By Dan Hodgson
Following on from his presidential win in April, Emmanuel Macron would have been ill-advised to listen to “Things Can Only Get Better” by D:Ream. The song was hugely popular during the Blair years and also served as a campaign slogan. When Blair, this young, centrist, charismatic leader, arrived at his second term, there still seemed to be a lot of truth in the sentiment voiced by the pop rock and dance group. He gained a parliamentary majority that has only been bettered once in post-war Britain; by himself, four years earlier. But across the English Channel when a young, relatively centrist, charismatic leader arrived at his second term? Quite the contrary. It seemed for Macron that things could in fact only get worse. Certainly, this was the outcome of June’s parliamentary elections.
Last month, Bryn Jones discussed the second round of the presidential vote as “an election described as ‘progressive vs populists’ rather than the traditional ‘right vs left’.” Interestingly, the victors of this election were widely seen as the far-left and far-right. Having said this, it was the Macron-backing coalition who gained the most seats, but the 245 he won was far short of the 289 needed for an absolute majority. He was also 105 députés down on the 2017 election. So, in relative terms, NUPES on the left and the National Rally (NR) on the right were far more successful.
The leftist coalition that formed ahead of this election is something to behold for those in the UK who are inclined to vote as far away as they can from the Conservative Party but have had to witness the divide in the Labour Party in recent years, alongside the Green Party’s inability to win more than one seat in the House of Commons. NUPES successfully combined individual parties that ranged from social democrats to democratic socialists all the way to communists, along with France’s green cohort. The aim of this coalition was to stop Macron from gaining an absolute majority and in this most important ambition, the left were very successful.
In some ways this result should not be a surprise at all. NUPES were led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who had narrowly placed third in the first round of the presidential election. He gained 22% of the vote compared to Le Pen’s 23.2% and one can only speculate what would have happened had he entered the runoff with Macron. Speaking at what looked very much like a victory rally, he said: “It’s the total defeat of the President’s party… We have achieved the political objective we gave ourselves: to bring down the man who with such arrogance twisted the arm of the whole country to get elected.” Mélenchon’s words hardly indicate a man who is keen to work closely with the President in the coming years.
Marine Le Pen (NR) was certainly the biggest overachiever of the night. An elevenfold increase of seats from 8 to 89. A feat made more impressive by her lack of appearances during the legislative election campaign. It is worth remembering that the Le Pen name carries a lot of baggage in French politics. It was, after all, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who co-founded the National Front party and she herself had to expel him from it in 2015. Marine Le Pen’s attempts to move away from her father’s extremist views seemed to have perhaps hindered her prior to the parliamentary election. In April, the fourth placed candidate had been Éric Zemmour, a man further to the right than herself who had the endorsement of her estranged father.
However, with her presidential loss, there were also positive signs for Le Pen. Many of Macron’s voters were voting to keep her out, rather than to endorse him as they had done five years previously. In addition, Le Pen had made gains on her 2017 runoff result. In 2017, Macron garnered very nearly double the votes of Le Pen, with a turnout of 74.56%. In 2022, the gap had narrowed to just 17 percentage points between them, down from more than 32 points five years prior. In addition, unlike in 2017, Le Pen waltzed to victory in her Pas-de-Calais seat. The second round was merely a formality as she gained over 50% of the vote in the first round (this had not been quite enough as due to low turnout she did not receive the votes of more than 25% of the registered electorate). Le Pen guided her party to 18.68% of the first-round vote, up from 13.2% in 2017. By the old mantra of voting with your heart in the first round but your head in the second, Le Pen potentially has a winning formula, including detoxifying her party to a point where it is palatable for many more people in France. It is either this or the French electorate are simply tired of Macron.
With such a different political system in the UK, the situation that arose in France is incomparable to anything in this country. For a start, the NUPES pact has no counterpart on British soil. That would require a Labour/Liberal Democrat/Green alliance and the recent by-elections have shown strenuous denials of any such pact. As one is therefore incapable of comparing to the UK, it is all too tempting to look across the Atlantic to the Americans. After all, unlike the UK’s fusion of powers, the US has a president separate from the legislature, as do the French. The difference is that the US President is fundamentally weak, the forefathers set up the system so that the different branches of government would constrain each other. In contrast to this, Charles de Gaulle decided that under the Fifth Republic, the powers of the Parliament would be limited so that they wouldn’t eclipse those of the President.
Following the election, it would also be far too easy to start Americanising the French system of governance and referring to Macron as a lame-duck President. However, this would be premature. His next move must be calculated should he want any dignity at all in the latter half of his presidency. He has three options in front of him, minority government rule, form a coalition, or call a snap election. All three of these options include a sense of peril that he did not experience during his first term, hence it is worth keeping a close eye on events in France over the coming months.
Finally, it should be remembered that French politics has undergone many changes in recent years, in more drastic ways than other countries. These elections, both presidential and legislative, continued the increasing irrelevance of the two traditional parties. Neither the Socialist Party nor the Republicans have been explicitly mentioned up until this point and that is because there has been no need to. Their decline has been matched by apathy in the legislative elections, the last two sets of parliamentary elections have seen turnout stay consistently below 50%. Yet, having said this, it would be premature to pronounce these former big names politically dead. It is indeed likely that Macron will enter some sort of deal with the Republicans in the Parliament. This is based on many reasons, but specifically the fact that both Mélenchon and Le Pen have made their distaste towards the President very clear.
Perhaps Macron is now at such a low point that it is indeed true for him that “Things Can Only Get Better”. Time will tell.
Image: Funky Tee via Flickr