It wasn’t the victory that Jean-Luc Mélenchon had hoped for—but when the first projections came through at 8pm last night, his supporters had good reason to celebrate. Emmanuel Macron, re-elected president in April, lost his control of parliament, with his 246 seats leaving him over forty short of a majority in the 577-member National Assembly. At an enthusiastic results-night rally Mélenchon called this a ‘total rout’ for the president’s party—preparing the way for further challenges to his authority across his second term.
Mélenchon had entered these elections as leader of the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES), a new coalition uniting his France Insoumise with Socialists, Greens, Communists, and others. Last night it became the main opposition force, with 141 seats. France Insoumise took 72 of these—a gain of 55, and as many as all centre-left to left-wing parties combined had won in the last such contest five years ago. Its standout winners include Rachel Kéké, a hotel maid who led a 22-month strike by underpaid cleaners, who will now sit as an MP.
However, the enthusiasm at NUPES gains and Macron’s setbacks also had a certain bittersweet taste. The first reason was the rise of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN), which took some 89 seats in the 577-member National Assembly—easily the most it has ever achieved, but also far above polling projections. Also grim was the mere 46 percent turnout, a figure slightly up on the second round in 2017, but which still confounded NUPES’s ambitions of inspiring usual non-voters.
This result is, however far better than what could have been expected even a few months ago. Recent years have seen a sharp and generalised right-wing turn in French public life, with the mainstreaming of harsh identitarian talking points, ‘liberal’ government ministers increasingly willing to demonise ‘Islamo-leftism’, and mounting police authoritarianism to confront protests against unpopular reforms. In this climate, France Insoumise’s success has been to build a large and politically radical oppositional bloc, also by imposing its leadership and transformative ecosocialist program on the broad-left alliance NUPES.
With Macron losing his majority, the Left has a remarkable opportunity to disrupt his plans to roll back the welfare state—and instead use his second term to put its own alternative on the agenda.
Since a calendar change in 2002, parliamentary elections have been held five to seven weeks after the elections to the presidency, on each occasion giving the winner a majority to implement his mandate. This April, Macron became the first incumbent in two decades to secure re-election, and surely expected these elections to produce a similar outcome. Yet even his victory two months ago showed signs of his weakness: he had rallied under 28 percent support in the first round, and his runoff win owed more to rejection of Le Pen than to real popular endorsement of his record. Last night’s results only confirmed this.
Upon his first election in 2017, Macron claimed to unite ‘both left and right’ and several ex-leaders of the neoliberalised Socialists rallied to his side. Yet, after a first term in which he moved sharply to the right, such soft-left pro-Macron forces are no longer a factor in electoral politics. Still less, Mélenchon insisted last night, could Macron hope to find any support from NUPES: ‘there can be no overcoming of the division with us: we don’t come from the same world, we don’t have the same objectives, we don’t have the same values, we don’t believe in the same future.’
In this context, the president could try to lean on Les Républicains (LR), the conservative party from whose ranks he has drawn several key lieutenants such as interior minister Gérald Darmanin and 2017-2020 prime minister Édouard Philippe. Yet LR leader Christian Jacob last night announced that its 64 MPs would remain in opposition. This historic centre-right party faces severe competition from Le Pen’s RN and seems unlikely to tie its fate too closely to an ailing second-term president who will not be able to stand again in 2027.
Planned reforms such as raising the retirement age to 65 will now be far harder for Macron to implement, even assuming that his own group of MPs is relatively homogenous and pliant and that LR has a broadly similar economic-policy agenda. This vulnerability, allied to wider pressures such as inflation and the fallout of the war in Ukraine, will surely also help trade union mobilisations to stop the president in his tracks, reviving the social movements of the pre-pandemic years.
Both rounds of these elections saw a series of Macronites reviled by the Left lose their seats. These included education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, a sharp critic of creeping ‘Islamo-leftism’, and former interior minister Christophe Castaner, whom Mélenchon last night labelled an ‘éborgneur’—someone who blinds people—in reference to the many eyes lost by Yellow Vests protestors at the hands of his police. Mélenchon supporters were also delighted by the defeat of ecology minister Amélie de Montchalin—much on TV screens in recent weeks calling for a ‘republican front’ against the ‘extreme left’.
This term has historically been used to refer to the unity of the mainstream against the far right, but any such cordon sanitaire now seems to have been shattered, with liberal and Gaullist forces now just as hostile to the Left. Ipsos estimated that in runoffs which set NUPES head-to-head with Le Pen’s RN, 72 percent of Macronite voters abstained, 16 percent backed the left, and 12 the far right; in these same contests, the supporters of the conservative Les Républicains split 30-12 in favor of the RN, with 58 percent abstaining.
Bourgeois France has for decades mostly rejected the party of Le Pen and her father. But with the ‘social’ and anti-EU element of its program considerably watered down in recent years, the far right has become more palatable to a wider array right-wing voters looking for an alternative to the fading Républicains. Having made it to 206 runoffs, RN emerged victorious in almost half of these; in the wealthy, heavily Catholic southeastern region Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur, it won half of all seats.
In the presidential elections in April, Mélenchon had demanded of his supporters that there should ‘not be a single vote for Le Pen’ in the second round. This line was much condemned by Macron supporters two months ago, who demanded unequivocal support for the president. In these elections, it was taken up by most France Insoumise candidates but so, too, by many Macronites. With only six exceptions, all of the Macronite candidates defeated in the first round refused to back NUPES against RN in the runoff.
Future of the Left
After the NUPES results-night rally, Mélenchon headed down into the street to speak to the hundreds of mostly young people who had gathered outside. In an emotional speech, he referred to stepping back from his central role; he will not, as hoped, become prime minister, and he also did not stand again to be an MP. In the run-up to the presidential election in April he had suggested that it would be his last such campaign, but after the result several key allies implied that another run in 2027 was still on the cards.
So, what next for the Left? NUPES was built off the back of Mélenchon’s 22 percent score in the presidential election, with the Green, Socialist, and Communist candidates also standing on the bulk of his program and with the explicit aim of making him prime minister. Yet each the Greens and the Socialists also won enough MPs to have their own official parliamentary groups, and the Communists may be able to cobble one together with smaller forces; these are parties with a long record of conflict, especially in local government, where France Insoumise can make no similar claim to hegemony.
There are, nonetheless, good reasons for unity. NUPES’s first-round vote was actually slightly lower than the centre-left and left-wing parties had achieved in 2017 when they were divided, but the pact did allow them to make far more runoffs, and elect more MPs. France Insoumise figures such as Manon Aubry have long insisted that the decisive question is political programme rather than adding together party names for its own sake. In the new parliament, the task will be to hold the NUPES parties in some sort of common front, as the main opposition to Macron.
Yet there are also other issues for France Insoumise to resolve. While it has greatly developed its programme, building a ‘Popular Union parliament’ of activists and experts to flesh out an impressive policy agenda, it remains a top-heavy structure lacking strong territorial roots, mimicking the structures of a political system it seeks to replace. The French electoral calendar is focused on the presidency, and the vote for NUPES in these elections (5.8 million in the first round, 6.5 million in the second) was considerably lower than Mélenchon’s seven million in April. With the large majority of young and poorer voters abstaining, a Left that promotes an agenda of social transformation clearly has to find other ways to mobilise them.
Yet there is good reason to expect further volatility, and further political polarisation. Last night, it was reported that Macron’s allies are contemplating dissolving parliament one year from now, in a bid to secure a majority through a re-run election. But the forces that produced such a strong Left, and such a strong far right, in last night’s results, will not be easily put back in their box. Again we saw a massive disillusionment with the incumbent government, as well as with the political process itself. For the Left, the task is to turn such discontent into enduring organisation.