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27 May 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:26pm

Emmanuel Macron turned the European elections into a referendum on himself, and lost

By Hugo Drochon

Emmanuel Macron gambled, and lost. He invested himself personally in the European elections by presenting it as a referendum on himself. That, he thought, was the best way to stop Marine Le Pen from wining, by replaying the final match of the 2017 French presidential election, which he had won.

It didn’t work. Le Pen’s National Rally, led by the young Jordan Bardella, arrived first with 23 per cent of the vote, just 1 per cent ahead of Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM), at 22 per cent.

It was a high stakes game, and it backfired. Le Pen was more than happy to play out the election as a referendum on Macron, surfing on the wave of discontent against the president, of which the Yellow Vests protests are the most visible sign. (They voted massively in her favour, at 34 per cent.) The strategy carried a number of risks too: De Gaulle famously called a referendum on regionalising France which he lost, leading to his resignation. Le Pen is now – predictably – calling for a general election.

Macron has always been pro-European: for his inauguration he chose the European anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, rather than the “Marseillaise”. So his investment in these elections – the first he faced since his own – came as no surprise.

But he also intervened to help his lead candidate, Natahalie Loiseau, a respected Europe minister in Macron’s government, who turned out to be not as good with the cut-and-trust of parliamentary politics. When it was revealed she had run on a far-right list during her student years at the elite Parisian political finishing school Science Po, she reacted badly, and never recovered.

Macron also calculated that, in an election with low visibility, associating his name and face with a platform was the best way for it to gain traction. He made a last-ditch intervention on Friday by participating in a YouTube chat with Hugo Travers, a young YouTube star, imploring young people to turn out to vote.

Participation did go up, as it did throughout Europe, to 50 per cent (from 42 per cent in 2014). But the extra votes went to the Greens who, like throughout the rest of Europe, caused the biggest upset, gaining 13 per cent of the share.

Is it all over for Macron? Should he now resign like de Gaulle?

Symbolically, certainly, it was a blow. But placed in a larger context, the results aren’t that bad. To begin with, the National Rally did worse than in the 2014 European elections, where it claimed 25 per cent of the vote. In fact it lost 2 seats, with 22 returning MEPs instead of 24. LREM won 21. If the UK were ever to leave the EU, they would both be on 23. Given that, back in 2014, the Socialist President Francois Hollande’s list came third with a disastrous 14 per cent, and that the party in power usually takes a beating, consider it a draw.

At 22 per cent, Macron’s percentages are relatively stable compared to the first round of the presidential election, at 24 per cent, demonstrating a hard core of loyal supporters. The same can be said of Le Pen (21 per cent 2017), confirming her implantation in French political life. In France Macron will feel empowered to pursue the second act of his presidency, integrating more ecological concerns.

At the European level the National Rally will sit with Matteo Salvini’s populist “European Alliance of People and Nations”, which will become the fourth biggest party in the European Parliament, with 71 seats, not far in front of the Greens, on 68. Their aim is to “reform” Europe from within, by bringing back power to the national level, especially concerning immigration.

For these parties, alongside far-left populist parties like Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed, “Europe” has become a bit of a dog-whistle, but what is being proposed isn’t entirely clear. Having given up on campaigning to leave the EU – either Frexit or Italeave – they’ve become political nihilists, just trying to stop the EU from working from within.

In this they resemble Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the UK: Salvini has said he looks forward to seeing Farage back in the European Parliament. For Brexiters like Farage, if the UK actually left the EU they no longer would have anything to campaign against. So they want to be able to continue to criticise the EU without actually leaving it. Leaving it, for both Farage and the populist alliance, would deprive them both of jobs and slush funds for their party.

What the elections show is that populist Eurosceptic parties have embedded themselves in the political landscape. The centre-right European People’s Party (179 seats, down 37) and the centre-left Socialist and Democratic Alliance (150 seats, down 37) are still the two biggest parties in the European Parliament. But for the first time ever they can no longer together claim half of sitting MEPs.

Many of those seats have been capture by the Liberal Alliance (+39 seats), of which Macron’s LREM is a member, and the populists themselves (+35 seats), in what is the most fragmented European parliament there has ever been. Macron’s opposition between pro-European liberal and anti-European nationalist politics is starting to establish itself at the European level too.

The European Liberals are now the third biggest party (108). In fact Macron has called for a European “Progressive” alliance that would bring his own liberals together with social-democrats such as Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa and Italy’s Democratic Party, and centre-right parties such as the Spanish Cuidadanos (Citizens), trying to recreate the “both left and right” alliance he forged in France. He is also considering integrating the Greens, the undeniable success story of the elections, some of whom are already part of his government in France.

Creating such an alliance would move Macron away from the old Franco-German couple he heavily invested in when he was first elected. But because of Angela Merkel’s weakness, confirmed again by these elections, the couple was unable to deliver the reforms he had hoped. With the reconfiguration of European politics Macron has the opportunity to broaden his coalition: a criticism made of him within his own camp. Instead of the Christian Democrats’ Manfred Weber becoming the next head of the European Commission, Macron might back either the liberal Margrethe Vestager from his own camp, or Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Will he succeed? Who knows, but such an alliance would galvanised his political project. His European “Renaissance” includes the set-up on an environmental bank, taxing Big Tech and moves towards a European Army. He has also called for the setting up of “Citizens’ Assemblies” to debate the future of Europe, inspired by his own “Great Debate” that took place earlier in France, and in his YouTube interview called for a “Federation of Nation States”.

But what if he fails? The logic of his “progressives v nationalists” opposition suggests that Le Pen, Salvini and their ilk are destined to win. These elections show, however, that although populists are now well-established, it remains hard for them to achieve a majority.

Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that her biggest achievement was Tony Blair. After Thatcher, Blair had to accept neo-liberal economics. Thatcher had changed the centre ground of UK politics.“We forced them to change their minds,” she said.

If Macron is to succeed he needs to establish a new centre ground of European politics. So far the only thing that has changed is that populist parties are no longer calling to leave the EU. But that has more to do with the calamity of Brexit than anything else. For the centre to hold, it first needs to be built.   

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