ANY TCW reader looking at the results of the first round of the French parliamentary elections on Sunday might reasonably ask himself ‘What the hell’s going on there?’ Cher lecteur, I am of a piece with you. Not so much confused by the quirky way they run the elections, but because, just six weeks after Marine Le Pen scored over 40 per cent of the popular vote, here is her party with a mere 19 per cent. Meanwhile, her Far Left rival’s coalition, the NUPES, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has raced past her and drawn level with the Macron coalition Ensemble. And yet, President Emmanuel Macron is still predicted to win a parliamentary majority (though possibly not an absolute one). Allez savoir, as the French would say: work all that out, if you can.
So, indeed: let’s try and work out what’s going on. Is France violently swinging from Right to Left with the only stable fixed point being the Centrist Macron? Not quite. In fact, what seems to be happening is that French public opinion is coalescing around one of three viewpoints.
You have the ‘woke’ progressives, represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the closest thing France has to Jeremy Corbyn, picking up votes from young, middle-class students, suburban Islamists, and a rump of unionised public sector workers. You have the ‘identitarian’ nationalists, represented by Marine Le Pen, supported by rural workers, small business owners and blue-collar employees. Finally, you have Macron, swinging both political ways, according to whom he needs to steal votes from to shore up his power, mainly attracting votes from pensioners and those who are ‘doing well’, as well as having votes lent to him by those afraid of what Mélenchon or Le Pen might do in government.
However, this ‘three party’ account misses the elephant in the room: those who have more or less stopped voting altogether. Last Sunday, they represented more than half of the electorate. Next Sunday, for the second round, this is likely to increase. As a result of abstentions, despite polling over 50 per cent in her constituency (usually meaning automatic election to parliament) Marine Le Pen herself has to enter the second-round run-offs, since the qualifying threshold of 25 per cent of the total local electoral vote was not reached.
Commentators trying to unpick this ‘abstention problem’, if they don’t end up blaming voters for their own disengagement, will sometimes refer to when the rot set in: the overturning of the 2005 referendum against the new European Union treaty, unsubtly tweaked into the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 and, for safety, not presented to the French people again. This unashamed usurping of a popular vote (which nearly happened to us after the Brexit referendum too) was the end of the line for many French voters, convinced, not unreasonably, that whomever you vote for, the Government always gets in.
This does explain a lot. There is also a more contemporary explanation. For two years after March 2020, the French were battered by a form of ‘rule by decree’ we all called ‘lockdown’. During this time, as in Britain, the government forced care-workers to take an experimental therapy against Covid. Unlike Britain, it also forced this on to healthcare workers, 15,000 of whom are still suspended without pay. Unlike Britain, it also introduced a vaccine passport system, which has not fully disappeared even today (it is still required to enter a hospital, as is a mask), and is waiting in the wings to be brought back on an authoritarian whim.
Think the UK parliament was a damp squib during this time? The French one waved all of this through, with only a few noble exceptions such as the courageous Martine Wonner trying to hold back the tide (sadly, Wonner has just lost her seat). Marine Le Pen did not cover herself with glory during this time either, barely raising the issue other than to say the government was ‘not doing enough’, or doing what it was doing ‘badly’. She failed to vote against the vaccine passport when it was proposed in May 2021. Only when mass protests began in July 2021 against its introduction did she begin to sense the direction of the political wind and try to set her sail to it.
With opponents like these in Parliament, many voters will reasonably argue that there is no point in voting for an institution willing to rubber-stamp the shuttering of businesses, the mandating of an experimental medical intervention, and the creation of an internal digital passport. The dwindling population still willing to do this is made up of those with a vested interest in the public sector and the terminally optimistic or naive. The rest would rather leave them all to it.
Is there, then, a danger for French democracy? In the immediate term, possibly not. There is a long radical tradition of anti-parliamentarianism in France, but, unlike in the early 20th century, currently no one to lead it. Instead the immediate danger is at the other end: a president looking for legitimacy, perhaps tied by his parliament on domestic issues, but with free rein in the international arena, deciding to ramp up his involvement in the proxy war with Russia currently taking place in Ukraine. France has been criticised for arguing that there is danger if Russia is humiliated. A humiliated French president, on the other hand, stung by critics at home and abroad, and hungry for a place in history, could be a danger to all of us.