was impressive, its real makeup (continuous strikes in the hardest-hit sectors, plus socially broader demonstrations) did not concretely demonstrate that organized labor can win. As Ugo Palheta has pointed out, Le Pen benefited both from Macron’s anti-social measure and from the defeat of the resistance.

This is related to a deeper turn in the assumptions of part of the electorate, poorly captured by ideas like “economic populism.” It explains the basis on which, beyond specific policies, the far right has built a kind of counterhegemony, which accepts many already mainstream postulates. Again a large share of blue-collar workers (51 percent of those who voted, according to last night’s Ipsos poll) supported a Le Pen candidate, but they did so together with rising numbers of the more stable middle class as well as pensioners, previously more skeptical about the party.

As political scientist Luc Rouban shows with recent poll data in his La vraie victoire du RN, the assumptions of this party’s voters are in fact becoming less strongly anti-systemic, less different from other parties, and they express rising confidence in private business in particular. What Bardella and Le Pen call for is meritocracy and the market, but not politically “biased” against French nationals and small producers. This is cast in nationalist and racialized terms: i.e., that minorities and outsiders are today advantaged by left-wing politicians and need to be shown their (subordinate) place. But it is imagined as a fight against unfair competition and elites who work against the majority. This is Bardella’s appeal to homeowners, the self-employed, and middle-class voters who fear downward social pressure — not just the “left behind.”

Domesticated Far Right?

Both Macron’s calling of the election, and various ministers’ express concern to ward off France Insoumise in the second round, suggest that this camp can cope with an RN prime minister, or perhaps an RN-backed government led by “independent” right-wingers. These are, by this point, plausible or even likely outcomes. In 2012, Le Pen scored 43 percent in the first round but lost the runoff: such emphatic alliance by non-RN voters is today harder to come by.

Many anecdotal reports suggest that growing parts of French society no longer fear an RN government. But perhaps this would not be so bad for the president’s camp either, which apparently seems more concerned to clip its wings. Some even think that bringing it into power might “expose populism” and its empty promises. But this is, at the very least, cavalier about what the RN means for minorities, how it can use government as a platform — and how France’s already out-of-control police unions might be galvanized.

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once said that her biggest political achievement was Tony Blair. Even if her Tory party had lost power, it had ceded it to a Labour leader who fundamentally accepted her free-market dogmas. Could Macron similarly boast that his recasting of the French political field has cut the Rassemblement National down to size, boxing in its radicalism and making it part of the “normal” right-wing establishment? Perhaps. Surely today’s RN vaunts its pro-business credentials and has called off social-spending plans and calls for euro exit.

But the narrative of far-right moderation so dear to admirers of Giorgia Meloni — domesticating its radicalism by offering it a path into the institutional mainstream — is over-indulgent. For the process also works the other way around, especially through the rising French and European political obsession with civilizational decline. Even in opposition, the RN forced the outgoing government to harden its immigration law, before then supporting the Macron camp’s bill. Macron allies haplessly painted the move as a necessary concession to an increasingly immigration-obsessed public opinion.

A government dominated by the Rassemblement National, or actually led by Bardella, will surely not meekly accept a subordinate condition, but will chafe against Macron’s presidency, baulking at restrictions on its own authority, in the long campaign for the 2027 presidential election. It can pick battles over birthright citizenship, policing powers, “national preference,” and the hiring of dual nationals, also in the expectation that resistance from top judges or EU authorities will feed its momentum.

Much remains to be decided. The second-round vote on July 7 may well deny Le Pen an outright majority, and her numbers could be more seriously reduced if other parties rally against her. But don’t count on it. France’s so-called center ground is making peace with the prospect of a Le Pen-dominated government.

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