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Election analysis: Is there really a ‘far right voter surge’ in France?

One of the big news stories to come out of France's parliamentary elections was the unexpected success of Marine Le Pen's far-right party - so what happened and what does it mean for the next five years?

Election analysis: Is there really a 'far right voter surge' in France?
French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech after the first results of the parliamentary elections in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, on June 19. Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP

What were the results?

In Sunday’s parliamentary elections Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party won 89 seats. 

The biggest group in the parliament is president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance Ensemble with 245 seats (44 seats short of an outright majority), followed by the leftist alliance Nupes with 131 and then Le Pen’s party.

But since Ensemble and Nupes are coalitions of several parties, Rassemblement National can claim to be the largest single party (not in partnership) in the parliament.

So is there really a far-right surge in France?

Not only was the RN win big, it was also unexpected, since pollsters had predicted a third position for the party, but with a much smaller number of seats (most polls predicted between 20 and 40 seats).

The party’s 89 seats also represent a massive increase from the eight seats that it held previously.

But while the increase in seats is clearly significant, it may not represent a ‘voter surge’.

In total, 17.3 percent of the population voted RN on Sunday, compared to eight percent in the second round of the 2017 elections. First round voting also showed a similar pattern – 13.2 percent in 2017 and 18.6 percent in 2022. 

But while the party’s vote share doubled, their number of seats increased tenfold – with a major effect being the collapse of the ‘front républicain‘ (see below). 

The vote totals are also well below those seen in presidential elections, albeit that different voting systems make direct comparison difficult.

In the 2017 presidential election Marine Le Pen finished second with 33 percent of the vote in the second round. In the April 2022 parliamentary election she again finished second to Emmanuel Macron, this time with 41 percent of the vote. 

So what does the seat increase mean? 

The biggest immediate impact of RN’s success is on the party’s finances, since political parties receive funding from the State based on their representation in parliament. Le Pen’s party has been in major financial difficulties for some years, unable to pay back huge loans secured from Russian and Hungarian banks to finance to 2017 and 2022 presidential campaigns, so the extra cash will undoubtedly be welcome.

Politically, there will also be an impact.

Le Pen has already said that she will demand the chair of the powerful finance commission, which traditionally goes to the largest opposition party, although she bases her claim on being the largest single party of opposition, since Nupes (on 131 seats) is an alliance of four parties. 

Commanding a large block of seats in parliament will undoubtedly make the far-right party more of a force in national politics than previously, although the party is extremely unlikely to be approached by Macron’s team in their search for allies to build a working majority over the next five years. 

What is the Front républicain?

One of the most striking things about Sunday’s result was the collapse in many areas of the ‘republican front’ against the far right.

In all elections apart from European ones, France votes in two rounds: candidates with the highest scores in the first round go through to round two, so French voters go to the polls for a second time to decide between the second round candidates.

The tradition of the Front républicain dictates that if a far-right candidate makes it through to the second round, voters from across the political spectrum vote for whichever candidate is standing against the far-right, even if they are not a supporter of that candidate.

The ‘hold your nose and vote’ method benefited Macron in both the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections, when many voters who were not his supporters cast their votes for him in the second round in order to avoid the possibility of a President Le Pen. This also benefited Jacques Chirac in 2022 when he found himself in the second round against Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie.  

This time, though, it appears to have collapsed in many areas, with defeated candidates from both Ensemble and Nupes declining to call for voters to back their opponents against Le Pen.

This lack of a ‘blocking’ vote is a major contributor to the way RN was able to convert vote share into seats in parliament – converting 17 percent of the vote into 89 seats, compared to converting eight percent of the vote into eight seats in 2017.   

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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