France reshaped: Election emboldens Le Pen, undercuts Macron

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen adresses reporters Monday, June 20, 2022 in Henin-Beaumont, northern France. (AP Photo)

PARIS (AP) — France faced an ecstatic Marine Le Pen on Monday after her party’s far-right candidates sent shockwaves through the political establishment and helped deny President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance a majority in parliament.

The surprising breakthrough for the far right — alongside a surge in support for hard-left candidates — undercuts Macron’s leadership, threatens his plans to raise the country’s retirement age and cut taxes, and reshapes France’s political landscape.

Le Pen’s National Rally party didn’t win the two-round parliamentary election that ended Sunday. But it secured more than 10 times the seats it won five years ago.

It’s an outcome she’s long dreamed of, the result of more than a decade of grassroots work to woo disillusioned working class voters and scrub her party of its racist, antisemitic image so that it’s seen as a party like any other. One, she hopes, that could rule France one day.

It was only in April that Le Pen lost the presidential election to Macron. But now it was her turn to gloat, since she knows she can use the seats in the National Assembly to thwart Macron’s domestic agenda and even trigger a no-confidence vote.

Beaming with pride, she called the outcome a “historic victory” and a “seismic event” in French politics. Antiracism groups quickly sounded the alarm over her anti-immigration, anti-Muslim agenda.

Le Pen’s National Rally got 89 seats in the 577-member parliament, up from a previous total of eight. On the other side of the political spectrum, the leftist Nupes coalition, led by hard-liner Jean-Luc Mélenchon, won 131 seats to become the main opposition force.

Macron’s alliance Together! won 245 seats — but fell 44 seats short of a majority in the National Assembly, France’s most powerful house of parliament.

The strong support for political extremes reflects a frustration with Macron’s leadership that first erupted in 2018 with the yellow vest movement against perceived economic injustice, and has periodically resurfaced among those who see him as too pro-business, arrogant or tone-deaf to everyday concerns.

The strong performance of both Le Pen’s National Rally and Mélenchon’s coalition — composed of his hard-left France Unbowed party as well as the Socialists, Greens and Communists — will make it harder for Macron to implement the agenda he was reelected on in May, including tax cuts and raising France’s retirement age from 62 to 65.

“Macron is a minority president now,” a beaming Le Pen declared Monday in Hénin-Beaumont, her stronghold in northern France. “His retirement reform plan is buried.”

She said the National Rally will seek to chair the parliament’s powerful finance committee.

The National Rally, previously known as the National Front, has been a political force in France for decades. But the two-round voting system had until now prevented it from achieving big scores in parliamentary elections.

Political analyst Brice Teinturier, deputy director-general of Ipsos polling institute, said on France Inter radio that Sunday’s result “means that the National Rally is ‘institutionalizing’ itself.”

Le Pen lost to Macron in April with 41.5% of the votes against 58.5% — her highest-ever level of support in her three attempts to become France’s leader.

Since taking over the party in 2011, Le Pen has worked to remove the stigma attached to the National Front under the leadership of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, convicted repeatedly of racism and antisemitism. By softening some of her views and rhetoric, she sought to make the party move from a protest movement to an opposition force perceived as being able to govern. She even changed the party’s name, which critics call a ruse to gloss over its dark past.

Le Pen’s National Rally now has a sufficient number of legislators to constitute a formal group at the National Assembly and request seats in parliamentary committees, including those focusing on defense and foreign policy.

In addition, the National Rally party now has enough seats — more than 58 — to trigger a censure motion against the government that can lead to a no-confidence vote.

The new Assembly will start working next week.

Meanwhile, France is heading toward a government reshuffle. Three ministers — out of 15 who were running — have lost the election and will need to resign under rules set by Macron.

The president could also use the reshuffle to offer some jobs in the government to new potential allies.

Macron himself hasn’t commented on the election results yet.

His government will still have the ability to rule, but only by bargaining with legislators. The centrists could try to negotiate on a case-by-case basis with lawmakers from the center-left and from the conservative party, with the goal of preventing opposition lawmakers from being numerous enough to reject the proposed measures.

The government could also occasionally use a special measure provided by the French Constitution to adopt a law without a vote.

Macron’s diplomatic policies aren’t expected to be affected in an immediate future, including France’s strong support for Ukraine. In line with the French Constitution, Macron keeps substantial powers over foreign policy, European affairs and defense no matter what difficulties his alliance may face in parliament.

Teinturier, the political analyst, said the new composition of the National Assembly echoes “the desire of the French people to rebalance” the results of the presidential election.

“There was clearly the will to not give all the powers and a straight majority to Emmanuel Macron and to impose on him some constraints, some kind of placement under supervision,” he said.