May 11, 2022

Every so often, the French like to scare themselves. They convince themselves that the political consensus of the past six decades is about to be torn apart. This year is no different.

A month ago, the opinion polls suggested that Marine Le Pen and the far-Right had an outside chance of taking power in the presidential election. Either the polls were wrong or French voters gave themselves a pleasing frisson of fear and then drew back: President Emmanuel Macron, a reformist apostle of the French-European status quo, won by 17 points. Now some suggest that the hard-Left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon — anti-EU, anti-Nato, anti-market, long-time defender of Vladimir Putin, admirer of Maximilien Robespierre — could become prime minister after the parliamentary elections on June 12 and 19.

Could he? In theory, yes. Will he?

The overwhelming probability is that French voters will do what they have always done since the present electoral system began in 1965. They will give a working majority, or at least the biggest bloc of seats in the National Assembly, to the newly elected, or re-elected, President of the Republic.

All the same, something new and strange is undeniably happening in French politics. The anti-establishment Mélenchon has surged to a position of apparent strength one month after the rise and fall of the anti-establishment Le Pen. This is not an aberration. It is a logical consequence of the redrawing of the political frontiers in France which began with the last election, in 2017.

After seven decades in which broad blocs on the Right and Left alternated in power and governed in roughly the same way, France has split into three internally quarrelsome political tribes. There is a consensual, reformist, pro-market, pro-European, pro-Nato “Centre”, dominated by Emmanuel Macron but embraced by moderate parts of the old governing parties of centre-Right and centre-Left. There is a nationalist-populist, Eurosceptic and Islamophobic Right, divided between supporters of Le Pen, her unsuccessful challenger Eric Zemmour, and the harder end of the collapsing Gaullist or centre-Right party, Les Républicains. And now, on the Left, four tribes long poisonously divided have been brought together by Mélenchon under a single radical banner to fight the parliamentary elections and — he insists — form the next government.

This alliance is called Nouvelle Union Populaire Economique et Sociale, or NUPES. It embraces Mélenchon’s hard-Left movement La France Insoumise, the Greens, the Communists and what remains of France’s other collapsing former “party of government”, the Socialists. Rather than idealism or any deep, common conviction that they can form a government next month, the cement which holds these mutually loathing groups together is financial need and cynicism. French political parties are financed by the taxpayer to the tune of about €66 million a year. Those state subsidies are doled out according to the number of votes and seats won in parliamentary elections (€1.42 a year for each vote and €37,280 for each deputy).

In the first round of the presidential election, the Socialists, in power until five years ago, won less than 2% of the vote — meaning they now face parliamentary and financial extinction. Mélenchon came third with 22% of the vote, putting him in a position to achieve something unprecedented in French political history: uniting the Left around one of its extremes rather than the moderate, market-friendly centre of, say, François Mitterrand or François Hollande.

And so to the fury of many of their big names, including ex-President Hollande, the Europhile Socialists decided last week to sign up for the radical, Eurosceptic and frankly incoherent  NUPES “left and green” alliance. The platform speaks of “disobeying” or “derogating” (i.e. temporarily withdrawing) from European Union rules on the economy. It also insists that a future NUPES government would never break national or EU law.

How can both of those things be true? They can’t. The Mélenchon programme, like that of Marine Le Pen, implies leaving or destroying the EU through disobedience: a Frexit which dare not speak its name.

Much of the rest of the programme — including returning the standard retirement age to 60 and freezing fuel and food prices — is equally incoherent. The climate-friendly Greens have signed up to freeze prices on fossil fuels; the fiercely pro-nuclear Communists have agreed to abandon nuclear energy, which provides 80% of France’s electricity. It’s hard not to conclude that both the Communists and the Greens assume that Mélenchon will never be prime minister and the programme will never be applied. Both know that an alliance with him is their only chance of retaining a few deputies in the National Assembly (the Communists) or gaining some again (the Greens). Like the Socialists, both have joined NUPES for state funding and political survival.

In theory, Mélenchon could come to power without winning the presidency. The French political system is presidential by custom and practice but the real power remains with parliament. If the Left wins 289 seats or more in the National Assembly, Mélenchon could force Macron to appoint him as head of government. The new assembly could then reject all of Macron’s other choices until he gave way. This would leave Macron with limited influence over foreign and defence policy. He could call a new election (or several new elections), but in all other respects, the real leadership of France would shift to Mélenchon, as it did to the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, from 1997-2002.

If the Left had a more moderate programme and a less divisive leader, such a “cohabitation” might be possible. In one recent poll, 56% of respondents said that they would welcome a split government of some kind. With Mélenchon as leader, however, the Left has no chance of assembling a parliamentary majority of its own. Posters have already been distributed by La France Insoumise carrying the slogan “Mélenchon Premier Ministre”. They are an effective campaign tool — for Emmanuel Macron. As the French political scientist and author Chloe Morin says: “Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the principal asset of La France Insoumise. He is also their principal handicap. He is a great orator, a matchless tactician but also a deeply divisive figure.”

In practice, this means the parliamentary election is likely to be a reverse mirror image of the presidential election last month. Macron triumphed because many, though not all, Left-wing voters supported him in round two to keep out Le Pen and the far-Right. His parliamentary allies will win many seats next month because many, though not all, Right-wing voters will support them in round two to keep out Mélenchon and the hard Left.

There are, admittedly, a number of possible complications. This is, after all, not one election but 577, with local issues and local personalities. And unlike the presidential election, more than two candidates can, in theory, fight the second round. To qualify from third place (or even a fourth), a candidate has to attract 12.5% of the local, registered vote in round one. Since the turnout is expected once again to fall below 50%, the bar for third place qualification will be around 25% of the people who bother to vote.

Five years ago, there was only one “triangular” contest. If this pattern is repeated, the avalanche of two-way contests in round two will favour Macron, as it did then.

A recent Harris Interactive poll suggested that the NUPES alliance could win just over one third of the votes in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The alliance of four or five centrist parties supporting President Macron — called Ensemble (together) — would get somewhat less. The Right would also receive around one third of the votes, but divided in each constituency between Lepennists, Zemmourists and Les Républicains, who have refused to make a nationwide alliance. In the second round, the Harris poll calculated that Macron’s allies would win well over 300 seats (the majority is 289), while the Left alliance would win fewer than 100.

This figure is probably too low. If Mélenchon is able to turn out unusually high numbers of the urban young and in the multi-racial suburbs, as he did in the presidential election, he has a slim chance of reducing Macron to a plurality of seats rather than an outright majority. It is more likely that Macron’s allies will win a comfortable majority: another scare for the consensual centre will have come to nothing.

And yet if this happens, Macron’s parliamentary majority, like his presidential victory, will have been won partly by default. He will enter his new five-year term with the whole-hearted backing of, at most, one third of the electorate.

All of which means the centre cannot afford to be complacent. In the longer term, supporters of the French and European status quo have good reason to be scared. The tripartite division of France — radical Left, moderate Centre, nationalist Right — is here to stay, and it is inherently unstable.

France is a querulous country: its instinct is to boot out incumbents at each national election. How long can the pro-European “centre” expect to survive with tactical support from its enemies, whether from the Left against the nationalist Right or from the Right against the radical Left? We will know the answer in five years’ time.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.