Macron’s Disastrous Election

7 minute read
Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Marseille and the author of Paris Is Not Dead: Surviving Hypergentrification in the City of Light.

French President Emmanuel Macron had a bruising night. After Sunday’s crucial legislative election, his centrist Ensemble alliance still has 168 MPs in the National Assembly. He may well try to stage a comeback after his Presidential term expires in 2027. But Macron’s deeper political project—the belief that he could single-handedly forge a new and lasting political consensus through pro-business reforms with an increased emphasis on law-and-order—has gone up in flames.

It may take time for newly-elected legislators to reach a consensus and form a new government. In the 66-year history of France’s Fifth Republic, the National Assembly has never been as divided as it is now, with the largest number of seats belonging to a broad left-wing coalition, followed by Macron’s Ensemble, and then the far-right. But whatever these parties decide, this much is clear: the center of political gravity in France has shifted from the Élysée Palace to the Palais Bourbon. Its 577 MPs will be the ones determining the direction of French politics and the President will be forced to live with their choices. As past experiences of “cohabitation” have shown, it’s the Prime Minister who sets the national agenda, with the President focusing on defense and foreign policy. Barred from calling new elections for at least another year, Macron will now be reduced to the role of outside observer—just one actor among many.

An own-goal for the ages

In the run up to his first election in 2017, then-candidate Macron emphasized his goal was to weaken an ascendant far-right. By that metric alone, his presidency could be deemed a failure: Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) now has a record number of MPs. And instead of a brilliant gamble, his move to call snap legislative elections after the RN’s win in European Parliament elections on June 10, will go down as one of the most bewildering own-goals in French political history. The largest bloc in the National Assembly is now the left-wing New Popular Front, which soared thanks to its popular economic proposals like raising the minimum wage and hiking taxes on the rich as well as intense voter backlash against the RN.

The disastrous results for Macron will only fuel speculation about his motivations for dissolving the National Assembly in the first place.

One should not rule out the possibility that the President was ready to give Le Pen’s party a chance to govern. According to this theory that circulated the halls of the Elysée, giving the RN a share of power would’ve tainted the party’s anti-establishment mystique and decreased its chances of winning the presidency in 2027. As France’s newspaper of record Le Monde reported, it was Prime Minister Gabriel Attal—not Macron—who took the lead on the strategy of encouraging candidates to drop out of second-round races to reduce the risks of an RN majority. If the so-called “Republican front” lived to see another day, it’s thanks to the left coalition, which withdrew more candidates from second-round races than anyone else. And it’s thanks to Macronist candidates, but not the President himself. They helped lay the groundwork for French voters to deliver a punishing blow to Le Pen’s party.

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But hubris should never be discounted when trying to understand the French President. From his top-down style of governance and carefully-calibrated communications strategy to his projections of French power abroad, Macron fashions himself a modern-day Charles de Gaulle, the World War II hero and towering statesman who shaped France’s post-war institutions. Macron’s interior minister described the election gamble as very “Gaullian,” a nod to the man who dissolved the National Assembly on two occasions and made sweeping constitutional changes through popular referenda. He may have genuinely thought he could win.

Read More: Read TIME's Full Conversation With Emmanuel Macron

But of the countless differences between Macron and de Gaulle, perhaps the most important one is that the current French President is tremendously unpopular. Starting with his very first election in 2017, Macron never seemed to recognize that many of his votes had come from those determined to deny the presidency to his far-right opponent. Instead of governing France like the politically-divided nation that it is, he acted as if he had a mandate to tear up and rewrite the nation’s social contract. In some sense, all the problems flow from this misunderstanding.

Macron’s pro-business economic reforms were often celebrated abroad as a much-needed jolt to an overly-regulated national economy, but back home, they were widely perceived as cruel and unfair. Workers got unemployment benefits slashed and saw labor protections loosened. The well-off got cuts in the capital gains tax and the wealth tax. The much-loathed hike in the retirement age from 62 to 64 disproportionately hit people working tougher jobs and living shorter lives. Macron repeatedly opposed significant hikes in the minimum wage or raising taxes on the rich. All of this ramped up hostility among low-to-middle-income voters.

France's far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party volunteers paste campaign posters of party President and lead European Parliament election candidate Jordan Bardella in Lyon on May 6, 2024.
France's far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party volunteers paste campaign posters of party President and lead European Parliament election candidate Jordan Bardella in Lyon on May 6, 2024.Jeff Pachoud—AFP/Getty Images

But something else happened, too. Toward the end of his first term, Macron and his allies started flirting more and more with conservative talking points and even tried legislating on some of the RN’s preferred themes—thinking perhaps they could outmaneuver them on their own territory. His ministers criticized the ravages of “wokisme” and “Islamo-leftism.” His party passed a sweeping security law that included a measure that would have criminalized the filming of police officers (blocked by the Constitutional Council). He passed an immigration law that achieved a longstanding RN demand to restrict foreigners from accessing critical welfare programs (also blocked by the same court). He vowed to ramp up the war on drugs and signed off on an experiment to impose mandatory school uniforms.

If this rightward drift was supposed to boost Macron’s standing among conservative voters and reduce the appeal of the RN, then it too can be deemed a failure. Just consider the first-round results of the last two legislative elections: since 2022, Macron’s coalition lost five percentage points, while the RN gained more than 14. French politics remain a battle between three blocs, but with a new balance of forces: the centrist alliance is flagging, the far-right is surging, and the left is slowly gaining steam.

The leftist lesson

It’s difficult to predict what comes next.

Built by de Gaulle, France’s post-war state wasn’t designed for moments like these, as the Constitution does not address scenarios where the President and Prime Minister come from different parties. And while the norms and practices of power-sharing agreements have been hammered out over time, the Fifth Republic has never experienced a National Assembly split into three bitterly-divided blocs.

Still, the Constitution makes clear that the power to determine policy resides with a government that can win enough support from the National Assembly. As such, it makes sense for France’s left New Popular Front coalition to be the first ones to govern. It has more seats than anyone else and could attempt to form a minority government, focusing on broadly popular measures and appealing to public support for legitimacy.

But if a united left coalition fails to withstand the all-but-certain opposition from its foes, some other options may emerge. France may move toward some type of temporary technocratic caretaker government, à la Itay’s Mario Draghi. Or Macronist MPs may try to team up with some elements of the left—though, for now, even the Socialist Party, the most moderate faction of the New Popular Front, has stressed its opposition toward governing alongside the President’s party. For now, PM Gabriel Attal is staying on until an alternative emerges.

Whatever happens in France in the coming days, there is a lesson for the democratic West. If politicians are serious about defeating the far-right, they should steer clear of Macron’s approach and look at what the New Popular Front has managed to accomplish. It’s a simple formula: bread-and-butter measures to improve living standards for France’s working-class majority and relentless hostility toward attempts to demonize immigrants and their descendants.

French voters may not have delivered an absolute majority to left-wing parties. But they’ve shown that France, and perhaps voters the world over, want to hear more of what the left has to say.

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