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French elections could lead to Game of Thrones-style power struggle

France is on the verge of entering an unprecedented, potentially disastrous period of political instability, with no major party or coalition likely to win enough seats in the crunch legislative elections to effectively govern the country.

Although Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) is poised to win the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, the first time the far right has done so in post-war France, it is set to fall short of the 289 seats required for an outright majority, with left wing alliance the New Popular Front (NFP) and Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition forming two other large political blocs.

This could lead to a power struggle akin to Game of Thrones, according to Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar at the University of Toulouse, as politicians scramble to make pacts.

“Where will the [traditional] right wing stand? With Macron? Or not? Who will be willing to drop the other to gain power?” she said.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron leave the voting booth before voting for the second round of the legislative elections in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, northern France, Sunday July 7 2024. Voting has begun in mainland France on Sunday in pivotal runoff elections that could hand a historic victory to Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally and its inward-looking, anti-immigrant vision ??? or produce a hung parliament and political deadlock. (Mohammed Badra, Pool via AP)
Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, leave a voting booth in northern France (Mohammed Badra/AP)

If the RN is improbably able to win outright or to cobble together support from the traditional French right party The Republicans (LR), it could form a “cohabitation” government for only the fourth time in history, said Ms Alouane, forcing Mr Macron to name Ms Le Pen’s 28-year-old protégé Jordan Bardella as Prime Minister.

But this would be the first example of cohabitation involving an extremist party – in the past it was between traditional political forces on the right and left, most recently between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin in 1997, which ushered in a period of complete political blockage where no policy could be successfully passed.

More likely is a hung parliament, in part down to the success of the “Republican Front”, which saw mass tactical withdrawals of candidates by the left and Mr Macron’s centrist coalition to avoid splitting the vote against the far-right.

However, this would likely also lead to a situation of tense political gridlock with no obvious solution.

France’s domestic agenda “will be run into the ground”, said Mujtaba Rahman, who leads analysis for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

“There will be two highly-fragmented, large blocks that detest each other, with Macron’s centrist party in the middle,” Mr Rahman said.

Meanwhile, the political crisis in France, which under Mr Macron has been notably pro-EU and active in the Ukraine conflict, could send shockwaves through Europe.

“This could go on forever until the end of Macron’s term [in 2027],” said Ms Alouane. “We are in a context of exceptional political turmoil.”

Under the French political system, the National Assembly can only be dissolved once per year, and so this impasse, which would prevent action on pressing issues such as the country’s spiralling deficit, would continue until at least 2025, unless Mr Macron resigns, triggering a new presidential election. But he has pledged to not do so.

Less likely yet within the realms of possibility is the prospect of a so-called “National Unity” or “rainbow” government, drawing from the moderate left, moderate right and centre, to form a working majority. Or perhaps even a temporary technocratic government, similar to how Mario Draghi led Italy between 2021 and 2022.

“I just can’t see it happening,” said Philippe Marlière, a professor of French and European politics at University College London. “Even the left has struggled to band together, with infighting. There’s too much division.”

For Mr Macron, the decision to call snap elections after suffering a humiliating defeat to the far-right in the European elections, has spectacularly backfired and has almost certainly brought his political career to an end.

“Macron has been entirely rejected by the electorate,” said Mr Rahman. “He has been completely delegitimised. Macronism is over, his mandate is over now.”

Looking ahead, even if the far-right has, for now, been prevented from taking power in Europe’s second largest economy, there is no reason to suggest their momentum won’t sweep them to power when elections are due in 2027 – if not before.

“France is in a time of instability, volatility and lots of popular anger,” said Professor Marlière. “Le Pen’s eyes are on the 2027 election.”

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