Macron and the French establishment are safe… for now

As ever, French President Emmanuel Macron’s hero, Charles de Gaulle, put it perfectly. The imposing founder of the Fifth Republic caustically encapsulated the problem with ruling his perpetually turbulent nation when he said: “How can you govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese?”

After the French parliamentary elections of June 12 and 19, that poisoned chalice will assuredly fall almost entirely on Macron’s shoulders. For, despite brave talk from the veteran populist mavericks of the right (Marine Le Pen) and left (Jean-Luc Melenchon), it is certain that mainstream, establishment France will do well enough to govern.

The most likely outcome is that Macron and his La Republique En Marche faction will find itself with a diminished, but workable, majority. The worst-case scenario for the newly reelected president is that he would have to go into coalition with the traditional Gaullist party of the center-right, the Republicans, but that would not amount to any real hardship. Since he was first elected to the Elysee Palace in 2017, Macron — following the French political center of gravity — has been drifting rightwards from his initial centrist ideological position anyway.

There are three basic reasons that the populists are whistling past the political graveyard over their brave assertions of a comeback from their presidential election defeats. First, the momentum of winning the presidency historically sweeps the newly anointed president’s party to a parliamentary majority. No president since 2000 has failed to convert their election triumph into a majority in subsequent legislative elections. Given Macron’s handsome 17-point victory over Le Pen in the second, decisive, round of French presidential voting last week, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that this trend will not hold this time as well.

Second, neither of the populist firebrands has a real party behind them, having only personality-driven factions to support them. A curious trend in French politics over the past decade has been the marked decline of the traditional, mainstream center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans at the presidential level at the expense of individuals, be they Macron, Le Pen or Melenchon.

While this has held true at the national level, it has not been the case in terms of parliamentary elections, where the mainstream has held its own. For example, in 2017, despite Le Pen winning 34 percent of the vote for president in the second round, her National Rally party managed to win only eight of 577 National Assembly seats. Likewise, leftist firebrand Melenchon’s faction managed a minuscule 17 seats.

To do well in France in parliamentary elections requires tools that only a true, established party tends to possess (with Macron’s En Marche being the exception): A strong, traditional local footprint and organizational prowess. This is something that the personality-driven populist factions of both the left and the right almost entirely lack, explaining their past dismal parliamentary results. There is no evidence these systemic patterns are likely to change this time.

Finally, the only way the populists might get around these daunting historical and organizational hurdles would be to cement alliances with their ideological fellow travelers, magnifying their voting impact. This is especially pressing on the fragmented left, which has indulged itself in endless, fratricidal schisms literally since the French Revolution. Melenchon’s supporters, to their credit, are grimly aware of this, knowing that if the other splinter, leftist presidential candidates had withdrawn in favor of their man, he would have beaten Le Pen, moving on to the run-off with Macron, a leader they disdain as “the president of the rich.”

Cleverly, immediately after barely losing out in the first round, Melenchon called for a unified leftist alliance in the parliamentary elections as a way to perhaps overturn Macron’s impending presidential victory. However, his plea has so far fallen on deaf ears, as the schismatic French left has reverted to form.

Unlike Melenchon, Le Pen wants nothing to do with populist unity. Aware that her recent 41.5 percent of the second-round vote marks an all-time high-water mark for the French far right vote total, she wishes to continue to detoxify her brand rather than remind the voters of the French center why many still fear her. That is why, when her even more far-right rival, television pundit Eric Zemmour, suggested an electoral pact, Le Pen quickly and decisively ran a mile. With Macron into his second, and last, presidential term and with the far right continuing to make steady national progress, Le Pen is playing for the future, not the present.

So, for the moment, for all these reasons, it is beyond unlikely that the populists of the left or the right will stop Macron from having a governing parliamentary majority of some sort. However, with a decisive presidential win behind him, and with a clear parliamentary mandate set to follow, Macron now “owns” what happens next in France. Given that endemic inflation is taking root, with stubbornly low growth rates also on the horizon and a cost-of-living crisis brewing, it is a bad time to “own” policy outcomes. Macron’s political success is now also his political risk. Whatever comes next will be seen as down to him.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

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