INTERVIEW - No clear winner in French elections: AUC professor Olivier Schouteden

Mohamed Badereldin, Wednesday 10 Jul 2024

Following the surprising results of the French snap polls, Olivier Schouteden, an assistant professor of history at the American University in Cairo (AUC) specializing in European colonial history and its relation to the modern world, spoke to Ahram Online about the election outcomes and the unexpected victory of the leftist National Front.

A general view shows empty seats at France s National Assembly in Paris. AFP


After a far-right victory in the European Parliament elections, the snap polls were expected to hand another win to the far right, dealing a decisive blow to Macron’s centrists and leftists in France.

However, the results showed the leftists winning the election, despite not securing enough seats to form a government alone. Macron’s centrists followed, with the far right trailing behind them. 

Ahram Online: What does the left's victory mean for politics in France? Is it a triumph for Macronism and centrism, or is it a critique of Macron's appeal to "reasonable" centrist voters?

Olivier Schouteden: The left's victory looks more like a respite made possible by a temporary (and at times precarious) alliance between Macron’s party and the left than the triumph of progressive politics in France.

Cracks in the alliance system have appeared from the start of the election campaign, although with some exceptions, it held together and allowed for the left to come out first (the new NFP with about 184 seats) and for Macron’s party to land in second position (over 160, allies included).

This was a shocking turn of events that caught everyone by surprise and belied the latest estimates, which had announced the far right as the future dominant political force in the country (a week ago, there was talk of the RN and allies possibly taking 289 seats or more, that is obtaining the majority of the seats), but which ended up with only 143 seats (with allies).

This primarily signifies a political and popular will to block the rise of the far right and the possibility of a far-right government. However, this is hardly a triumph for anyone, especially not Macron’s candidates, who mostly owe their success to their alliance with the NFP.

What we have now that electoral alliances are over is a reconfiguration of the parliament, with three dominant forces that can each pull their weight, potentially stultifying political debate and compromises, but possibly leading to powerful coalitions that could (temporarily) form to defend a project.

Moreover, the left-wing alliance (which previously held 131 seats) has been reinforced by the election and will be in a better position to pressure the government into giving authority positions to some of its members.

AO: How does this election result impact the future of French politics?

OS: This election could be a turning point on several levels. First off, despite a surprising turn of events, the far right has sent an unprecedented number of representatives to the parliament.

There are 577 seats in the French parliament: without their LR (right) allies, the RN has sent 125 representatives to this legislative body in the latest election, for 89 only two years ago and … only eight in 2017!

The far right, in other words, is a growing political force now well-established at the heart of the French democratic system (and not any more in its margins).

Second, political participation has reached about 67 percent (for 46 percent two years later), something France has not seen since the 1997 elections. This could be the sign of a more active democracy and growing militantism over the years to come and maybe a growing polarization of the French electorate as well.

Third, and in contradistinction to the previous point, new coalitions could shape up at the parliament, bringing together left, centre, and maybe part of the moderate right, against a block of far-right and right allies, setting the stage for a new political life in the country.

Is it a far cry from the conflicts that have pitted the left, the presidential party, and the far right over the last few years, or maybe something akin to a republican front (mimicking the alliance that emerged before the second round of the elections) versus a far-right front? This looks unlikely, given the animosity between the left side of the political spectrum (LFI) and Macron’s party.

Fourth, we can expect the government to go through some major changes very soon, although as of this morning (8 July), President Macron has turned down Prime Minister Gabriel Attal’s resignation.

However, it is only a matter of time before the government goes through a significant overhaul. Whom the president decides to nominate as prime minister will have massive consequences for the future of France.

AO: How did the left successfully rally against the far-right surge in Europe, particularly in light of the rightward shift seen in the previous EU parliamentary election?

OS: It was a rather strange campaign, considering that Marcon’s party initially (before the first round) played on the rhetoric of stability against two dangerous extremes, but then (following the first round) invoked republicanism and gave voting instructions to oppose the far right.

The left appeared more consistent, attempting to hastily craft a programme that could both represent its values (increased taxation of the richest 8 percent, for example) and appear reasonable.

The exhortation to not give in to xenophobia and hatred, the symbolic use of the historical “popular front” to label the new alliance between left-wing and green parties, and the related capacity to form a rather coherent group, all contributed to the left's success.

However, it seems fair to add to this list the mistakes made by the far right: quite a few RN candidates appeared very unprepared and borderline incompetent, some indefensible (a picture leaked of a candidate wearing a cap of the Luftwaffe harbouring the swastika, for example). This made it look like the normalization of the RN was not complete, but could they have achieved better results with more PR training?

AO: Which key demographic groups or regions played a crucial role in shaping the election outcome, and what factors influenced their voting decisions?

OS: Some major trends that have been visible for a while now have been re-emphasized during the latest election. For example, there is a correlation between the level of education and the vote, meaning that the more educated the electorate is, the more they tend to side with the left and reject the far right.

Moreover, it can be assumed that the amateurism of some of the RN candidates (discussed above) during this campaign certainly turned part of the electorate away from the RN.

However, there are also more recent trends to take into account. A growing number of young people now support the far right, in part because of the active role that 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, president of the RN since 2021, has played in appealing to the youth through social media (including TikTok).

As for the regions, the north, southeast, and east have massively voted for the RN candidates, sometimes sending them to the parliament in the first round (meaning they got over 50 percent of the votes and at least 25 percent of registered voters’ suffrage), while the west and southwest have overall favoured Macron’s and left-wing parties.

This was rather predictable based on the presidential elections of 2022. Large urban areas have generally and unsurprisingly voted for the president’s party and the left.

AO: What sets France apart from other European countries and the global stage, as it leans towards the left instead of aligning with the prevailing rightward shift?

OS: Two caveats to introduce here. First, France is hardly an exception to these global transformations. The growth of xenophobia, ultranationalism, and authoritarianism is indeed a global phenomenon, at work since the 1980s/1990s, found everywhere from the US to China, India, Russia, and most of Europe.

The rightward shift in the French political landscape has been rather slow but very real, with the first significant electoral dents made in the 1990s and the shocking qualification of Jean-Marie le Pen for the second round of the 2002 presidential elections.

Since the 2010s, Marine le Pen has greatly contributed to “normalizing” the far right by adopting mainstream methods and appealing to republican ideals (while still floating ideas that violate many of its basic principles), and Bardella has now taken on the mantle.

Now, the challenge for the left and moderates is to consolidate their gains and find a way to deflate the sympathy for the far right and its ideas, which have gained a wide appeal.

Second, the NPF, the alliance that brought together (most) left-wing and green politicians, is considered left and not far left, as ruled by the Conseil d’Etat, and as opposed to what the Macronists and far-right candidates attempted to argue at the beginning of the parliamentary election campaign.

So, the conditions that allowed the left in France to get the most seats in the latest election belie the narrative of a European exception, but so far the fear of seeing the right-wing rule over France has brought people together.

The new NFP (New Popular Front) owes its name to the historic alliance of the left against fascism (Popular Front) in 1936, which in a short period strung together social reforms that still shape the French political landscape today, like the paid leave.

Appealing to values of inclusiveness, solidarity, and tolerance seems to have been most effective in forging a common “republican” front against the far right, but the extent to which this will live on and constitute a stalwart barrier for years to come has yet to be determined.

AO: What potential consequences or ripple effects do you anticipate from this election result, both within the European Union and on the global stage?

OS: This is hard to foresee … as a historian, although it is hard not to think about the broader impact of these unexpected elections, I always refrain from making projections.

Regarding the European Union, it is worth mentioning that the far right won the most seats during the European parliamentary elections of 9 June, something that cannot be changed (at least anytime soon) by the left's victory in the French parliamentary elections.

AO: How do you believe the Israeli war in Gaza influenced the decision-making of the French electorate?

OS: As much as the invasion of Gaza has fueled political life in France ever since 7 October, it did not feature very heavily in this parliamentary campaign (although left-wing candidates brought it up).

I suppose it was not very present in French people’s minds as they headed to the polling stations, partly because of the shock and confusion created by Macron’s unexpected decision to dissolve the French parliament a few weeks ago.

Had campaigns been prepared ahead, Gaza might have figured more prominently in the political debates. Yet, with the victory of the NFP, it is likely that a more effective push toward the recognition of Palestine and an immediate ceasefire in Gaza – both central items of LFI’s programme – will soon occur.

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