European vote puts Macron in pole for 2022...

... but his future is far from rosy

29 May 2019
By Simon Heffer

On the evening of Sunday May 26, the spokesman for President Macron said his LREM party had, in the European elections, registered “un score honorable”.

The choice of adjective was interesting; if you are France’s governing party, perhaps it is “honourable” after two years in office to get just 22.5% of the vote, with 77.5% of those who voted repudiating the government.

It is true – the democratic world over – that electorates punish incumbency in mid-term, when they can do so without actually throwing them out of office.

However, France’s political tensions have been exacerbated rather than resolved by these elections; and if what one might call the “legacy” parties of France’s political landscape are to recover between now and the presidential elections in 2022, it is clear that some serious thinking will have to be done.

It was ironic that Jean-Luc Mélenchon should have observed that the French left, if it is to have any impact in the future, needed to heal its divisions: because its divisions were not least caused by him, in his desire to pursue ideological socialist purity.

Even if the total votes of La France Insoumise and the Parti Socialiste are combined, they still represent only about 13% of the turnout.

The real problem for France’s left is that many who used to vote for them have transferred allegiance to the Rassemblement National (RN), the rebranded Front National.

One of the cunning moves by Marine Le Pen since her indifferent performance in the second round of the 2017 presidential election is to reposition her party as one of the economic left while remaining one of the social right.

However strong the appeal of nationalism might be, the appeal to the wallet will always trump it.

The conservative right had a disastrous election: Les Républicains were humiliated, and Laurent Wauquiez, their often cocky leader, found he had less than nothing to be cocky about.

He took over a party that had blown its chance of power in 2017 because of the scandal over its then leader, François Fillon, making improper payments to his wife.

Even in the face of the growing unpopularity of LREM, Wauquiez has failed either to rebuild his party’s base or to develop any personal aura of authority.

Les Républicains are in an infinitely worse state than they were in 2017; the left have deteriorated even further from their appalling showing at the time.

The parties, or political traditions, that dominated French politics throughout the lifetime of the Fifth Republic, appear to be if not dead, then in intensive care.

Given what happened in 2017, President Macron has less cause for despair than the bald statistics of the European vote might indicate.

Even if Marine Le Pen were to beat him in the first round in 2022, it is hard at this juncture to see any other party – even the resurgent Greens – coming second instead of him.

And with the various socialists, ecologists, centrists and even old-fashioned rightists highly unlikely to support the RN, President Macron, however unpopular he may be personally, and however much trouble the gilets jaunes continue to cause for him, must be favourite to win the next presidential election.

That raises questions about the French electoral system.

If it comes to pass again that a man who inspires so little of the electorate wins another election because of the readiness with which all his opponents support him against his main rival, the arguments about the permanent disfranchisement of the nationalist right will start to become toxic.

To an extent they have already manifested themselves in the frustration of that section of the gilets jaunes who are not simply anarchists and vandals.

It speaks much about the polarisation of French society: and no responsible French government can allow this to continue without increasing the excuses for extra-parliamentary action, and progressively paralysing the French economy.

But the other question that the results raise is France’s commitment to the European project.

President Macron ought already to be aware that his vision for a more integrated and closely-united Europe is not only not shared by his principal ally in the bloc, Angela Merkel, but is also repudiated by a substantial chunk of his own electorate.

On top of that he can survey the rest of Europe and see the rise of populist parties at the expense of centrist ones like his own.

It may be that, assuming he survives until 2022, he will be elected for five more years: but what sort of government can he run, if so much of his country are at best unenthusiastic, or at worst hostile to the point of orchestrating violence against him?

The French government’s reaction to LREM’s performance was rapid: noting the third place of the Greens, and the Green movement’s performance across the bloc, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was swift to say that the issues that concern the eco-warriors could to an extent be embraced by the government.

We shall see how far that goes: the profoundly anti-capitalist programme of the French Greens would have a devastating effect on unemployment and on France’s international competitiveness.

The Macron regime’s main priority over the next three years ought to be to avoid making any more enemies; given how certain it will feel that the President can, despite his unpopularity, be re-elected, that is improbable.

It will be hard for the President and his friends not to allow complacency to take even deeper root than it already has; but if they can’t see the dangers of retaining power from such a position, regiments of disaffected voters might soon tell them.

 

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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