April 26, 2022

For a President who’d scored a decisive re-election in a country that supposedly wanted him out, out, OUT!, Emmanuel Macron’s Sunday night victory party on the Champ de Mars, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, was not just low-key; it was indistinguishable from what it would have been had he lost against Marine Le Pen.

He is the first president of the Fifth Republic to win a second term in 20 years. His 58.5% of the vote is better than anyone’s since Jacques Chirac’s 2002 triumph against Le Pen’s father (even if rising abstention means Macron’s numbers are the second-lowest since George Pompidou’s in 1969). His transparent bid to become King of Europe after Angela Merkel’s abdication has been boosted, especially since Merkel’s replacement, Olaf Scholz, has durably destroyed Germany’s reputation by denying proper help to Ukraine. (Tellingly, Scholz was the first foreign leader to congratulate Macron yesterday.) In short, his risky bet that Le Pen was his safest adversary paid off in a country where the Right-wing vote is close to a total majority.

In any other situation, Macron would have demanded a Roman triumph and ridden back to the Élysée behind four immaculate horses, his face painted with minium and his wife Brigitte in Dior whispering in his ear dire warnings about the Tarpeian Rock. Instead, he showed up an hour and a half after his victory had been announced to address a crowd of the party faithful, oscillating on the lawn to Daft Punk in front of empty bleachers. His speech was conciliatory; his manner was uncharacteristically humble; his security detail seemed to have been replaced by two dozen little kids, who turned out to be the children of party workers.

It was all over in 15 minutes and everyone left to go home at 10:30pm. There were no honking cars draped in tricolours driving up and down the Champs-Elysées all night (as for Chirac’s and Sarkozy’s wins), and no rock concert until dawn on Place de la Bastille (François Mitterrand, François Hollande). “This is positively geriatric,” one pundit joked of the youngest French president’s victory lap.

In short, Emmanuel Macron knew most of his votes came from those who saw him as the least-worst alternative in a miserable choice, and cast their ballots with clenched teeth. He wanted to erase the merest suspicion that he expected to enjoy a honeymoon.

The only question now is how the most fractious nation in the Western world will vote in June’s legislative elections. Our presidential races start with a cacophony of voices and end in binary language, zeros and ones. Our parliamentary elections are what you get when you layer a number of traditions, not all French, to reach optimal complexity, especially as old ones are rarely cancelled. Political parties that have disappeared from existence at national level for a century still explain local results and alliances today.

Usually, newly elected French presidents enjoy what is known in American politics as coattails. Their voters, called to the polls a couple of weeks later for yet another two-round process, in essence growl “yes, I meant it the last time, now get on with it”, and vote for the winner’s parliamentary candidates. Five years ago, at a polling station in the Drôme countryside constituency where my grandfather had been the local MP for decades, I saw locals walk in, ask “C’est lequel, le Macroniste?” when faced with the row of printed paper ballots on the table, and then grab that one without a look at those bearing names they’d known for years. They gave their unknown, untested, young president a huge majority of equally unknown, untested, young representatives: 359 for a total of 577 in the National Assembly. Nobody expects this to happen again.

Will Macron’s coattails be clipped, or vanish altogether? His 2017 strategy worked beautifully: five years later, mainstream, traditional parties have vanished from the landscape. Les Républicains’ candidate, Valérie Pécresse, scored 4.7%: her party is expected to fracture, with a good third of its hard-liners ready to join a slouching rough beast waiting to be born, l’Union des Droites, called for by Eric Zemmour’s Reconquête party (but not Marine Le Pen’s National Rally) and already working on fielding a maximum of candidates.

The Socialist party has been killed off by Anne Hidalgo’s 1.7% historic failure: its dregs are up for grabs, already claimed by France’s Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who superbly gave an interview last week in which he pronounced the run-off “irrelevant” and called for voters to “elect [him] Prime Minister” — meaning that if the Left managed to control a majority in the House, he and only he would be its natural leader, on the strength of his 21.9% first round score, a mere 400,000 votes below Marine Le Pen’s. He knows — he’s extremist, not stupid — that many of those come from moderate Left voters who couldn’t sit through another run-off with no representative of the Left.

The likelihood is that Emmanuel Macron will need a coalition to control the House and choose his own Prime Minister. But La République En Marche is a movement, not a party. (Macron, who had disliked the dissenting voices and messy regroupings in Hollande’s Socialist party, refused to structure local party branches, a decision he’s probably regretting now.) Facing him is his supposedly tame ally and first PM, Édouard Philippe. The former Le Havre Mayor, a former moderate Juppé Républicain, has been topping the lists of popular French personalities ever since Macron fired him mid-Covid crisis. At the time, Macron was regularly giving extended TV addresses in a high literary style; Philippe was soberly reading out facts and figures and explaining health policy, the Voice of Reason in a world gone mad.

Philippe has created an entity he calls a party, “Horizons”, populated by his Les Républicains old mates — a current ploy in centre-right politics because it gives you better political leverage and entitles you, like all political parties, to state subsidies. The word is that he is negotiating with LREM for 120 MP seats, i.e. the promise that his candidates will run unopposed in winnable constituencies. In 2017, the Centrist François Bayrou tried this with a newly elected Emmanuel Macron: he got frozen in outer darkness for five years. Macron cannot afford this today.

But all of this is up in the air. An unflappable man in his 40s, Philippe may be popular because he never re-entered the fray: if he starts acting like a politician, it’s anyone’s guess whether his lead sticks. And he would need to woo voters away from the two extremes — gambling they only vote elsewhere because there’s no-one else on offer.

The result could be a splintered house, which may turn out to be ingouvernable, a word loved over the years by Prime Ministers and Presidents who hate a democratic mess. Who knows? The French might like it. It all hangs on the coattails.