Analysis: 'Dodged a bullet.' In France, voters deny far right a win. But what now?

Strangers in Paris cafes raised joyful toasts to one another. In tight-packed crowds, people hugged and wept. A speeding bicyclist trailed a flapping French tricolor. Fireworks hissed and popped.

In Sunday’s parliamentary election, the French far right made a thunderous knock at the gates of power — but one that seemingly dwindled at the last moment into insistent tapping.

The National Rally, whose ascendancy was widely feared after it topped the field in first-round voting a week earlier, fell back to a third-place finish, as vote tallies pointed to a divided Parliament, with no bloc achieving a clear majority.

The uncertainty of what would come was not lost on the revelers in Paris, but they were for the moment thrilled that voters had staved off what had been the specter of France’s first far-right government since the dark Nazi-collaborationist days of World War II.

A newly formed coalition of leftist and environmental forces was the night’s surprise success story, deemed to have garnered the largest share of parliamentary seats, ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists. A final official tally was not expected until later Monday.

“C’est Ouf,” was the headline in Monday’s early editions of the left-leaning Liberation newspaper — crazy, in slang usage — superimposed on a photo of a gigantic gathering in the Place de la Republique, a historic central Paris square.

The political disarray comes less than three weeks before the start of the Summer Olympic Games, although visitors to Paris were unlikely to experience much in the way of disruptions beyond the obstacle course that already exists in the city center.

On election day, many among the throngs of tourists navigating the barricades and blockages were unaware of the vote, or had heard about it only in the vaguest of terms.

For the French, though, the contest was all-consuming.

Into the wee hours of Monday, long after the last late-summer evening light had left the sky, there was widespread rejoicing — but already, a dawning sense of the deadlock and instability that will almost surely follow the divided result.

“I think you can say ‘dodged a bullet,’ yes?” said Leslie Laurent, a Parisian retail manager in her 50s. She said she had supported Macron’s bloc, but was relieved that the far right had not managed a decisive triumph.

The vote’s stakes were reflected in unusually high tensions surrounding the race — and by a turnout that authorities described as the highest in decades for a parliamentary contest.

The government sent 30,000 police officers into the streets on election day, and dozens of candidates reported having been physically attacked during the run-up to the balloting.

Macron, whose term does not expire until 2027, can remain in his post, although some opponents were already calling on him to step down.

His handpicked prime minister, Gabriel Attal, announced almost immediately after the release of the first solid projections that he would turn in his resignation — although Attal left open the prospect of remaining in his post until a new government can be formed, which could be a long and difficult process.

The National Rally — a successor party to the National Front, a xenophobic grouping that for decades was relegated to France’s political fringe — had high hopes heading into the vote, expressing confidence that it could even achieve an absolute majority and form a government.

But although it fell far short of that aim, the National Rally dramatically increased its number of parliamentary seats — a state of affairs that is likely to result in considerable hand-wringing once the initial euphoria wears off.

And not everyone, of course, is rejoicing.

The National Rally made its name with deep antipathy toward immigration and scorn for the European Union, but part of its appeal springs from hard-edged dissatisfaction with the cost of living and economic inequalities within France — sentiments shared even by many who felt that voting for the party would be an affront to France’s democratic values.

Initial reaction from Macron’s camp was muted. He made no immediate personal appearance, with his office saying he would ensure that the “sovereign choice of the French people will be respected.”

After the June 30 first round of voting in which the National Rally came in first — which itself followed France’s June 9 elections for the European Parliament, in which the National Rally also performed best — centrist and leftist forces joined together, as they have in the past, to create a “Republican front.”

That military-sounding endeavor is so named because it was intended to safeguard the French republic by blocking the far-right juggernaut.

The far right responded to the initial results with defiance. Its president, Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old who had hoped to become the next prime minister, referred darkly to “dangerous electoral deals” made to stymie the National Rally’s drive.

Leaning into the party’s narrative that it champions the forgotten against a powerful elite, Bardella told supporters in Paris that these machinations had “deprived” National Rally supporters of the government they wanted.

Calling the early elections had been a huge gamble on Macron’s part, and there was mixed opinion as to whether he had won his bet. He had counted on French voters repudiating the National Rally as a governing force, even if they were willing to lend it a protest vote.

Still, the battle was a deeply damaging one — and likely to leave Macron, deprived of a parliamentary plurality, a diminished figure in global affairs, including causes such as championing Ukraine and fighting climate change.

During the campaign, Macron described the far left as being as dangerous as the far right — a dynamic of enmity that will make it difficult for his centrists to secure even temporary tactical alliances with leftists.

At least at this juncture, none of the main blocs appeared willing to work with one another, and the successful leftist grouping in particular could be prone to infighting.

Marine Le Pen, the National Rally leader who did not contest this election but is expected to run for president in 2027, suggested in a post-vote television interview that it had taken the combined efforts of the left and center to keep her party down.

In the night’s setbacks, she told France’s TF1, she saw “the ferments that are those of tomorrow’s victory.”

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