France Enters a Period of Policy Uncertainty Following Polarizing Snap Elections

Equality as a societal value remains undisputed, but ideological splits on pluralism foreshadow intensifying culture wars
July 09, 2024 at 10:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • France’s centrists and leftists cut political bargains to deny the far right a majority in the national assembly. It worked, but now no group has a majority to form a government.

  • The center’s poor performance — President Macron’s party lost 100 seats — can in part be explained by the fact that France is one of the most polarized countries where we survey. It can also be explained as an anti-Macron vote: The French President has seen his approval rating drop in the last year, especially after unpopular pension reforms.

  • Looking at policy preferences broken down by political ideology provides valuable inputs to scenario planning involving a divided France.

  • French adults do not differ hugely across the left-right spectrum in their advocacy for more wage equality and protection for workers. They also roughly agree on the role of the state in the economy. But they sharply disagree on cultural pluralism.

  • Because of this, and because the election results failed to deliver a clear outcome for voters, we expect increased political uncertainty characterized by intensifying culture wars, punctuated by political unrest.

Quelle surprise

After first-round election results saw the far-right Nation Rally (RN) win 34% of the vote, a majority in the national assembly appeared within reach for Marine Le Pen and her protégé Jordan Bardella. Instead, Macron’s centrists and the leftist Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) alliance activated a political firewall known as the “cordon sanitaire,” agreeing to pull candidates from around 200 races to avoid vote-splitting and to shut out the far right. It worked. 

The cobbled-together leftist NFP coalition ultimately came out on top with 182 seats, while Macron’s centrists received 163, and the far right came in third with 143. It may prove to be a pyrrhic victory. The result is a hung parliament — no group has a majority of parliamentary seats — even as the National Rally gained 56 seats compared to 2022 and now has more seats than any other individual party. Bardella’s concession speech can be summarized as “we’re not going anywhere.” 

France’s shrinking center 

France has one of the smallest shares of adults saying that they are in the exact center (13%) of the left-right political spectrum compared with other countries where we survey on political polarization. France is also one of the most polarized countries as measured by the shares choosing an extreme political position, either furthest left (7%) or furthest right (21%). 

France is highly polarized with a small center

Shares of adults in each country were asked to place themselves on a 7-point left-right political spectrum
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Source: Morning Consult Political Intelligence. Data points represent one-month aggregates of surveys conducted May 30-June 29. Countries are sorted by the total shares of respondents claiming extreme views.

Much of the declining popularity of the political center can be laid at Macron’s feet. His gamble that the left was too fractious to unite before the elections turned out to be wrong, and his own deep unpopularity may have pushed voters to extremes in recent years. In particular, protests around his enacting of highly unpopular pension reforms in Feb. and March 2023 can be seen in sharp drops in his approval rating. 

France: Leader approval

Net approval of President Emmanuel Macron among adults
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“Net approval” is the share who approve of the indicated political leader minus the share who disapprove.
Source: Morning Consult Political Intelligence. Data points represent a 7-day simple moving average of daily surveys. Gold line represents a 30-day simple moving average.

Taking polarization into account in policy making scenarios

Even absent a far-right victory, RN now wields greater influence than ever before in the French political system. The clear signal from voters is a rebuke for Macron and a popular desire for change. Looking at where right-leaning French adults differ in their policy preferences from leftist or more centrist compatriots therefore provides a useful input into assessing policy scenarios post-election.

The French social contract holds in equality, workers’ rights, and state interventionism

Egalité is holding strong as a value across the French political spectrum. In a stark difference from the United States, French adults do not differ hugely based on political ideology in their advocacy for more wage equality and protection for workers. This explains the RN’s commitment to rolling back Macron’s unpopular reforms to the retirement age that were implemented in  2023. French adults of various political stripes also roughly agree on the role of the government in the economy when it comes to state-owned enterprises and antitrust, as well as openness to foreign investment and trade. There are some differences, but they are in the realm of 8 points at the high end, and in no case do the gaps split around the majority mark. 


The French left and right mostly agree on economic and labor issues

The share of French adults who say they are left- or right-leaning who agree with each of the following statements:
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Shares include those who “strongly” or “somewhat agree”
Morning Consult Political Intelligence

Fraternité is on the rocks 

The truly large differences between France’s left and right are reserved for issues touching on pluralism and identity politics. There is a whopping 36-point difference between right-leaning (44%) and left-leaning (80%) French adults who say that cultural diversity makes their country more interesting. Gaps of around 10 points characterize questions on diversity in corporate management, and 16 points separate left- (32%) and right-leaning (16%) French respondents on whether more immigration would be a good thing for the country. Another area of relative disagreement is on environmental protection, with a clear majority of left-leaning French adults saying it should be a priority despite tradeoffs, while support among right-wing respondents is still fairly high at 47%, but shy of a majority. 

Diversity and globalism divide French society along ideological lines

The share of French adults who say they are left- or right-leaning who agree with each of the following statements:
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Shares include those who “strongly” or “somewhat agree”
Morning Consult Political Intelligence

Absolute levels of support for the various statements also shed some light on where the National Rally’s message appealed across the political spectrum to secure the party a record-high result. In particular, our data shows low support for continued immigration among French adults regardless of their political ideology. Also, over 80% of French adults agree that immigrants should learn the language and culture of their new country. RN’s plan to tighten naturalization laws to require at least one French parent and language and cultural mastery in order to acquire citizenship thus likely held widespread appeal. 

Increased political uncertainty in uncertain times

The dust is still settling — this is the first time in decades that French elections have lacked a clear winner. For now, Macron has asked Prime Minister Gabriel Attal to remain in place as a caretaker. The left is meanwhile pushing to be allowed to try to form a government despite lacking a majority, but far-left firebrand and party leader Mélanchon is a divisive figure. Macron may attempt to appoint a technocratic government, but that could have drawbacks, not least of which is a lack of domestic political credibility: Whoever forms a government will need enough support to block a no-confidence vote which requires a simple majority.

The Paris Olympics in less than three weeks will be the government’s most immediate challenge. But whoever takes over the French premiership will have to address the issues that drove millions of voters to support the far right, including concerns over cost of living, discontent by France’s farmers, anger over pension reform, and of course, immigration policy, even as other areas show a higher degree of left-right alignment. It won’t be smooth sailing. 

A headshot photograph of Sonnet Frisbie
Sonnet Frisbie
Deputy Head of Political Intelligence

Sonnet Frisbie is the deputy head of political intelligence and leads Morning Consult’s geopolitical risk offering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining Morning Consult, Sonnet spent over a decade at the U.S. State Department specializing in issues at the intersection of economics, commerce and political risk in Iraq, Central Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. She holds an MPP from the University of Chicago.

Follow her on Twitter @sonnetfrisbie. Interested in connecting with Sonnet to discuss her analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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