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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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ENERGY

Macron: ‘Don’t panic’ over risk of power cuts in France this winter

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday called growing fears of winter electricity outages overblown, even as authorities prepare for possible targeted power cuts if consumption is not reduced and cold snaps strain the grid.

Macron: 'Don't panic' over risk of power cuts in France this winter

France’s network is under pressure as state power company EDF races to restart dozens of nuclear reactors taken down for maintenance or safety work that has proved more challenging than originally thought.

Reduced gas exports from Russia as it cuts supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions over the Ukraine war have added to worries that gas-burning power plants might have to trim production.

“Stop it — we’re a major power, we have a great energy system, and we’re going to get through this winter despite the war,” Macron told reporters ahead of an EU/Balkans summit in Tirana, Albania.

“This debate is absurd, the role of the public authorities is not to breed fear,” he added.

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Macron had already urged people “not to panic” over the weekend, saying power cuts could be avoided if overall usage this winter was reduced by 10 percent.

But last week the government told local officials to begin preparing contingency plans in case targeted cuts were needed, possibly including closing schools until midday.

France is usually one of Europe’s largest electricity exporters thanks to its network of 56 nuclear reactors, which supply around 70 percent of its electricity needs.

But this winter it will be a major importer of power from Britain, Germany, Spain and other neighbouring countries, grid operator RTE said last week.

READ ALSO Schools, hospitals and trains – how France plans to deal with blackouts this winter

RTE’s chief Xavier Piechaczyk told Franceinfo radio that the risk of power cuts could not be excluded, “but it will essentially depend on the weather.”

Normally France’s 56 nuclear reactors can produce 61 gigawatts but with around half of the fleet offline, just 43 gigawatts are expected to be available by the end-January, he said.

And while France has the capacity to import up to 15 gigawatts, winter usage can surge to 90 gigawatts at peak hours, prompting the calls for energy “restraint” such as lowering thermostats and using washing machines and other appliances at night.

“Rule number one is that nothing is inevitable… Together we have the capacity to avoid any risk of cuts, no matter how the winter turns out,” government spokesman Olivier Veran told France 2 television on Tuesday.

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