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Can France’s anti-Le Pen alliance survive?

Political chaos, confusion and incompetence are almost inevitable after no single grouping wins a parliamentary majority.

By Bruno Maçães

Every election in France is now a referendum on the National Rally (RN). Looked at one way, that might seem like bad news for Marine Le Pen’s party. On 7 July, forced to fight parliamentary elections against an informal but remarkably united front ranging from the hard left to Emmanuel Macron’s centrists, RN fell short of the victory it had won in the first round of voting a week earlier. But viewed from another angle, in this increasingly binary confrontation, everything depends on the strength of the “republican front” opposing Le Pen, and the outcome of the election leaves many doubts on this point.

It was one thing for RN to face a moderate and effective mainstream bloc led by leaders such as Jacques Chirac or Macron. That bloc belongs to the past. Macron may have hoped to reconstruct it after his surprising decision to dissolve the National Assembly in June. For that he would have to peel off the socialist and green elements of the left-wing alliance, New Popular Front (NFP), the winners on 7 July. He miscalculated, as it seems the NFP will hold together, at least for now.

Instead, France will enter a period of political deadlock and chaos. It is possible that financial markets will be unnerved by the promise of spending increases if, as is natural to expect, the NFP ends up having a significant influence over policy decisions under a new government. But the path towards political balance is extremely uncertain. No political bloc has anything approaching a parliamentary majority. A caretaker government may have to be appointed while successive negotiations begin and end.

Le Pen and her young sidekick, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, were quick to deny they were disappointed with the results. There was an element of pretence, of course, but ultimately they can find comfort in the fact that RN and its allies were able to get around 37 per cent of the vote in the election’s second round, up from 17 per cent in elections two years ago. If we add the seats already decided in the first round, where RN ended on top, that figure will be even higher. RN and its allies received around ten million votes on 7 July, significantly higher than the NFP’s seven million. These are promising results for the presidential duel in 2027. Will the republican front still hold three years from now?

Le Pen has always scored considerably better than her party. Moreover, in 2027 she may face an increasingly fragmented coalition of groupings and factions, whose centre of gravity has shifted to the left and which lacks a clear leader of Macron’s stature and charisma. History buffs will recognise the pattern where a hard-right party is able to acquire power only after the hard left spends time governing. RN will benefit from being able to tell the French public the choice is now between Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Unbowed, the leftist party with the greatest weight inside the NFP. Did the centre hold? It did, but only by metamorphosing into something that no longer deserves to be called the centre. The centre is Macron, but Macron is now a mere concept; he is the definition of a lame duck.

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When the president made the strange decision to call the elections, one of the possible explanations was that he intended to offer the reins of the executive to Bardella so that RN could finally experience the corrosive effect of governing France. If that was the goal, it backfired. Bardella will not be in charge of the new government and RN can now sit back and enjoy what will certainly be a new level of ungovernability.

One fact that became very clear to me as I watched the TV debates between Bardella and Gabriel Attal, the prime minister from Macron’s Renaissance party, was the close link between France’s diminished global role and influence and RN’s ascent. RN thrives on French weakness. This is what distinguishes the current populism from far-right movements a century ago.

Historically, European fascism was born of an inebriation with power: colonial power over the world, technological power over nature and, ultimately, human power over history. Le Pen’s populism is the exact opposite: it calls for a return of the state because France needs a strong hand to survive in a cut-throat global environment. The new European populism is very close to the kind of third-world nationalism that ruled the peripheries of the global system throughout the 20th century. Which makes sense if we think that Europe is moving to a periphery of its own.

In the TV debates, Bardella leaned on three main points. First, what he calls economic patriotism: he wants France to use the tools of state power to compete in a global economy where other countries and other continents now threaten its continued prosperity. Second, migration. Here, too, the problem is that French and European populations are no longer in charge: migrants arrive on their shores unwilling to be integrated as they no longer feel they are in a position of complete subordination. It is not immigration but immigration “not on our terms” that so infuriates RN voters.

The third theme is the climate crisis. This is also presented as an index of declining power by RN. In fact, Bardella and other national conservatives in Europe and the US seem to see it as an intellectual defeat: the West’s inability even to understand its own interests. For Bardella, the call for an energy transition is a trick being played on Europe by the developing world, who wish to see Europeans unilaterally abandon fossil fuels in order to turn the global economic game in their favour.

It is not clear these forces can be stopped. Macron did, to some extent, manage to understand them, but he failed, perhaps through no fault of his own, to fashion a France so buoyant and prosperous that the very notion of decline would vanish. Instead, the sense of decline may now intensify. Political chaos, confusion and incompetence are almost inevitable. This will sit poorly with the French attachment to national grandeur.

In this context, France Unbowed may help RN to make its case because it harbours a powerful delusion that France and its economy are strong enough to weather an encounter with global markets and capital. This view will clash with reality. The result, revealing the limits of French power, will swell RN’s ranks. Does this mean every progressive option is now closed in France? No, but it’s increasingly clear that only those countries that are winning the global competition have the kind of freedom of action that permits progressive options. (Singapore’s housing policy and the Swiss pension reform are often given as examples of this freedom.)

Reacting to the results on 7 July, Bardella sounded much more emotional than Le Pen, calling the tactical exit of hundreds of candidates from the second round a system of “unnatural” alliances between the left and Macron. How can something that actually happened be unnatural? Yet Bardella may have a point as a recurrence of the same united front against RN will be far more difficult in the future. It may have become unnatural.

If the leftists of the NFP are granted the power to form a government, they – rather than RN – might get burned by the clash between promise and reality. If Macron denies them the keys to the Matignon, the residence of the prime minister, the left will feel justifiably betrayed. They defeated RN, a joyous moment celebrated by the left and centrists all over the world. Can Emmanuel Macron keep them at bay? Should he? In the end, it might be true: the centre cannot hold.

[See also: What the National Rally’s rise means for Labour]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change