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1 July 2024

The Macron era is over

The success of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France’s parliamentary elections has annihilated the president’s power base.

By Wolfgang Münchau

It is going to get worse for Emmanuel Macron. When the polls were already looking bad ahead of the first-round parliamentary vote on 30 June, his last hope had been that the left and the centre would unite against the hard right in a tactical voting alliance. What is happening is that the French are uniting against him.  

Apart from the predicted victory of the hard right in the first round, the most consequential result is the surprisingly large number of seats in which the final run-off on 7 July will be contested by three parties, not the usual two. This is what will expose around half of the French constituencies to a UK-style first-past-the-post competition in the second round of voting. Marine Le Pen does not need to win an absolute majority among those constituencies. Her National Rally (RN) just needs to come first, as it did on Sunday 30 June.  

Due to a quirk in the French system, the third- or lower-placed parties in a constituency qualify for the final run-off if they achieve at least 12.5 per cent of the votes of registered voters. With a massive turnout of over 65 per cent, there were around 300 third-placed candidates who can have another go. Tactical manoeuvrings have already started. The centre and the left may cooperate and withdraw a third-placed candidate to unite the anti-Le Pen vote. But it is harder to co-opt voters into such tactical games.  

The main question for the next round is not whether Le Pen’s party will come first, but whether it will have an absolute majority that will allow it to govern. What I don’t think can happen any more is a result that will allow anyone else to govern.  

What is also beyond doubt is that the Macron era has ended. The French president still has almost three years left in his second and final term of office. He remains the commander-in-chief. He, not the prime minister, is the French representative at EU and global summits. Foreign policy is the president’s domain. 

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But there are no good options for a French president with a depleted power base. He is not the first president to have lost his majority. François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac both lost theirs. But they still had their troops around in force when they lost the parliamentary elections. Macron’s centrist coalition is now projected to gain only 60 to 90 seats in a parliament of 577 MPs. Macron is still in power, but his political army has been annihilated. The scale of the defeat is unprecedented. 

It is also a defeat for his brand of pro-Europeanism. Macron struggled with a fair number of difficult economic reforms on pensions and labour markets. In 2017, he was first elected with a promise of a centrist revolution. In the process he managed to defeat, and ultimately destroy, the two classic big parties, one of the centre left, the Socialists, and one of the centre right, who now call themselves the Republicans. Macron’s centrist radicalism during his first campaign was seen as an antidote to the two big events in Western politics of that period: the election of Donald Trump as US president and Brexit. Seven years later, Brexit is a reality; Trump is looking like he’s on his way back. Macron is on his way out.  

Macron ultimately failed in his central political goal to solidify a strong pro-European majority in his own country, and to reform the EU itself. He failed to build strategic alliances with other EU leaders. His relationship with Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, is respectful but distant. As a politician without the ability to deliver, his influence will wane. He will continue to wander the halls of power, like a ghost. 

Aside from Macron, the other big loser is the EU. Jordan Bardella, who will be the next prime minister if the hard right gets an absolute majority, says he wants to repatriate powers from the EU on immigration and energy policy. Le Pen will herself need to capture the presidency in three years to implement all those plans. The French president is also the guardian of the French constitution, and of the European treaties in France. You cannot legally repatriate powers from the EU without the active support of the president.  

But Macron’s defeat will nevertheless come as a shock. Scholz, too, looks as though he might lose next year’s elections in Germany. In Spain, Pedro Sánchez, a social democrat like Scholz, is barely hanging on in a coalition that relies on Catalan separatists for its survival. Macron’s defeat is part of a bigger story. The European centre is weak everywhere. It is in France where its decline is most dramatic. 

Centrists are consoling themselves with the thought that Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, and leader of the hard-right Brothers of Italy, ultimately ended up as a moderate. Le Pen has also abandoned some of her more extreme positions, particularly on the EU and the euro. But she is also no Meloni. The Le Pen clan has been preparing for power for decades. I see the apparent moderation as a tactical device. They have become better at forming alliances, and in this election did so with a breakaway section of the Republicans. 

The break from the EU will come in stages. There won’t be a Frexit, but nobody should underestimate the havoc a Eurosceptic French leader can unleash in Brussels. Bardella has promised to withdraw from the EU’s energy policy, a decision that could cause severe disruption to energy supplies in neighbouring countries. He wants to save on France’s contributions to the EU budget. There is no way that a fiscally depleted EU can accept Ukraine as a member, or even support it militarily and financially while its war against Russia continues. The EU won’t break up, as some of its enemies have hoped. But it will continue as a shadow of its former self – like Macron. 

[See also: How Europe’s hard right went mainstream]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain