National Rally has come third in the second round of voting in France’s parliamentary election, according to exit polls.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right party was expected to emerge as the dominant force in French politics following President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to hold a snap poll. However, the left-wing New Popular Front coalition won the most seats in the second round of parliamentary elections, according to the polls.

An IFOP estimate for broadcaster TF1 suggested the New Popular Front (NFP) could win 180-215 seats in parliament in the second round, while an Ipsos poll for France TV projected 172-215 seats for the left-wing bloc. President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist group was said to be narrowly ahead of National Rally.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, who leads the left-wing party France Unbowed, said the projections were an “immense relief for a majority of people in our country”. If the exit polls prove accurate, France is on course for a hung parliament, divided between three sizeable groups. Unless the left can strike deals with other parties, a period of instability is possible.

The NFP, just under a month old, is a broad left-wing electoral alliance of parties. It was launched on 10 June in response to Emmanuel Macron calling the snap election. It comprises La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), the Socialist Party, Les Ecologistes, the French Communist Party, Generations, Place Publique, and several other left-leaning parties and groups. France Unbowed is the largest party in the NFP. Although the NFP has no official leader, Mr Melenchon is widely thought to be the closest person to that.

Prior to voting, opinion polls had been forecasting that National Rally would win the most seats in the National Assembly but also predicted it would fall short of an absolute majority. Voter turnout stood at 59.71% by 5pm local time, up from a corresponding figure of 38.11% in the last election in 2022, the interior ministry said. It has been a volatile campaign, with more than 50 candidates reporting being physically attacked. More than 30,000 police were deployed on voting day.

Astonishing Result Equals Chaos

This is an astonishing result, perhaps the biggest surprise in the history of French elections. Nobody saw it coming – the pollsters, the public, or the politicians.

France will not have a far-right government, but that answer, that single fact, does not cover another crucial point. The country is still cloaked in uncertainty. An election that was supposed to deliver clarity has done exactly the opposite. What lies ahead is a confused picture, dotted with political stalemate, public fury, long-standing feuds, and a mass of unanswered questions.

What’s clear is that the French parliament will be split between three factions. The biggest, but well short of an absolute majority, will be a left-wing coalition called the New Popular Front. The centrist group, coalesced behind President Emmanuel Macron, has defied all predictions to come second. And the Rassemblement National (RN), the party predicted to be the biggest by just about everyone, stumbled home in third.

There is no affection between these groups. In fact, there is widespread loathing in all directions, which makes the prospect of coalitions hard to gauge. Macron, for instance, has long been contemptuous of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the largest party in the left-wing coalition, just as Macron has disdain for Le Pen. The rest of the left-wing coalition have turned their back on Mélenchon after he made inflammatory comments about Israel and Gaza, but they also need his support. So when Mélenchon now demands that his group lead, that is far from simple – his coalition partners, for instance, won’t accept Mélenchon as prime minister. So who would get that job? Nobody knows.

All the parties of the left are united by their vehement opposition to the RN, so much so that they joined with the centrist coalition in a tactical plan to thwart the RN in as many constituencies as possible. Even to the right, there is disagreement – the centre-right Republicans seem split between those who would support the RN in a coalition, and those who would rather resign than help Marine Le Pen. It is a bear-pit of argument, marked by the most visceral, divisive anger. Macron, who called this election hastily after suffering a chastening defeat in the European elections, is disliked, widely derided as “the president for the rich”. But the coalition between left and centre does seem to have worked.

A week ago, after their clear victory in the first round of the election, there were plenty of people predicting an overall majority for the RN, with Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s 28-year-old protégé, installed as prime minister. Now, that has been dashed. France has turned against the RN. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is what Macron intended – to give the French public the vision of an RN government, and trust that they would bristle against the idea.

The question then – if Bardella’s chance at becoming prime minister has gone, and if Mélenchon is unpalatable, then who gets the job instead? And nobody knows. There is no guide to this, no mechanism to fall back upon. Gabriel Attal, an acolyte of Macron who was appointed as prime minister earlier this year, may simply carry on by dint that he has the job until it changes. But in the absence of a coalition, his power to do anything, or exert any influence, would be even lower than it was before. Which was, by the way, just about nil. It is a tumultuous time, reflected by the public interest.

The turnout for this election was the highest for decades; there was a thirst to vote – driven largely by the way in which the RN polarises opinion. Many turned out specifically to back them, but more, it seems, went to the polling stations in this second round with the express desire to stop France embracing its first far-right government since the Second World War.

Take Etienne. We meet as he emerges from a polling station in the 6th arrondissement, moments after dropping his ballot into the transparent box. He’s 31, a filmmaker, and says he’s worried about the future. “My grandfather fought against fascists, so I won’t accept the Rassemblement National,” he tells me, promising to “take to the streets” to protest if the RN takes power. “We are really fighters. I will defend multiculturalism.” Another woman, smiling and unmistakably Parisienne, breaks into a frown as I ask her about the RN, saying she is “scared” of the party, and anxious about Bardella. “If they win, I would feel miserable and frightened, because he looks like he’s very clean, but inside I don’t know who he is.”

Paris, by an overwhelming majority, has rejected the RN, but this is just another fault line created by this election. Bardella and Le Pen have huge support outside the big cities – in the nation’s rural areas, in the north-east and north-west and dotted across the whole country. Just like in other nations where populist politicians have thrived – take Hungary as an example – there is a schism between the politics of the big cities and the rest of the country. What happens next is difficult to predict. France, one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential nations, is in a state of flux.

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