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The New French Politics

The French parliamentary election delivered a shock result, depriving President Emmanuel Macron of his absolute majority, and yielding an unprecedented number of seats to the far right. But whether the country is heading for an era of compromise or of gridlock remains to be seen.

PARIS – There is an old saying in French politics that people vote with their hearts in the first round of an election, and with their heads in the second. This dictum no longer holds. In this year’s national election, French citizens voted tactically from the start, supporting the candidates from their own bloc who were most likely to win. In the first round of the presidential election in April, this dynamic advanced the candidacies of Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left and Marine Le Pen on the far right, with President Emmanuel Macron holding the center. Now, the pattern has been repeated in France’s legislative elections.

In the just-concluded second round, the biggest winner was Le Pen’s National Rally, which increased its parliamentary representation from just eight seats to 89. Never before under the Fifth Republic has the far right’s star risen so high. While the then-National Front won 35 seats in 1986, under the leadership of Le Pen’s father, that outcome could be dismissed as a one-off occurrence. By contrast, this year’s outcome underscores National Rally’s increasing entrenchment in French politics and society.

The shock result – which surprised even the party’s own leaders – can be explained by the French run-off system, wherein the two leaders in the first round face off against each other in the second. Faced with the prospect of having to pick between either the far left or the far right, centrist voters in many districts simply abstained. At the same time, many supporters of the far left or the far right chose to go with the other extreme rather than voting for a centrist. Clearly, the “republican front” that once kept the far right at bay has fallen.

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