THE final result of this weekend’s French elections saw President Emmanuel Macron losing control of the French Parliament, his centrists winning just 245 seats, well short of the 289 required for an absolute majority. But the most striking result was Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party increasing their seats from eight in 2017 to 89 – a historic high.
‘A danger, given all the challenges we are faced with’, ‘a democratic shock’; the nominal leaders of the French government, Elisabeth Borne (Prime Minister, at least at time of writing), and Bruno Le Maire (Finance Minister, ditto) could not have better understated the disorder likely to arise from the 1,000 per cent increase in the number of MPs from Marine Le Pen’s RN party in the French National Assembly. The word on everyone’s lips, on all sides, was ‘unprecedented’. Over, and inaccurately, used during the time of Covid lockdown, it has some merit in describing the political times France has lurched into in the last few days.
Political stability has not often been a characteristic of French politics. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste in order to create absolute mayhem’ might be a Gallic reworking of the Churchillian counsel. Right now, the political enemies at work might each have in mind the salvation of their nation. The reality is that it is closer than ever to collapse.
For a start, and most importantly, France is in enormous economic trouble. There’s a good chance that President Emmanuel Macron, close as he has always been to the centre of financial power, and with his strong understanding of economic realities, is more aware of this than anyone. Yet, like his political peers at home and abroad, having willingly inflated the economy beyond all recognition, he has no idea how to stabilise it, trapped between rocketing inflation and rising interest rates, without mentioning the disruption he is contributing to in supply chains. His great hope? ‘Full employment’, he tells us vaguely, and with, it feels, less and less conviction.
The solutions of the two other power blocs – Le Pen’s RN and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s neo-Stalinist France Unbowed – are no solutions at all. Le Pen talks endlessly, and it seems sincerely, about her desire to help the poorest, with a sketchy programme of lowering VAT on fuel and ‘essential items’ and renationalising the roads (to lower tollbooth prices). Mélenchon’s desire for a ‘regulated and supervised’ economy looks like a further expansion of command control, with a plan to increase the minimum wage and borrow a further 250billion euros to spend the country’s way out of recession.
In summary, there is no solution to what ails France coming down the pike as a result of this dramatic shake-up of the Paris parliament. On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of political chaos coming, with no clear exit in sight.
Moreover, while all the focus, reasonably enough, is on the paralysis bound to be caused by a President potentially unable to enact anything, other than by using brute force (the famous clause 49-3 of the 5th Republic’s constitution which allows the President to overrule Parliamentary opposition to legislation more or less at will), there is an extra-parliamentary problem that those outside the ‘Elysée bubble’ are loath to take seriously, and for which there seems to be even fewer solutions.
That problem is abstention, in particular among the young. The average abstention figures for last Sunday’s second round are around the 53 per cent mark nationwide, but in certain areas that reached 65 per cent, and it is likely that levels among the under-35s are even higher. Writing about this recently in TCW, I observed that this creates an enormous problem of legitimacy for the President which he will struggle to overcome. This danger for Macron has just been amplified, as France enters into an era where the majority of people, already unconvinced by the parliamentary system, watch it grind to a halt amid technocratic squabbling, confirming and exacerbating their frustration at useless politicians in power.
What might Macron do to regain the initiative? There has been chatter about him resigning, de Gaulle style, and thus forcing another presidential election with a ‘proper democratic campaign’ this time (unlike the last one, where he was largely absent, and refused to appear on all but one televised debate); unthinkable, you’d imagine, having just won, but then we are in strange times.
Macron might decide to dissolve the new National Assembly, at the risk of citizens getting really angry at being asked to vote again until he gets the result he wants (familiar to those who fought the prospect of a second Brexit referendum). Or perhaps he will grandstand on the international stage, absent himself from national politics altogether, and pull the only levers over which he has sole power, those that concern foreign affairs.
Clearly, none of these is a solution, and all of them have the potential to make matters much worse. It may difficult to sympathise, but Macron is between a rock and a hard place. The best we can do for now is send a clear message to the French people: bonne chance, mes amis! You’re in for a bumpy ride.