July 2, 2021

French politics is marvellous: just when you thought that things could not be more complicated, new complications arise.

President Emmanuel Macron and the far-Right leader Marine Le Pen were the big losers in regional elections over the last two weekends. Cue premature political obituaries for both in parts of the British press, largely based on wishful thinking and the shallow expectation that French politics follow patterns seen elsewhere.

The truth is that Macron and Le Pen, though weakened, are still likely to be the biggest players in the presidential election next April — likely, but no longer certain. Macron’s allies took only 7% of the votes in the 12 regions of mainland France last Sunday, and only 34% of voters turned out. In other words, the Macronistes attracted 2.4% of the electorate. Disastrous.

And yet Macron remains the most popular late-term French president of the last two decades, with 50% approval in two recent surveys. In an Elabe poll taken after the weekend calamity, he topped voting intentions for next spring’s first round with 29-31% — his highest level for two years. How can that happen?

Local and national politics in France beat to different drums. Turnout was so low in the last two weekends partly because many voters have no interest in the country’s sprawling regions, created seven years ago, while Macronism — which was always a top-down movement — has failed to grow local roots. Provided there isn’t another serious Covid lockdown, Macron remains the somewhat shaky favourite to win a second term next April.

Le Pen, the smiling apostle of anger, hoped to capture at least one region for the first time this month, shattering the glass ceiling which has prevented the radical Right from running anything bigger than a medium-sized town in France for 77 years. The miserable turnout might have been expected to help her — not a bit of it. Voter turnout among her habitual supporters was even lower than the national average — only 30%. In two of her most important constituencies, the young and the white working class, it was even lower: 18% and 25%.

Why could the people who are, according to Le Pen, angry and suffering and ready for radical change not be bothered to vote for the angry party, the Rassemblement National (ex-Front National)? Critics within her party and the wider far-Right — and there are suddenly many — have an explanation: Le Pen, they say, has become too soft.

She has cleaned up (cosmetically at least) her father’s political business in an attempt to make herself “présidentiable”. But she has succeeded only in creating another mainstream party which fails to mobilise the disaffected and the distressed.

And yet such people are unlikely to return en masse to other traditional parties next spring. They will likely turn out in much bigger numbers in the first round of the presidential election on 10 April — enough almost certainly to put Le Pen in the two-candidate run-off, but not enough to give her a realistic chance of winning the presidency in the second.

In effect, the presidential race will be decided, as it was in 2017, in the first round. Whoever reaches the second round with Le Pen wins. That could be Macron — though the regional elections did increase the chances that he will be edged out of the second round by a candidate from the old centre-right.

Indeed, the biggest single winner last Sunday was, without a doubt, Xavier Bertrand, the president of the north-eastern region, Hauts-de-France. He was easily re-elected, trouncing the far-Right and the Left-and-greens alliance.

Bertrand, 56, had already declared in March that he would run for the Elysée in April if he won in the north. An Ipsos poll at the weekend gave him 18% support in the first round of next year’s election — just behind Macron and Le Pen on 22% each.

The later Elabe poll has him only 14%. But the gap could soon close. Two incidents during the regional campaign illustrated the precarity of Macron and Le Pen’s positions. In the north-west, Macron’s home region, five ministers were sent into battle, but his party La République En Marche did not even qualify for the second round. This left Macron with an embarrassing dilemma last Sunday in Le Touquet in the Pas de Calais, where he has a holiday flat and always votes.

He could not cast a ballot for the far-Right, quite obviously, so had to choose between the Left-green alliance and Xavier Bertrand, the man who may yet be his strongest challenger next April. Macron revealed — to his credit — that he had voted for Bertrand.

The moment that encapsulated Le Pen’s humiliation — and increased doubts about her within her own party — came when first round results were announced. At her parliamentary constituency at Hénin-Beaumont near Lille, Le Pen launched into a tirade before the televisions cameras against her own voters — or non-voters. “If you want things to change, you have to vote,” she said. “If you don’t vote, your ideas, your voices count for nothing.”

To some of her supporters, she sounded like a mainstream politician attacking the electorate for ignoring the dictates of the great and good. “I was shocked,” a senior party official told Le Figaro. “Whenever did shouting at our own people help us? She sounded just like a member of the elite saying, ‘You bunch of yokels. Wake up and vote for me.’”

Le Pen now faces a difficult party Congress next week in Perpignan. There will, I suspect, be no public splits, but instead much off-the-record moaning and a push to return to a harder line on Islamism and her abandoned pledge to leave the European Union.

In an attempt to expand her electorate into the centre-right, Le Pen ditched her support for “Frexit” in 2019 and promised, if elected, to work within the European Union and even the Euro. Meanwhile, she has made a distinction between Islam (“a great religion”) and radical Islamism — to the dismay of the many Islamophobes in her party.

Robert Ménard, the “far-Right” mayor of nearby Béziers, is a Rassemblement National fellow-traveller rather than party member, so is able to say publicly what many RN officials and supporters say privately.

“The most astonishing thing is that RN has become the object of the same public contempt as other parties, without ever having been in power,” he said recently. “People now regard the Rassemblement National as part of the political class.”

And so Le Pen faces an insoluble conundrum. Hardliners will push behind the scenes in Perpignan for a return to Euroscepticism and the barely coded racial politics of her father, Jean-Marie. Yet she knows she cannot challenge strongly in the presidential election next year if she goes down that road. This dilemma, more than any, suggests that Marine Le Pen has taken the French far-Right (in its present form) as far as she can.

She does, however, probably still have enough support among white blue-collar workers, the young and extreme nationalists to reach the two-candidate second round of the presidential elections on April 24. She is marooned in a kind of electoral twilight zone — able to assemble enough votes to reach the run-off but not enough to reach the Elysée.

Macron faces a different dilemma. Does he ignore yesterday’s results, or try to rebuild his reputation as a grey-suited revolutionary by resurrecting a few of his proposed reforms in the autumn? Does he reshuffle his government, or does he rely on the receding pandemic and a recovering economy to see him home?

First indications are that he intends to go for broke and at least commence a couple of radical reforms — including a revival of his controversial plans to reconstruct the French pensions system (abandoned last year at the start of the Covid pandemic). If he does, it will be a sign that Macron believes that his most dangerous opponent next year will not be Marine Le Pen but the man he voted for in Le Touquet last Sunday.

It has long been probable that Macron’s greatest danger next April would come from a plausible, centre-right contender who could squeeze the President out of the top two places in the first round. Luckily for Macron there have so far been no plausible centre-right contenders; or rather, there has been a host of contenders and no accepted way to choose between them. Xavier Bertrand now threatens to be that man.

Yet Bertrand’s political offer is vague, defined as: “I am Not Macron and I am Not Le Pen”. He pledges to govern partly by referenda, borrowing one of the demands of the Gilets Jaunes movement. He says he stands for “regionalism, not Parisianism” (the Gilet Jaunes again). He emphasises that he is not an “investment banker” (Macron) nor an “heiress” (Le Pen) but a small-town insurance agent from Flavy-le-Martel in Picardy who “comes from the people” and found himself swept into politics.

This positioning or pretence — “Monsieur Bertrand goes to Paris” — disguises the fact that he held ministerial positions for nine years under both Chirac and Sarkozy; that he was a member of parliament for 12 years and secretary general of the main centre-right party for two years (divorcing two wives along the way).

Bertrand, to put it simply, does not offer a new beginning. He offers a return to the something-for-everyone, do-very-little politics which allowed France to drift aimlessly through much of the 1990s and early 2000s (and again under François Hollande).

Macron, by reviving his shelved reform agenda, doubtless hopes to expose the vacuity of Xavier Bertrand. In the meantime, however, Bertrand’s immediate enemies are neither Macron nor Le Pen, but other centre-right barons, and one baronness, Valérie Pécresse, president of the greater Paris region, Île-de-France. At least four of them — including the former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier — have ambitions to be the single centre-right candidate next April.

Which of them will triumph? The main centre-right party Les Républicains is thinking of organising some kind of beauty contest, but is not sure how or what or when, with a decision due in September. In any case, Bertrand, who resigned from Les Républicians in 2017, says he will ignore any decision by the party to impose a single “traditional Right” contender — unless presumably it is himself.

In other words, there is a strong possibility that there will be two centre-right candidates (at least) in the field of a dozen or more runners in the first round of the presidential elections, That would almost guarantee that Macron and Le Pen top the poll and qualify for the second round — likely guaranteeing Macron a second term.

There are, however, several other “known unknowns”, as well as maybe some “unknown unknowns”. The pandemic has more or less evaporated in France, and the economy is recovering strongly — with 5.7% growth predicted this year. Unless those things change, Macron’s high approval ratings will persist. But they may change, with the Delta variant spreading fast, and doubling in the last week.

The French vaccination programme recovered from a slow start and now covers (with one jab at least) two-thirds of the adult population and four-fifths over 65s. All the same, a fourth wave of Covid — bringing renewed lockdowns and another shock to the economy – could ruin Macron’s chances next year — without re-floating those of Le Pen.

French politics is wonderfully complex, but complexity sometimes has dull consequences. And a President Xavier Bertrand would be a fittingly dull prospect.