As the shock results of France’s legislative election on 19 June emerged, my thoughts turned to Vierzon. This small town in the centre of the country was just one of several stops on my reporting trip from the Channel to the Mediterranean in March, but it epitomises a certain sort of France: not in crisis by any means, and even comfortable, but unmistakably tired. Shops boarded up, the old tractor factories that had once provided a proud living empty, the population ageing as younger folk move to the cities, which feel far away. The town saw a spirited series of protests by the anti-establishment gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement in 2018 and 2019.
With its blue-collar background, Vierzon had traditionally been a stronghold of the left. But a shift was under way towards Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN). As Rémy Beurion, editor of the “Vierzonitude” blog on the life of the town, put it to me in March: “The former members of the Communist Party vote for the RN. It’s very simple. A journey from the extreme left to the extreme right.”
While Le Pen lost the presidential election run-off against Emmanuel Macron in April (albeit taking a record-high vote share of 41 per cent), the RN was by far the biggest winner of the two-round legislative elections in June. It took 89 seats in the Assemblée Nationale, up from just eight. It may yet be the largest opposition party – depending on whether the broad-left Nupes alliance under the left-populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon holds together – in a legislature where Macron’s party, Ensemble, is now far short of a majority. The RN’s legislative weight is greater even than that of the populist Poujadistes in the 1950s. It entitles the cash-strapped party to millions of euros in state funding, which is calculated based on seat numbers.
The constituency centred on Vierzon was almost one of the seats in Le Pen’s haul. Where in 2017 the RN had been knocked out in the first round with 17 per cent, this time it made it to the second-round run-off against the Nupes candidate and ran him relatively close on 46 per cent. It makes a natural and, at the current rate, realistic target for the RN next time, along with dozens of other seats in the so-called France périphérique (peripheral France).
The election results, in places such as Vierzon and nationally, would have looked like a different political universe viewed from as recently as 2012. Back then the Gaullists and Socialists – the two leading political families of French politics since the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 – were still dominant. Together they took 474 of the 577 seats in the Assemblée. Yet over the subsequent two cycles, the landscape has been remade. First Macron roared on to the scene in 2017 with his new centrist force. And now this year’s presidential and legislative elections have see the far right under Le Pen and the radical left under Mélenchon’s Nupes bloc take their places alongside the Macronistes in a new tripartite system. The Gaullists stagger on as a weakened fourth force in the legislature, and the Socialists, for now, as a satellite entity of Nupes.
Fragmentation is not new in European politics. But it sits particularly awkwardly with the structures and culture of the Fifth Republic, designed by Charles de Gaulle to overcome the instability and parliamentary volatility of the 1950s and to provide strong, centralised leadership in the form of a quasi-regal presidency. It kept the legislature marginal, largely disincentivised compromise and coalitions, and made it hard for the political fringes to break into the mainstream – in the tradition of a broad “Republican front” against the far right.
As France surveys the fallout of its 2022 elections, all that has crumbled. The previously all-powerful Macron has been weakened. He must work hard to build alliances in the legislature to enact his policies, most likely with the rump Gaullists or by peeling centre-left MPs away from Nupes. The Assemblée matters more than it has done in decades. Deadlock could even end the new term early and prompt new elections. And the Republican front against Le Pen has definitively broken down.
It is easy to be gloomy about this. In these times of geopolitical and economic turmoil, Europe needs stable and decisive French leadership. The RN breakthrough is particularly worrying. Big questions loom over the future of the country’s politics, not least as Macron must step down when his second term ends in 2027 and the succession in the political centre is unclear. The results of 19 June depict a France where many places, such as Vierzon, do not relate to an establishment that appears remote and heavy-handed.
Yet precisely this daunting combination of prospects provides an opportunity for change. Would another commanding Macroniste majority have provided impetus for a more pluralistic, responsive and deliberative French democracy? It seems unlikely. But by putting the legislature at the fore and requiring the president and his allies to build coalitions of support, this result has perhaps done the country a favour. It has long been clear, as I argued in March, that the realities of today’s France are increasingly in conflict with the old model drawn up in the different world of 1958. Debates on renewing French democratic culture, on political reform, and perhaps even on a new constitution and a Sixth Republic are long overdue. The country now faces an uncertain path. But it is not entirely inconceivable that it will lead to a better place.
[See also: Emmanuel Macron promises humility in victory]
This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working