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09 May 2022

A Changing EU

In the end France did not experience a destructive Brexit or Trump moment in the final round of the French presidential election. Incumbent Emmanuel Macron scored 58.5 per cent of the vote, according to official figures, while his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen won 41.5 per cent. This is one of the greatest margins of any French presidential election in the 64 years of the Fifth Republic. Only Le Pen’s father did worse in 2002 and she herself scored worse in 2017.

However, room for celebration for Macron and his supporters is limited. With parliamentary elections now approaching fast, the strongest threat to Macron’s presidency may in fact come from the far left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s supporters may have voted for Macron to defeat Le Pen, or abstain, but they will be determined to perform strongly in the run for the premiership. This could have serious implications for Macron’s presidency and for the future political course of France.

Voter turnout, estimated at 72 per cent, was the lowest for a French presidential runoff in half a century and was down 2.5 percentage points from 2017. Turnout decreased in the second round and voters cast a record number of blank or spoiled ballots in protest at the choice of candidates. More people abstained (over 13.6 million) than voted for Le Pen (roughly 13.3 million). Disillusion and voter apathy could be critical for the June parliamentary elections and determine the future course and effectiveness of the second chapter of Macron’s presidency.

Macron, who passed the biggest test of his political career, knows France is at a crossroads. The direction his country takes after the June elections will greatly influence what kind of Europe will emerge over the next five years.

Macron became the first French leader to win re-election for 20 years. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine monopolizing the public debate in France over the last month, Macron’s race to re-election, while precarious, nevertheless seemed unstoppable. The president stood out from his rivals as the only candidate with foreign affairs experience to lead the country through the current crisis.

Yet going into the parliamentary election, important issues for voters are still the price of fuel and people’s purchasing power. Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age to 65 has caused push back among potential supporters. Aversion to social reform among his own ranks, combined with a confident and savvy campaign by the far left, may mean trouble for him getting a clear majority – crippling his efforts to push through reforms in his second term.

The collapse of the two mainstream parties that shared power until 2017 suggests that a completely new political landscape in France will follow the June legislative elections. The big question is which party will present the main opposition to Macron. The Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains are shadows of their former selves. The candidates of the historical parties of power have been obliterated.

Valérie Pécresse’s Les Républicains gained just 4.8 per cent and Anne Hidalgo’s Parti Socialiste polled 1.8 per cent. Yannick Jadot of the Greens reached 4.6 per cent. These three parties all failed to reach the 5% threshold needed to receive a grant to cover their campaign expenditure. This will affect their spending for the parliamentary campaigns in June.

Parliamentary elections in France take place on 12 and 19 June, with Macron’s La République en Marche (LaREM) and its allies needing to reach a total of 289 MPs in the 577-seat lower house for a ruling majority. Without a majority, a French president’s room for manoeuvre is significantly reduced and may lead to what the French call a “cohabitation” — when the president represents one party while the prime minister and government come from another.

The French electorate has split in three ways: between liberal internationalists, represented by Macron; Le Pen and Eric Zemmour’s far-right nationalists; and Mélenchon’s left-wing radicals. These three factions together polled about 80 per cent of the vote in the first round of presidential voting.

After his election in 2017, Macron did not govern as a centrist. Rather, he moved sharply to the center right throughout his term on law and order, immigration and Islam. He has pursued a neo liberal economic agenda and is seen by many as having catered to affluent voters. He is also labelled by opposition parties as the President of the Rich.

Macron is commonly viewed as aloof and arrogant. People outside France tend to underestimate the depth of his unpopularity. Le Pen and Mélenchon are now going head-to-head over who owns the anti-Macron, anti–global capitalism agenda for the June elections, and present themselves as potential prime minister of France.

In quick order, Mélenchon – who heads the far-left France Insoumise Party (LFI) has convinced the Communist and Socialist parties to join a bloc he had already formed with the Greens. This “New Popular Social and Ecological Union” has a chance of winning a large bloc of seats on 12 and 19 June. This is a serious coalition which will hope to deny Macron another parliamentary majority. Polling data suggests that Mélenchon, who has found himself overtaking Macron in terms of popularity, will be competitive, but likely fail to become prime minister. But the received wisdom is there is a small chance for him to deny Macron a majority.

Macron’s party has changed its name on 5 May 2022 from La République en Marche to Renaissance as it prepares for the parliamentary elections. The renamed party promptly announced a new electoral alliance with the former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe — founder of the center-right Horizons party — and François Bayrou’s centrist MoDem party. Turnout in French parliamentary elections is typically low — 48.7 per cent in the first round in 2017 or 29 points below that year’s presidential election. If this pattern is repeated, it should favor Macron and his Renaissance coalition. But the strong momentum on the left may well entice more voters to the ballot box this time.

Much attention will also be on Le Pen’s National Rally, which will face competition in the parliamentary election with Zemmour, who received seven per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. The hard right usually fares badly in parliamentary elections as mainstream parties tend to unite to block them out of office. In 2017, the National Rally only got eight seats out of 577, though Le Pen got 33 per cent of the vote in the presidential election that year.

French voters usually vote the same way in presidential and parliamentary elections, so that the elected president and his government can carry out the campaign promises. But in the current political climate in France that may be difficult. For France’s left, the parliamentary election offers an opportunity for revenge and relevance. These are precarious political times in French politics and make forecasts at this stage difficult.

Macron’s victory in the French presidential election has come at a cost, stretching to the limits the legitimacy of France’s Fifth Republic when the only alternatives to the incumbent’s neo liberal Europeanism are the extreme right and the radical left.

By Professor John Ryan, a Network Research Fellow at CESifo, Munich, Germany.

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