As a historian, I have always found the end of Percy Shelley’s magnificent poem “Ozymandias” almost unbearably moving as it makes plain that even towering greatness has a finite shelf life. Shelley’s conclusion goes like this:
“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
No one even vaguely remembers who the once-great Ozymandias was, and that is entirely the point: fame is fleeting.
It would do the recently re-elected French President Emmanuel Macron a world of good to take to the study of the fatalism that characterizes 19th-century Romantic poetry. It is a quality that the young, imperious Macron will have much need of in his second term. Ignoring the French electoral tradition that newly elected presidents are given a pliant, party-friendly parliament to work with, the French people once again confirmed the more general suspicion that they vote for Macron, but only due to a lack of alternatives.
The month’s second-round vote left Macron’s supporters with 245 seats in parliament, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s united leftist forces with 131, Marine Le Pen’s far-right group with 89 seats, and the old Gaullist Republicans bouncing back a bit from their disastrous presidential showing with 61 seats. As 289 are for required for a clear majority, Macron’s party has rather shockingly been denied an easy time of it in his second term.
Three major points arise from this fascinating outcome. First, the political horse-race aspects of what just happened must be taken into account. Macron, once again, was punished by the French people for his arrogance. Taking a majority for granted after his comfortable 59-41 percent victory over Le Pen in the presidential run-off, rather than getting into the trenches to campaign, Macron instead went swanning around the world, for instance meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.
To put it mildly, this was not a good look for the “Jupiterean” (his word, not mine) leader, playing into the hands of the narrative of both the far-left and far-right that Macron cares far more about foreign policy glory than the needs of a French public increasingly besieged by the cost-of-living crisis that is bedeviling the West. Simply put, the French people wanted their vainglorious leader to be taken down a notch for his arrogance.
Remarkably, that old firebrand Melenchon managed to unite the historically fractious left in terms of a coherent parliamentary coalition. Interestingly, in percentage terms, the French left did about as well it always does. But because it did not this time suicidally run various leftist candidates against each other, its overall success rate in terms of members of parliament (which is of course the name of the game) was much better. While stopped short of his Utopian dream of winning the parliamentary election outright, Melenchon did prevent his nemesis Macron from winning an outright majority. The question ahead is can the left function as a disciplined, coherent opposition, or will it all fall apart once again, as it so often has since the days of Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins? Melenchon, flush with victory, has a Herculean task ahead of him.
However, and surprisingly, perhaps the biggest winner of the night was the far-right National Rally party of Le Pen. Altogether more disciplined and focused than her diametrically opposed far-left rivals, Le Pen’s share of MP’s geometrically rose from a negligible 8 to an impressive 89. Far from their being finished, both the recent presidential and parliamentary elections amount to the best electoral outcomes the far right has ever managed. It will remain a significant political force over the coming years.
Second, beyond the horse race, these seemingly seismic results will nevertheless mean little in policy terms in the short run. Again, France’s monarchical Fifth Republic leaves the president as the undisputed master of foreign affairs, whatever the parliamentary results. Even in terms of domestic policy, Macron is sending out peace feelers to the establishment, center-right Gaullists, who — while they are unlikely to join Macron’s centrists in a formal coalition —have said they will support the French administration when they agree with it in policy terms. Macron’s flagship domestic reform, which necessarily raises the retirement age from 62 to 65 in order to reflect demographic and economic reality, is therefore still likely to pass due to this informal arrangement.
However, there is a third and final, Ozymandian warning from all this that Macron would do well to heed. Already bleeding support just weeks after his re-election, the French president must batten down the hatches as a huge political risk storm is about to blow. Macron has little control over the ever-expanding inflation rate/cost of living crisis plaguing his people, what happens in Ukraine, or if the Germans will get their act together and help Paris forge a more effective EU.
In every case he is a bit player, just as in every case he will be blamed by his people if things go wrong. Macron’s days as the great Ozymandias are already coming to an end.
This post was originally published in Arab News.