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French politics: President Macron is in office but he is not in power

Simon Heffer gives his unfiltered view on the miserable term Mr Macron now faces

“His unconcealed ambition to be one of France’s great presidents is in ruins” Pic: 360b / Shutterstock

President Macron, victorious in the fight for the Elysée just weeks earlier, has come out of the legislative elections without a majority in the Assemblée nationale.

He is reported to be dumbfounded, which, if true, shows just how arrogant and inexperienced in statecraft he is.

He remains president of course and Elisabeth Borne, whose offer of resignation he declined, remains prime minister although many believe she is on borrowed time.

Read more: French election fallout: Macron refuses to accept PM’s resignation

Read more: Easy-look graphic: how seats in France’s new parliament are divided

Necessary reforms - forget it

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of whom there was wild talk before the election of becoming prime minister, will not succeed her, barring an astonishing cross-party decision by the president’s opponents to make him suffer even more than he is already.

Parts of the French media describe the country as ingouvernable; an exaggeration, but only just. 

What it would be more accurate to say is that for the foreseeable future Mr Macron will get through the legislature such lowest common denominator measures as everyone agrees are essential to keep France going.

But radical and very necessary reforms, such as raising the pensionable age in an era of greater longevity and austerity? 

Forget it. 

Marine Le Pen is now run-of-the-mill

He may even dissolve the assembly and have new elections, though given how awful these ones were for him he should think twice before doing anything that gets him, from his point of view, an even worse result.

The biggest shock was the success of the Rassemblement National, which won 89 seats – 11 times as many as in the last assembly.

It seems it is safe to vote for Marine Le Pen when there is no chance she will end up as head of state. 

In fact, she now leads the largest single party after Mr Macron’s Renaissance [formerly LREM] party (part of the Ensemble! coalition). 

The RN is ahead of Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, part of a large leftist coalition [Nupes] which is already showing the potential to fall apart.

But Ms Le Pen did not do so well simply because it was ‘safe’ to vote for her. 

She has succeeded in detoxifying her brand, renaming her party and dropping its overtly racist policies, and by thinking very carefully before saying anything.

Given her programme, the use by Anglophone commentators of the label ‘Far Right’ to describe the RN and its manifesto seemed inaccurate and anachronistic.

Her Holocaust-denying father (who spent his 94th birthday congratulating her) certainly was Far Right. She is more a Poujadiste, or run-of-the-mill populist.

French could not face voting for anyone

Mr Macron has no heir apparent in Renaissance. 

If Ms Le Pen runs for president in 2027 she would be a formidable opponent, unless she takes the Macroniste route of political self-destruction before then.

Something is chronically and seriously wrong with French public life. 

The turnout in the second round of voting was even lower than in the first, at a pitiful 46% – although that was 3% up on 2017. 

There is a war raging at the other end of Europe that could drag France in at any time if NATO becomes involved. 

And France has just endured its portion of the global pandemic, which has undermined its economy as it has every other country in Europe. 

Yet a majority of French adults could not face voting.

Consensual politics is over

Even if M. Macron’s Ensemble! coalition had won more than the 289 seats needed for a bare majority, it would have had a weak mandate. 

Now it has none.

The main interest of non-centrist parties such as La France Insoumise and the RN seems to rest in the fact that those who run them have never governed and, at the moment, have no prospect of governing.

They have become a protest vote for an electorate whose main inclination is to protest. 

The once-great Républicains, inheritors of the tradition of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, now have only two-thirds the numbers in the Assemblée nationale as the RN.

Consensual politics appears to have been deemed to get France nowhere, and is over. 

Macron’s legacy dream fading

It must have sickened Mr Macron to be photographed, in the days after his humiliation, with the leaders of the other parties, having to meet with the likes of Ms Le Pen and Mr Mélenchon to find a way for the country of which he is president to run smoothly.

His unconcealed ambition to be one of France’s great presidents – a de Gaulle de nos jours – is in ruins.

Even with fresh elections, he faces a miserable five years of horse-trading, sucking up to people he detests just to keep France afloat.

His greater ambition, to be the natural leader of an EU rudderless since the departure of Angela Merkel and with Germany run by the unimpressive and stumbling Olaf Scholz, now also looks absurd.

Mr Macron is now just another of that growing band of Western leaders – along with Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scholz himself – who may be in office, but is not in power.

Sixth Republic or a return to monarchy-style leadership

One subject highly likely to raise its almost certainly ugly head during this unhappy period of cohabitation is the prospect of wholesale constitutional reform that leads to the creation of a Sixth Republic, long advocated by Mr Mélenchon.

Anyone with a historical sense of France can see parallels with the division and chaos of the mid-1950s that led first of all to the emergence of Pierre Poujade and his popular front, but then to the recall in 1958 of Charles de Gaulle from Colombey-les-deux-Eglises to find a way to make France governable.

His answer to that question, the Fifth Republic, appears no longer viable: the common purpose of Les Trente Glorieuses is over.

Perhaps returning to a head of state who is a monarchical figure, above politics, is the answer.

It might be a position that for the rest of his rule would suit Mr Macron, who seems to fancy himself as a latter-day Bourbon. 

He certainly has the attitude to go with it.

He could then let the politicians fight it all out among themselves.

Related articles

France did not vote for political ‘ratatouille’: opposition to Macron

‘We must learn to govern differently’: Key points of Macron’s TV talk

Enjoy your victory, Mr Macron, but you and France face tough times

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