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French elections leave far-right National Rally behind, but not out of the running

France’s snap election failed to deliver the roaring parliamentary majority the National Rally had hoped for. But while tactical voting by the left and center has once again forced the far-right party out of power, analysts say its gains should not be underestimated.

For the party that won the first round of voting, third place can only be a disappointment.

The National Assembly (NR) took the lead in the early parliamentary elections, just as it did three weeks earlier in the European Parliament elections.

The party’s opponents then mobilised their supporters to vote for anyone not a member of the RN in the second round, depriving the party of its chance to dominate parliament, in what was widely hailed as a triumph for France’s so-called “Republican Front”.

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But it all depends on the point of view, says Félicien Faury, a sociologist and political scientist specializing in the French far right.

“On the one hand, the Republican Front, the blocking vote, worked very effectively. On the other hand, the National Assembly won over 140 seats, which is truly historic for the party – it has never reached such a level before,” he emphasizes.

The party currently has 143 members in the National Assembly, the lower house of France’s parliament, of which 126 belong to the RN itself and 17 of these are allies from a separate bloc of the conservative Republican Party.

For comparison, in the outgoing parliament the RN had 89 deputies, which was still a record number.

Some 37 of them, including party leader Marine Le Pen, were elected in the first round, the best result of any movement.

While both the left and the centre owe their success to alliances – sometimes tense – between multiple parties, the RN is the largest party in the French parliament.

Political professionals

This not only gives the political party greater influence in parliamentary debates, but also brings tangible benefits – such as the public funding that France grants to political parties in proportion to the number of seats and votes they win.

Following the RN’s recent achievements, the party has calculated that this funding will increase from around €10 million per year to around €15 million.

Not to mention the salaries and employment budgets that each of the 126 members of the French Parliament and the 30 MEPs receive.

Faury believes the additional resources will contribute to what he calls the “professionalization” of the Supreme Court. Its deputies could gain specific experience in lawmaking, while the special advisers, assistants, researchers and other staff they hire will constitute a new generation of trained policy makers.

A young supporter of the United National Rally at an election rally in Marseille on March 3, 2024, ahead of the European Parliament elections. © AFP – CHRISTOPHE SIMON

This is especially significant given that the RN partly blamed a lack of qualified candidates for failing to secure a majority.

Party leader Jordan Bardella has referred to “casting errors” that led to the RN fielding candidates who later made clearly racist, anti-Semitic or otherwise offensive remarks.

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More political experience will make RN members more astute, Faury predicts. While they won’t abandon the discriminatory ideas that still underpin the movement’s design, he says they will at least learn to blow the dog whistle.

“When we no longer have candidates who get caught by journalists, when we only have people who can present far-right ideas in respectable terms, will we see the same effect?”

Is it no longer out of reach?

The controversies that emerged during this campaign apparently did not discourage many RN voters.

The party received just under 9.4 million votes in the first round and about 8.7 million in the second – not a big drop considering that the second round had several dozen fewer candidates who either dropped out or were elected in the first round.

“The RN, as it has done for several years now, has broken through the glass ceiling, reaching certain voters for whom it was previously inaccessible,” says Hugo Touzet, a sociologist who studies voting patterns.

For example, early analysis suggests the party performed well among professionals earning more than 3,000 euros a month, he told RFI. “RN is taking over a part of the electorate that voted for the traditional right.”

It is another step towards a scenario that RN’s opponents have long feared: that the party would one day succeed in convincing voters that it is no longer a fringe movement, but a respected part of mainstream politics.

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The opposition has been mobilized

According to Faury, that day is still a long way off.

He points out that the last elections repeated a familiar pattern: the RN performs well in the first round, then obtains a result in the second round that “brings them back to their rightful place and shows that so-called normalization is a process that is still far from complete.”

The fact that RN’s opponents managed to mobilise so many people against it, including some who otherwise would not have voted at all, is evidence that voters recognise the party’s claim to respectability, agrees Ulysse Rabaté, a political scientist and co-founder of Quidam, an association that seeks to engage young working-class people in politics.

“There was a ‘detox’ that came from above, and now there was a ‘retox’ that came from below,” he says.

People gather in Paris to protest against the National Assembly after it won the first round of the parliamentary elections on June 30, 2024. The sign reads: “Don’t leave France to the fascists.” © REUTERS – Fabrizio Bensch

Rabaté argues that the weak opposition and general disillusionment with politics have contributed to the RN’s rise in popularity. But by uniting the left and bringing the RN’s racist roots to the fore, this election goes some way to counteracting both.

He is optimistic that the new resistance trend will continue to hold the party back as France approaches the 2027 presidential election.

“What’s interesting is that ultimately the political landscape has changed and people who thought they weren’t interested in politics have decided, using the anti-racism argument, to get involved – and that will have a significant impact in the future.”

Winds of change?

Further developments also depend on whether the other parties agree on a different plan of action.

“The RN’s success cannot be attributed solely to its own victories or defeats, it is also a question of the wider climate,” Touzet says.

He suggests that the political discourse of recent months – dominated by immigration issues – has meant that the party has, in a sense, “played with a home-field advantage”.

The advantage is also geographical. Mapping the election results shows that the RN has further strengthened its position in rural areas and the heartlands of the north and south-east, while its main opponents on the left have drawn support from the cities.

According to Faury, the party is becoming a dominant force, especially in the Mediterranean region.

“The wind may change,” he says, “but in some areas it will have to blow hard.”