Skip to content Skip to footer

France Just Showed the Secret to Beating the Far Right — a United Left

France’s centrists had to ally with a powerful left coalition to halt the far right’s fiercest challenge yet.

People wave the anti-fascist and French flags during an election night event following initial results in the second round of France's legislative election at Republique Square in Paris, France, on July 7, 2024.

The overwhelming mood in France, following Sunday’s election, was one of relief. In the Place de la République in Paris, a crowd of New Popular Front or Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) voters — young, clutching Palestinians flags — cheered in delight at the unexpected news. The newspaper Le Monde compared the atmosphere in poor and immigrant districts of Paris to the “thrill of victory in a World Cup final.” Pundits, opinion-formers and business leaders had all predicted a victory for the far right National Rally or Rassemblement National (RN). The assumption of such a triumph was universal — until the people spoke.

In the French parliamentary political system, the prime minister forms a government. To stay in power, it must maintain a majority in the National Assembly. For six months, polls forecasted that the RN would win the election, securing the most votes and most seats. As it happened, the National Rally failed to even come in second, leaving the election with just 143 seats out of 577 in France’s National Assembly, far short of the support it needs to govern.

The main two blocs in the National Assembly after the election will be the left-wing New Popular Front alliance with 182 seats and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Ensemble alliance, which won 163 seats.

The left coalition won after its constituent parties agreed to ally against the threat of an RN victory. The Socialists, Communists, Greens and France Unbowed signed on to a joint program including recognition of Palestine, control of food prices and bold environmental policies. The New Popular Front has grown during the election campaign — with new members joining its constituent parties, and vast crowds attending anti-RN rallies. France Unbowed, the furthest left party in the alliance, ran with the strategy that the people least likely to vote (the young and members of racialized minorities) were also potentially left-wing voters. Volunteers leafleted the high-rise apartments in which many Black and Arab voters and other working-class people live. Trade union federations set up regional election campaigning networks. Footballers Lilian Thuram and Kylian Mbappe let it be known that they supported the campaign against Le Pen. Turnout in the election was the highest in 40 years, and the NFP won a landslide victory among voters aged under 24.

All of that said, the fact remains that the RN secured more votes than the NFP — 10.6 million votes, compared to the latter’s 9.0 million. It also secured far more votes than Macron’s supporters (6.7 million), although the latter won more seats than them. As recently as 10 years ago, the National Rally had just seats in the Assembly; today, vast efforts are needed to keep it out of power.

The sharp contrast between votes and legislative seats is because of France’s two-round election system. In the first round, any candidate who receives an absolute majority of valid votes and a vote total greater than 25 percent of the registered electorate is elected. If no one crosses this threshold, the most successful candidates — the top two, as well as any other candidates who secured more than 12.5 percent of the registered electorate — make it through to a second contest, in which the final winner is elected.

Between the two rounds of the elections, the NFP argued that all candidates who placed third or fourth should automatically withdraw, to leave voters with a single choice — for or against the RN. Almost every third-place candidate from the left, and many from the center, heeded this call, with 224 candidates withdrawing in total. In effect, the left and some centrist candidates engineered a situation in which people could vote tactically against the RN.

This tactic has been controversial on the left. Critics argue that by supporting “lesser evils” in the elections, the temporary alliance of the center and the left boosted the center more than it helped the left. Yet the tactic helped secure some astonishing victories. These include the defeat of Marie-Caroline Le Pen (sister of the RN leader Marine Le Pen) by a France Unbowed candidate in Sarthe, an area which traditionally elects the center-right, and the election of Jeune Garde Antifasciste leader Raphaël Arnault in Avignon, a city which voted RN in 2022 and 2024.

The RN, previously called the Front National, was founded by the neo-Nazi group New Order in 1972 to moderate the image of the far right. Its first leader was Jean-Marie Le Pen, a supporter of white French settlers in Algeria and their campaign against Algerian independence. For years, men who had been active in right-wing politics since the 1940s and were nostalgic for the pro-Hitler Vichy regime held leading positions within the party.

As soon as the RN became a significant force in electoral politics, an informal “republican front” took shape, under which parties agreed to cooperate to halt the far right’s growth. The collective memory of that alliance helps to explain yesterday’s anti-RN vote.

Marine Le Pen has gone further than her father in expanding the RN’s reach. She has at times pitched her party as a social cause, calling multinationals greedy and globalizationsavage.” These rhetorical moves — combined with her party’s belated support for increases to the minimum wage — enabled her to win in regions such as France’s north, a deindustrialized former coal-mining region. She has presented herself as the champion of all the various currents of the French right, including anti-LGBT Catholics.

Yet, for all she has done to better market her party, at its core, the RN is united around its core policy of punishing France’s racial minorities. In polling for the 2024 election, 54 percent of RN voters described themselves as racist. During the election, dozens of racist attacks took place. A bus driver in Paris was attacked by a man shouting, “I’m tired of people like you,” using a derogatory term to describe Arab and Black people — “I vote National Rally, I’ll kill you, I’ll massacre you.” A journalist for the public broadcaster France 5, Karim Rissouli, read out a letter sent to his home: “The fundamental reason for the RN vote is that the historic people of France are sick and tired of Bicots,” the letter read, using a racist term for people of North African descent. “Native Frenchmen will never accept you and your brothers.”

Although the far right lost the election, its support in large parts of France is unmistakable. Various center-right voices which have previously been against the RN called for its victory, including the Le Figaro newspaper, and Vincent Bolloré, the billionaire cigarette manufacturer who bankrolls CNews, France’s equivalent to Fox. The diaspora affairs minister in Israel’s far right government, Amichai Chikli, said, “It would be excellent for Marine Le Pen to be the president.” A great deal of harm was done by some pro-Israel campaigners in France, who claimed that the RN party — despite the many Holocaust deniers and other racists in its ranks — represented less of a threat to France’s Jews than the pro-Palestinian left.

What will happen after the election remains uncertain. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Unbowed, insists that the New Popular Front has earned the right to govern. If they have to do so as a minority government, they will use the prime minister’s powers to make legislation without parliamentary approval — a power which has been used repeatedly by Macron’s ministers since 2022.

The National Rally appears to be setting its sights on the 2027 presidential elections as its next opportunity for power.

The 100 or so Assembly members who are outside of the three blocs are unlikely to go over as a group to any one of the main three parties, especially as they are themselves on a spectrum from far left to far right.

It may well be that the center tries to reassert itself by splitting the left, but this will be difficult. Elected in 2007, the leader of the center, President Macron, promised to be a modernizer in office. But he has governed from the right, raising the pension age and supporting police violence and the racist smearing of Muslims. He has drawn up harsh anti-immigrant laws, modeled on RN proposals, making it seem as if the far right has won the argument. His party lost around 80 seats in yesterday’s elections. Since then, his prime minister has openly defied Macron, treating him as a liability. In truth, it is hard to see any of the three blocks turning this election result into any solid foundation for power.

Yet, difficult as it will be for France to produce a stable government, the immediate reaction is one of hope. Never in European history has a far right party won a free election contest against a united left. That was true in the 1930s and remains true today.

Countdown is on: We have 10 days to raise $50,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.