Can the centre no longer hold in Macron's France?

The President's party may yet secure a parliamentary majority in June, but the long-term future isn't so promising

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, in January. AP Photo
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The re-election of French President Emmanuel Macron on April 24 may have seemed straightforward enough to anyone following events from outside the country. But that victory, with 58 per cent of the vote, was far from emphatic enough to heal divisions in a torn and troubled country.

The harsh reality that must be pondered as France approaches another election, to decide who runs parliament, is that the result concealed a hidden majority: people unimpressed by Mr Macron’s centrist presidency.

While 18.7 million people voted for him, almost 27 million did not. They were split more or less equally between those who preferred the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, and those who abstained or deposited blank or spoiled papers.

It is this notion of the president "mal elu" – elected but unconvincingly – that inspires Mr Macron's opposition to believe they can turn his second term at the Elysee Palace into a rough ride, denying him the clear parliamentary majority he needs for the smooth implementation of his policies.

Ahead of the two rounds of voting on June 12 and 19, the most likely outcome remains, as it was before the presidential election, that his party – formerly La Republique en Marche (the republic on the move) but now called Renaissance – will do well enough to avoid the awkward “cohabitation”. This arises when a president’s politics are not shared by the majority in the national assembly; modern French history suggests this is not a recipe for effective government.

In seeking to weaken Macron’s presidency, the left is chasing many of the same voters as the far right

With the collapse of the conventional parties of left and right, French voters are more than ever attracted to the lure of populists at either extreme of the political spectrum.

Both far right and far left were emboldened by the closeness of their presidential electoral scores in the first round of polling last month. Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), was within a whisker of beating Ms Le Pen to a place in the decider.

Had more moderate voters of the left switched allegiance to him, he would have succeeded. And for the legislative elections, Mr Melenchon has drawn socialists, greens and communists into an alliance with an eye-catching if wordy name, Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (the People’s New Ecological and Social Union).

In seeking to weaken Mr Macron’s presidency, it is chasing many of the same voters as the far right. The mix essentially adds Euroscepticism – a threat to disobey some EU treaties – to costly measures to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. Both extremes also bitterly oppose Mr Macron’s modest plans to reform pensions, gradually raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2028.

Both the left-wing alliance and the far right are expected to increase their presence in parliament. A recent poll indicates a Macronist majority but Mr Melenchon and Ms Le Pen hope their candidates can produce a late surge as voting approaches.

In the long term, the far right appears to pose the bigger threat to Mr Macron.

On one analysis of the presidential election, his triumph merely delayed the arrival in power, once considered unthinkable, of Ms Le Pen. “It may be in 2027, in 2032, 2037 … Marine le Pen will eventually manage to become president of the republic,” the experienced commentator Franz-Olivier Giesbert said on French television after Mr Macron’s win. “She is advancing with each election. She is 53, still young and has some leeway.”

Mr Giesbert said this would require further change on Ms Le Pen’s part. Some of her supporters protest that she should not – or at least no longer – be tarnished by association with the anti-Semitic, Islamophobic obsessions attributed to her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now 93, Le Pen senior is a seasoned apologist for France’s wartime collaborationist Vichy government and a polemicist eager to downplay the horrors of Nazi occupation.

But his daughter has already achieved success in her campaign of "de-diabolisation", cleansing the party of its historic stigma.

During the presidential campaign she was fond of portraying herself as anti-Islamist, not anti-Islam. The studied makeover, and especially the presence among candidates of Eric Zemmour, even further to the right, made her appear gentle by comparison, almost a republican political figure like any other.

However, this overlooked worrying relics of traditional Le Penist philosophy. As Mr Macron pointed out, her proposed ban on Muslim headwear would have criminalised, among countless others, Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of a Muslim solider who was among the victims of Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people in the name of Al Qaeda in the south-western cities of Toulouse and Montauban in 2012. She has won widespread admiration, including the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity, for her campaign against radicalisation among young people in poor suburbs, even confronting – and earning the respect of – a group of youths on the same Toulouse estate where Merah grew up and who initially saw him as some kind of hero.

The make-up of the French Parliament after June 19 will be important for Mr Macron’s vision of the coming five years, but equally crucial in determining whether France can hope to overcome sharp, mutually antagonistic divisions in its society.

Mr Macron is too astute to rely unduly on his support solely in major cities and among professionals. His share of the vote may have been a highly impressive 93 per cent support from expats registered at the French consulate in London. But in France’s largest state, the Var, which incorporates a part of the Riviera and is hardly the country’s most impoverished region, 55 per cent voted for Ms Le Pen.

Public minds, however, are currently focused more on real or predicted shortages – blamed on the Ukraine war – of goods, including mustard, cooking oil and glass bottles, and the threat of summer drought.

The real challenge for all those hoping to take part in governing France is, once again, to get them to vote at all.

Published: May 10, 2022, 4:00 AM