Until a few months ago, 29-year-old Mathilde Hignet spent most of her time doing the bookkeeping for her parents’ apple cider and potato farm in Brittany.
She is now one of 302 new faces in France’s 577-member National Assembly after a parliamentary election that has deprived President Emmanuel Macron of a majority and shaken the country’s political order.
“I may not know all the right political behaviour codes, but people are reassured to see that I talk like them,” said Hignet, who ran under a leftist banner in a north-western constituency where she narrowly beat the candidate from Macron’s centrist party.
In choosing such new lawmakers for parliament, French voters sent a confounding message only two months after giving Macron a second term. Amid high abstention rates, they elected historically large blocs of far-right and far-left MPs and only 245 for the president’s alliance, raising the risk of deadlock unless Macron can peel off deputies to reach the 289 votes needed to pass his agenda.
Surfing on powerful anti-Macron feelings, the opposition parties tapped into simmering discontent about the rising cost of living and exposed deep divisions between cities and rural areas and between society’s winners and losers that have often been expressed in the street — such as in the gilets jaunes protests of 2018.
The end result is a more youthful and socially diverse parliament that will be far harder for Macron to steamroll as he did for much of his first term when he had an absolute majority. It will also test France’s political class, which is not as accustomed to the parliamentary negotiations seen in other European countries, and where all the parties will have an eye on winning the presidency in 2027 when Macron is gone.
Macron purported to be a disrupter himself when he ran as “neither left nor right” to win the 2017 presidential election, accompanied by a group of deputies that included more political novices and women than ever. But the former investment banker governed in a top-down manner and his strongest support this year came from voters over the age of 70.
The make-up of the new intake underlines significant changes to the National Assembly over two decades, including a rise in the number of blue-collar workers, according to research by Cevipof-Sciences Po university.
These include Rachel Keke, a hotel cleaner who helped lead a strike against her employer, the Accor hotel group, near Paris and won better pay and conditions. The Ivory Coast-born Keke is one of 131 MPs elected for the Nupes alliance of green, Socialist and far-left forces led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
And Jorys Bovet, a 29-year old delivery driver, won one of the 89 seats clinched by Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) in a rural district in central France.
Although more than half of the lawmakers are still managers and knowledge workers, there are fewer than in 2017 when Macron swept to power. The average age in the new National Assembly is 48.5 compared with 47 in 2017 and 55 in 2007, according to the Cevipof-Sciences Po analysis, below the European average of 53.
“The RN has always put faith in young people,” said Jordan Guitton, 27, who won in the Aube constituency in eastern France for the far-right party. “It sends a signal to our voters that we are close to them and their concerns, and are always planning for the future.”
Guitton, whose family-owned a local auto repair business, is part of a generation of far-right activists who built a presence at a the local level but struggled to break through nationally — until now. He said the RN’s newfound strength in the National Assembly was a step towards getting “rid of the establishment class” and taking the party to power in 2027.
The RN’s campaign led on the ground by candidates who said they shared people’s frustrations over rising fuel prices or poor transport links in rural areas helped the Eurosceptic, anti-immigration party increase its score from only eight seats last time.
Annick Cousin, who was a receptionist at a psychiatric hospital near the south-west city of Agen, said she now wanted to relay these local concerns as a newly elected RN parliamentarian.
“My job was to receive people at the hospital who are often in great distress, so you have to take time to listen to them,” the 48-year-old said of her work. “I will listen to the people and take what they tell me to the National Assembly.”
Macron’s first test will be a package of inflation-busting measures he plans to bring to parliament this summer that are aimed at alleviating the problems of struggling households with steps such as energy bill rebates and food cheques.
However, the various opposition parties want their proposals to be included, such as scrapping taxes on petrol or raising the minimum wage. Reaching an agreement without adding too much cost to the bill might yet prove difficult.
“Macron is always whipping out the cheque book when we need structural reforms,” said Christelle d’intorni, a lawyer and first-time parliamentarian in a southern district for the conservative Les Républicains party. The centre-right won 61 seats and represent a key bloc that Macron will need to court.
But forging consensus will not be easy because it is not necessarily in the parties’ political interest to help further Macron’s agenda even when they agree with his proposals.
“In the five coming years, we will see new political personalities from the left and right emerge on the national stage just like we saw the young guard of Macron allies in 2017,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po university.
“They will want to make their mark by acting as a strong opposition, so it’s hard to see why they would want to co-operate with the government’s agenda.”
Another of the new parliamentarians, Antoine Léaument, wants to shake up tactics in the assembly in another way. A one-time communications intern with Mélenchon, the 32-year-old plans to share his daily life via YouTube to showcase the “secretive” institution’s inner workings, in the vein of social media savvy Democrat representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US.
“If I manage to be the French Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I would be very proud,” Léaument said.