June 20, 2022 - 8:00am

You can’t say the French don’t have a sense of humour.

Two months ago they voted to make Emmanuel Macron the first president in 20 years to win a second term. Yesterday they voted to humiliate Macron by denying him a clear, or even a near, majority in the National Assembly.

President François Mitterrand fell 14 seats short in 1988; Macron will be 44 seats short after  the second round of parliamentary elections yesterday.

Two months ago French voters rejected Marine Le Pen as President for the second time. Yesterday, they gave Le Pen’s party its biggest ever bloc of seats in parliament — at least 88. This is the largest far-Right presence in national politics in France since the fall of the Vichy regime in 1944.

More than half of all eligible French voters failed to vote yesterday. Those who did, in effect, rejected all potential governments of Left, centre or Right.

Macron’s Ensemble centrist alliance will have by far the largest number of seats but faces days — and maybe weeks — of heated negotiations before it can hope to form a secure administration.

It may fail to do so. There may be a hung parliament. There may be a prolonged, political crisis in France as the world faces multiple crises in Ukraine, in the international economy and in food supply to Africa.

It is possible that Macron will be forced to call a new election — with the outcome equally uncertain — next year.

Alternatively, the centre-Right — the only force in the new parliament which Macron can reasonably expect to help him — may demand a change of Prime Minister as the price of its  support.

If so, Elisabeth Borne, France’s second female Prime Minister, will become, after one month in office, the shortest-lived premier of the Fifth Republic (i.e. since 1958).

Why did Macron’s alliance do so badly? A month ago the polls were pointing to a comfortable majority for him in the new assembly. The logic of the Fifth Republic institutions is that a new President is given a majority in parliament. Otherwise, France slips back in time to the often-messy parliamentary regimes of the pre-war Third and post-war Fourth Republics.

Two or three things happened. Macron miscalculated disastrously and fought a non-campaign, thinking that this would somehow freeze the momentum of his presidential victory on 24 April. 

The Left and Greens formed what seemed (and ideologically was) a ramshackle alliance. They scored no more votes in the first round than they did in 2017 when they were divided into four parties.

But having one candidate in each constituency gave them a tactical advantage and momentum. They won something like 144 yesterday — far short of what they needed to impose a Left-wing PM on Macron but enough to form the biggest anti-Macron bloc in the new assembly.

Thirdly, the centre-Right and far-Right vote turned out in unexpectedly large numbers and took many seats that were expected to go to, or stay, with the centre.

More broadly, the rapid advance of inflation (though not yet so severe as in other EU countries or the UK) rekindled the small town and provincial resentment towards Macron first seen in the Giles Jaunes protests of 2018-9. 

The opinion polls said one thing. The big petrol and diesel price totems outside French filling stations — climbing back above two euros a litre in recent weeks — told another story.

Even more broadly, the vote yesterday reflects France’s shift from Left-Right politics to tripartite politics — mutually loathing blocs of Left, Right and centre. None is big enough to command a parliamentary majority. 

As Right and Left have become more radical, they no longer tolerate alliances with the Macron-dominated Consensual Centre. 

A poisonous debate which will break out from today in the centre-right Les Républicains (LR), a party which stands astride the fault-line between Consensual Centre and Radical Right.

Should the 60 plus LR deputies join a coalition to “save” the country from chaos? Or should they refuse to save Macron’s skin? The next few days and weeks will reveal a lot.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.