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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.

‘Absolute shock’ in French election – follow latest

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.

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Macron, for instance, has long been contemptuous of Jean-Luc Melenchon, 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 Melenchon, after he made inflammatory comments about Israel and Gaza, but they also need his support.

Image:
Jean-Luc Melenchon, founder of the far-left party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), speaks on Sunday night. Pic: AP

So when Melenchon now demands that his group lead, that is far from simple – his coalition partners, for instance, won’t accept Melenchon 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.

Image:
Supporters of far-left opposition party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). Pic: Reuters

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 protege, 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.

Image:
Jordan Bardella, the president of National Rally. Pic: Reuters

The question then – is if Bardella’s chance at becoming prime minister has gone, and if Melenchon 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. Although he has already said he will offer to resign on Monday if the exit poll is accurate.

If he were to stay on – 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.

Image:
Gabriel Attal, the current prime minister of France. Pic: Reuters

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 polarise 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.”

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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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