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Emmanuel Macron can’t keep the Right out forever

A pyrrhic victory for the Macronistes. Credit: Getty

July 8, 2024 - 7:00am

This should have been their night. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), once at the extreme fringes of French politics, that only had two MPs as recently as 2017, seemed poised to become the largest parliamentary bloc. Parisian shops set up barricades in case of feverish anti-RN protests. The scene was set for a nationalist big bang. But instead, Le Pen’s party got an electoral whimper with around 150 seats.

The story is now about how centrist and Leftist politicians stopped them by tactically removing over 220 candidates in the constituencies where RN qualified for three-way races. Their voters mobilised en masse. In the words of the Economist, the “centre” held and the RN severely underperformed even the most pessimistic pollsters.

In effect, this proves that the most important question this campaign raised, ahead of any substantial policy debate, was fear of the RN. Fundamentally, the only question on the ballot was whether the French wanted Jordan Bardella to be their next prime minister. And a majority of voters have decided against it.

It does leave France’s parliament in a fractious state. With 33% of the vote, the UK’s Labour Party won 65% of seats. With 33% of the vote in the first round, Le Pen managed 25% of seats. A system made to provide strong parliamentary majorities is giving birth to a parliament splintered into millions of confettis Ă  la Dutch. If the French avoid having to resort to a technical government Ă  l’Italienne, in the middle of this colourful mess there might be a coalition somewhere.

Macron will have to appoint a prime minister but that prime minister will need a majority. If you remove the seats of the RN and those of Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon’s Left-wing La France Insoumise — which has sunk any possibilities of working in a coalition with their ambiguities on antisemitism — then the President is left with around 360 seats. He needs to find 289 MPs to form a coalition. On paper, the centre-right and the Macronists would be short. However, it seems as though the Macronist bloc could be added to the non-Melenchon Left (the communists, the socialists and the greens) and just get a majority.

This is not without irony. French public opinion is probably the most Right-wing it has been in the history of the Fifth Republic (in the European elections the Right, bar Macron, won 44% of the vote) and yet France could end up forming one the most Left-wing governments since 1981. It’s hardly a done deal that Macron could lure the centre-left. The socialists have committed to staying united — which is what they should do to increase their bargaining power — but that’s the only road to 289 MPs that seems feasible.

Disagreements with the Left seem considerable, including on fiscal policy, immigration or education. Macron has signalled he is ready to make some concessions by freezing a bill that would tighten unemployment benefits, but how many 180-degree turns could he swallow? Not least because after this snap election, it’s unclear how loyal the “Macronist bloc” would remain to a lame-duck boss who has nearly succeeded in making them lose their jobs over an attempted act of political suicide. Some of them are also thinking about the next presidential election and will try to dissociate themselves both from Macron and the Left.

And even with the best goodwill in the world, that fragile coalition will be put under immense pressure with the upcoming budget in the autumn. Macron has optimistically committed to rein in the deficit, currently at 5.5% of GDP, back to 3% by 2027. The stakes are considerable for a country with a debt worth 110.6% of its GDP. The European Commission has opened a procedure for excessive deficit. Rating agencies have already been tracking very closely when they have not already downgraded France.

Hard budgetary choices were going to have to be made and the parliamentary arithmetics were already so difficult that the government would likely have been censured. Add to that an even more fractious coalition, with the Left promising another €179 billion of public spending and centrists wanting to return to fiscal discipline, and we have an explosive mix.

The one thing they might be able to agree on is reworking France’s institutions. The country’s unique electoral model has so far kept Le Pen at bay, but for how much longer can it keep this up? The day the dam breaks, Le Pen could well go from an electoral famine to a political feast by grabbing both a parliamentary majority and the presidency. Especially because the RN would be the official opposition to a Frankenstein coalition having to make unpopular choices.

Within Macron’s universe, many have been making the case for a more proportional system. He has long promised a reform of France’s institutions. After his failed bet, trying to style himself as the founding father of a renewed French Republic might be his best attempt to save his legacy.


François Valentin is a political analyst and co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast.

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
13 days ago

What a mess – all caused by Macron, the megalomaniac. So you either get political chaos where nothing gets done, or a wild shift even farther to the left. Good luck with that.

T Bone
T Bone
13 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The Right/Left split in France is way different than the Anglosphere.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
13 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

The split isn’t left vs right in either country – it is the optimates vs the populares.

Martin M
Martin M
13 days ago

Reading this makes me realise how good the British system is. In Britain someone (almost) always gets a majority.

David Giles
David Giles
13 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

I’m looking forward to 5 years’ time when Labour in the UK suddenly realises again that first-past-the post is wrong, just wrong! They will also magnanimously agree, after the fact, that their majority wasn’t fair.
It is fair and they have no problem NOW accepting it’s fairness, but they will change their tune.

Sean Lothmore
Sean Lothmore
13 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

The recent elections in South Africa contradict this. After 30 years the ANC lost power with a meagre 41% of the vote and went into coalition talks which appear to have been a success. Representative democracy at work there.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
13 days ago
Reply to  Sean Lothmore

Right, South Africa is a shining beacon of democracy.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
12 days ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

It’s returning to tribalism.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
13 days ago

A leftwards swing caused not by positive choices about the policies on offer, but simply by fear of the RN and a rag-tag alliance put together on the hoof doing anything to keep them out.
If the French are fed up and want change, they’re now going to get chaos in parliament and stasis regarding the problems they want addressed.
I think this has simply set the scene for an even bigger conflagration down the road.

Rob N
Rob N
13 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

The increasing immigration will result in either a, soft or hard, coup by the newcomers or a revolt by the Natives to retake their country.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
13 days ago

Well colour me surprised that the degenerate bourgeoisie, Islamists, and communists would all collaborate together.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
13 days ago

Yes but now they’re the majority, they’re going to start fighting among themselves in no time. I give the coalition a week.

John Corcoran
John Corcoran
13 days ago

Le Pen and RN, I do not believe are worried by this latest outcome, despite left wing glee. It seems to me not a bad thing for RN to avoid the poisoned chalice of probable minority government hemmed in by a hostile President. It is inevitable they will be elected, especially after the resultant hotch potch coalition will struggle to agree on most things. Being against RN alone is not the sound basis for a coalition.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
13 days ago

Election results and polling simply show that European voters are radicalizing against the mainstream. Looking at the popular vote in the UK, you basically see the same. The underlying reason is a fundamental dissatisfaction with a system that seems very hard to change. Whether the vote shifts (far) left or right, or whether the status quo can play electoral chess and PR games to stay in power does not matter. The dissatisfaction is still there and the radicalization will continue.
Macron presented himself as something new, a safe alternative to the status quo. Since then the French have learned that this banker, and his ‘consultancy construct’ of a party, is pretty much as status quo as it gets. It is hard to really discover a consistent ideology with these centrist parties except for perpetuating the globalist system that is precisely what people are dissatisfied with. And even if radical parties get into power the system seems hard to change because it rests on a powerful network of supra-national institutions and agreements, out of reach of the voter. The discussion about trade deficits give us a glimpse of how this works. Even though this system of rating agencies, (central) banks and other financial institution should have lost credibility after 2008, it still has a massive influence over domestic politics.
Macron basically told the voters that he realizes people don’t like him but the alternative means “civil war”. The “there is no alternative” phrase is of course a classic strategy for any unpopular status quo to survive. But why is it so hard to reform? Behind it is probably a reality of class power. A powerful minority of the population know their privilege and wealth is protected by this system remaining the way it is.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
13 days ago

France’s citizens angry with the Left’s destruction of their culture thought their war was won and relaxed. They were wrong; the Left is endlessly creative in finding ways to stay in power.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
13 days ago

Macron and his ilk won big, in that nothing will change. The inevitable gridlock will see to that.
Hopefully, RN will stay focused and wind up winning in the end.

Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
12 days ago

In point of fact, he and his successors can until the RN succeeds in separating itself in the minds of the French people from Vichy, anti-Semitism, etc. The right has been putting the cart before the horse. It cannot achieve its objectives (repatriation of powers from Brussels, curbing immigration, dealing with the threat of Islamic violence, etc., etc. – many of which, I suspect, are shared by many of the French people) as long as Macron, the ECB, the European Commission and the pro/EU/pro-globalist elite in France and elsewhere are able to successfully use trigger words that embarrass the voters into doing the “right thing”.