PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron lost his absolute majority in Parliament by a wide margin on Sunday, in a political blow that will complicate his leadership at a time when Europe faces profound challenges prompted by the war in Ukraine.
The outcome of the vote, one of the worst results for an incumbent French president in recent history, could slow down and hinder Macron’s ability to implement the platform he was reelected on in April. Although French presidents wield more power over foreign policy and other areas than their counterparts in many other European countries, he still relies on the lower house of Parliament for many of his most important projects.
On front pages and in editorials, French newspapers characterized the result as “an earthquake” and “a slap in the face” for Macron, who may now face a “stillborn five-year term.” Addressing the country with a stern face, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said the results create an “unprecedented situation” that carries “a risk for our country.”
Budget Minister Gabriel Attal acknowledged that the outcome was “far from what we hoped for.” There was no immediate comment from Macron, who could still regain control over Parliament if he can convince another party or individual members to support his centrist alliance, and Borne on Sunday appealed for such a “compromise” to “build a majority of action.”
But some Macron allies worry that Borne, who was only named prime minister a month ago and has a largely technocratic background, may not be prepared to confront the president’s newly emboldened far-left and far-right opponents.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s National Rally won 89 seats, in a strong showing that exceeded expectations. Her party won over 10 times more seats in Parliament than it did five years ago, when eight of its candidates were elected. “This group will be by far the largest in our political history,” Le Pen said Sunday night, celebrating the result.
The political left, which is composed of the Greens, the Socialists, the Communists and the party of far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, will become Macron’s primary opponent in Parliament, with up to 133 seats, but performed somewhat below expectations.
Mélenchon nevertheless appeared victorious Sunday night, suggesting that the result would allow his left-wing bloc to push for more decisive action on combating climate change or poverty, and to obstruct Macron’s agenda. “We beat him,” Mélenchon said. “France has spoken but, it must be said, with an insufficient voice because the level of abstention is still way too high.”
About 54 percent of voters did not vote in the election on Sunday, after decades of falling turnout in the country and increasingly widespread frustration with the state of French democracy.
After his reelection in April, Macron promised to unite the country and address the frustrations that are behind the low turnout. He made gestures to leftist voters whom he had disappointed during his first term, during which he shifted to the right on various issues. “I have no interest in doing five more years,” he said in April, before his reelection. “I want them to be five years of complete renewal.”
His critics on the left, however, say that the promised renewal has not been anywhere in sight. When Macron reshuffled his government in May, he kept many of his old ministers in the government. And as other parties rushed out onto the campaign trail after the presidential election, Macron remained largely absent.
“His strategy failed,” said Pierre Mathiot, the director of Sciences Po Lille, a political studies institute in France, adding that the most serious impact in the long run may be the unexpected far-right surge.
Early warning signs that the strategy could backfire emerged last weekend, when Macron’s alliance and his left-wing challengers finished neck-and-neck in the first round of the parliamentary elections. It was the worst parliamentary election result for an incumbent president in more than half a century.
As the possibility of a hung Parliament became increasingly realistic, Macron doubled down on his criticism of Mélenchon and appealed to voters to allow him to pursue his agenda. “Nothing would be worse than adding French disorder to the world’s disorder,” he said last week.
Despite his bloc’s weak performance in the first round, Macron spent much of the past week outside France, traveling to Romania to visit French troops on the eastern NATO flank, then heading to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. His Ukraine trip briefly put the war back into the political spotlight in France, but polls suggest that other issues such as the rising cost of living, the impact of climate change and health care were more important to voters.
During the presidential election in April, those issues largely played into the hands of the far right and helped Le Pen win 41 percent of the vote, a record result for her party. But parliamentary seats are not distributed proportionately in France. Instead, the legislative election system is designed to result in a runoff vote between the two top candidates in their respective constituencies, barring the rare event of a clear victory in the first round.
In practice, this favors bigger alliances such as Macron’s bloc or Mélenchon’s left-wing alliance over smaller or more isolated parties like Le Pen’s National Rally. Le Pen had refused to form an alliance with her far-right competitor, Éric Zemmour, whose party failed to qualify any of its candidates for the second round.
Mélenchon’s success at forming a broad left-wing alliance stunned some observers and reflected a desire among many voters in France for more representation in Parliament, even if it requires concessions. Yet the rise of the leftist bloc could now force Macron to shift further to the right.
One of the options for Macron could be a coalition with the center-right Republicans party and its allies, who won 64 seats. However, the Republicans leader on Sunday night appeared to rule out such a coalition, saying that his party “will remain in the opposition.”
Another alternative for Macron could be to build ad hoc alliances for each proposed bill. “This culture of compromise is one we will have to adopt,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Sunday night. “We must do so around clear values, ideas and political projects for France.”
But compromises across ideological lines are rare in the French Parliament, said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice, and especially for Macron, “who is not a man of compromise.”