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Is France facing a summer of political chaos and unrest?

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
Is France facing a summer of political chaos and unrest?
A demonstrator holds a flare during a rally against far-right after the announcement of the results of the first round of parliamentary elections, at Place de la Republique in Paris on June 30, 2024. (Photo by Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

All eyes were supposed to be on Paris this summer as the French capital lays on the sporting extravaganza of the Olympics - but will attention instead be fixed on the chaotic political situation and possible unrest on the streets?

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One of French president Emmanuel Macron's stated aims in calling a snap parliamentary election - three years earlier than scheduled - was to provide some political clarity.

To say that this failed would be a considerable understatement.

While the electorate did issue a firm rejection of the far-right Rassemblement National, the parliament is now hopelessly divided with no party even close to a majority and the country entering a period of political chaos and uncertainty unsurpassed since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

As the political wrangling continues, there are calls for French people to take to the streets over what is seen as a "denial of democracy".

So what happens now? 

Current government 

For the moment, France does still have a government in place. President Emmanuel Macron remains in post - as he was always going to since in France the president is elected separately to the parliament.

Prime minister Gabriel Attal offered his resignation to Macron the day after the elections but Macron asked him to stay on until a new government could be created. So he remains in post, and all the ministers remain in post - and therefore could take decisions in case of emergency.

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This is, however, only a temporary solution and a new government will need to be created sooner or later.

The new government 

Forming a new government, however, is likely to be very complicated indeed, due to the fact that no party or group won an overall majority at the elections and in fact the parliament is now split into three mutually detesting groups - the far-right, the centrists and the left alliance.

Graphic showing the make-up of the French parliament after the 2024 legislative elections. Graphic: AFP

In order to create a government, either the centre or the left will need to find new allies to take them up to the magic number of 289 - the number of seats required for a majority. At present the left alliance has 193 seats and the centrists 164, so either of them would need to find a significant number of new allies.

Adding to the complication is that many of these groups loathe each other, and France has no tradition of coalition governments so this is uncharted waters for everybody.

Negotiations may be lengthy.

The role of Macron 

In France a prime minister is not directly elected, it is the president who appoints the prime minister - if the president's party has a majority then this is essentially a personal choice for the president.

If the president's party doesn't have a majority, then the largest group can nominate a prime minister, although it still reliant on the president accepting their candidate.

Technically Macron can appoint anyone he likes as PM - but the prime minister can be deposed if a majority of MPs in parliament support a no-confidence vote (motion de censure). There is therefore little point in Macron picking someone who will immediately be voted out by MPs.

Unrest on the streets

But not everyone is content to wait while negotiations continue behind the scenes - especially the voters of the left who feel that any attempt to install a non-leftist PM would be a denial of democracy since they did, after all, finish the election as the largest group.

Adrien Quatennens, formerly an MP for the far left La France Insoumise until he was forced to stand down after a conviction for domestic assault, called for a "march on Matignon" - the residence of the prime minister.

This is not the official position of the party, however, LFI leader Manuel Bompard told LCI radio: "What Adrien Quatennens is saying, and I agree with him, is that the President gives the impression that he is looking for every way to ignore the results of the elections . .  Yes, there must be the conditions for a popular mobilisation to say: 'No, Mr President, you must respect the results of the legislative elections'."

However, he added: "If it reassures you, La France Insoumise is not calling for a march on Matignon".

The far-right have slammed Quatennens' call as "a Washington Capitol moment" - referring to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol building by supporters of defeated president Donald Trump.

However a prolonged period of political deadlock could lead to street protests or demos in the weeks to come - albeit more likely to be formally organised marches.

But doesn't France usually shut down over the summer?

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It's true that the political world usually takes a break over the summer with parliament in recess and politicians retreating to the seaside or the country for a little downtime.

Parliamentary rules mean that parliament must sit for at least 15 days after being recalled - or up until August 2nd - but it's not clear whether or not that session will be extended.

It's possible that a deal could be agreed to install a caretaker prime minister over the summer, and then make a final decision on groups and a PM when parliament restarts in September.

This would have the added bonus of providing some political stability over the summer as Paris hosts the Olympics.

Paris' socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is in favour of this option, saying that she wants the Attal government to remain to "manage day-to-day business" during the Games.

As for interior minister Gérald Darmanin, he "did a very good job on the Games", she told France Inter.

Will all this affect the Olympics?

On a practical level probably not, the election took place just three weeks before the start of the Olympics, by which time planning for the event was largely complete.

The government doesn't get directly involved in organising the Games - that is done by the Paris organising committee, the International Olympic Committee and Paris city hall - although ministers have been involved in issues like security and policing for the event.

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Government-level decisions such as legal dispensation to allow face-recognition software were taken long in advance and now the day-to-day organisation of each event is in the hands of the organisers.

The Prime Minister was never scheduled to play an official role in the Games, representing France will be Anne Hidalgo as mayor of host city Paris - and president Emmanuel Macron.

The political chaos is, however, likely to steal focus from the Games and is certainly not the image that France was hoping to project to the world.

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