How French politics put personality ahead of party


For the second time in five years, the liberal internationalist Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France in April after defeating the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. The first leader to be re-elected in two decades, he seemed to stand tall amid the rubble of the old political parties of left and right, as he did in 2017.

There was a surprise waiting in the wings, however. In the National Assembly elections for which the first round of voting was held on Sunday, the main rival to Macron’s centrist alliance was no longer Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National. Instead, it was a coalition of leftwing and green parties hastily assembled by the far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came a close third in the presidential vote.

Macron is not the only powerful personality taking advantage of the disillusionment of the French electorate and the anger and extremism that now prevail in the country’s politics. In just seven weeks, the focus of opposition to Macron has swung from the far right to the far left, demonstrating the volatility of French politics and calling into question the future shape and direction of its democracy.

Mélenchon’s New Ecological and Social Popular Union (Nupes) won almost as many votes as Macron’s Ensemble (Together) alliance and is set to become the main parliamentary opposition after the second round on June 19, tripling the number of leftwing MPs in the assembly. It could even prevent Macron from retaining his parliamentary majority.

So concerned is Macron by the prospect of losing control that he made an unusual intervention on behalf of his supporters before boarding a plane on Tuesday for a trip to Romania, Moldova and Ukraine to show support for eastern Europe in the face of the Russian invasion.

“We need a solid majority” for the economy, for the climate, for peace in Europe, Macron said five days before the second round of French voting. “Nothing would be worse than adding chaos in France to the chaos in the world.”

But Macron himself is partly responsible for the situation. By successfully dominating politics in the past five years, the president has helped disrupt the established order of centre-right and centre-left parties that took turns to rule France under the Fifth Republic launched by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

These once powerful parties are again being overshadowed in the current election season: the weakened Socialists have been absorbed into the alliance dominated by Mélenchon’s radical La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, while the conservative Les Républicains are likely to have the number of their constituencies halved and keep only about 10 per cent of the seats in the 577-member assembly.

French society, furthermore, is split not only between left and right but also between the globalists such as Macron on one side and the nationalists and populists at the extremes on the other. Both Le Pen and Mélenchon have been Putin sympathisers and are Eurosceptic advocates of economic nationalism and protectionism, although they differ sharply on race, religion and migration. Together with other candidates of the far left and far right, they won 60 per cent of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections.

Such divisions are not unique to France. The situation of its politics in 2022 is mirrored in other western democracies where old parties with established ideas and traditions are taken over or overshadowed by powerful personalities, leading to what Julian Jackson, a historian and biographer of de Gaulle, calls a kind of “ideological impasse”. Think Donald Trump and the US Republican party, or Boris Johnson and the UK Conservative party.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Marine Le Pen in 2017
The nationalist and populist Marine Le Pen has been a sympathiser of Russian president Vladimir Putin © Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters

“Many presidential systems are in crisis today — the US, Brazil, France — though parliamentary ones seem to resist a bit better,” says political analyst Vincent Martigny. “The presidential systems are confronted with waves of contestation about the legitimacy of the regime.” 

The worst domestic political crisis of Macron’s first term was the anti-government gilets jaunes uprising triggered by motorists’ protests over a green fuel tax. He has also been attacked from the right over crime and what his critics call “uncontrolled” immigration, and from the left over economic reforms such as the abolition of the wealth tax and his handling of health, education and the environment.

All this prompted him to tack first right and then left. Now, instead of outlining what plans of action he would pursue if he does win a majority in Sunday’s second and final round of legislative elections, he has avoided issuing clear presidential or parliamentary manifestos.

“What’s his plan? He doesn’t really have one because he has to be the liquid man,” says Nicholas Dungan, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and chief executive of CogitoPraxis, a leadership consultancy.

“He runs where the flow takes him. The reason he has to do that is because he needs the vote from the old left and the old right. He can’t have a plan until he sees what the parliament looks like. He’s not responsible to parliament but he has to be responsive to it.”

This, together with Mélenchon’s takeover of the left in the past few weeks, may paradoxically reinvigorate democracy. An empowered parliament might revive the old left-right confrontation and moderate the power of the personalities who hold sway over parties.

“If Macron doesn’t have a majority and has to have a coalition with the [conservative] Les Républicains, you can see that the LR are far from finished,” says Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po university. “It will revive [France’s] political life and give more weight to parliament.” 

L’état, c’est moi’

The personalisation of postwar French politics can be traced back to the domineering de Gaulle, who oversaw the creation of the system that has endowed the president with substantial executive powers.

With greater or lesser success, the powerful role of president was adopted by the likes of François Mitterrand for the Socialists on the left and Jacques Chirac for the republicans on the right. The constitutional reform of 2000 — which cut the presidential term from seven years to five so that the incumbent could be changed more often and so that legislative elections would typically coincide with the presidential vote — had the unintended consequence of creating a “much more presidentialised system”, says Jackson.

This was crystallised in Macron, who modelled himself on de Gaulle. After sweeping aside the candidates of the left and centre-right and then defeating Le Pen in 2017, Macron won control of the National Assembly with his newly created La République en Marche party, since renamed Renaissance, while declaring that he was “neither right nor left.” 

Mayor of Le Havre and France’s former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe  gives the victory sign during the launch of his new party “Horizons” in Le Havre,
Edouard Philippe, who created the Horizons party last year, has his sights set on a presidential bid in 2027 © Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

Jackson, the historian, says there is now an “extreme personalisation” of politics, with the three leading candidates in this year’s presidential election — Macron, Le Pen and Mélenchon — “not even making any reference to parties” in their campaigns for the Elysée Palace.

Macron’s own allies are taking a similar approach. Édouard Philippe, the Le Havre mayor who was Macron’s first prime minister, created a party called Horizons less than a year ago to promote his own presidential ambitions in 2027. The party is currently one of the components of Macron’s Ensemble parliamentary alliance.

Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party, which she inherited as the Front National from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, has always been a family business. Éric Zemmour, the anti-immigration television talk show polemicist who tried and failed to oust her as champion of the extreme right, also created a party last year — Reconquête! (Reconquest) — that was a vehicle for his own ambitions and was originally called The Friends of Éric Zemmour.

It is the same on the left, where Mélenchon has built on his strong third place in the presidential election — he won 22 per cent of votes in the first round to Le Pen’s 23 and Macron’s 28 — to create a political alliance around himself and his hard-left agenda of protectionism and massively increasing public spending. He has attracted attention by demanding that Macron name him prime minister if his alliance wins control of the National Assembly.

This shift to the extremes reflects the polarisation of French society and disillusionment with conventional politics among the losers — a sense of exclusion that is exacerbated by the vagaries of the current majoritarian system: Le Pen’s far-right party, which has the support of about a third or more of the electorate, won only eight of 577 assembly seats five years ago, though it is forecast to do better this time.

“There is generally a loss of confidence in politicians,” says Jean-Philippe Derosier, professor of public law at Lille university and an expert on the constitution. He says personalisation has long been a feature of French politics, but agrees that the country is now affected by the broader global phenomenon of rising populism and radicalism, whether from left or right. “Political extremists succeed in convincing the voters to give them a try,” he says.

Grand ideas

This has been bad news for more conventional politicians. Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor whose party political forebears include presidents François Mitterrand and François Hollande, won just 1.75 per cent of the votes in the first round of the presidential election. To escape oblivion, her party has abandoned cherished principles such as support for the EU to find refuge in the Mélenchon alliance for the legislative elections.

Similar humiliation awaited Les Républicains. Valérie Pécresse, who represents the prosperous Île-de-France region around Paris, once seemed a plausible rival to Macron. Yet she scored under 5 per cent of first-round votes, thus failing to reach the threshold for the state to pay a large share of her election expenses.

Having dominated the stage, the three big politicians of the moment — Macron, Mélenchon and Le Pen — each favours reforming the country’s institutions, either for their own advantage or because they recognise the need to revive public faith in democracy.

A popular solution is constitutional reform. Mélenchon’s alliance wants to inaugurate a Sixth Republic “for a real democracy”, involving proportional representation, referendums initiated by citizens and new rights for workers.

A gillets jaunes protester gestures behind a flaming barricade, in Paris in 2019
The anti-government gilets jaunes protests were the worst domestic political crisis of Macron’s first term © Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Macron has also toyed with the idea of more proportional voting and plebiscites, and has tried to persuade voters that he is keen to consult with everyone about France’s future by setting up a “National Council for Refoundation”.

The idea, however, has been met with a collective groan by Macron’s critics. Mélenchon compared it to the “great national debate” that Macron launched to defuse the gilets jaunes demonstrations in 2019, calling it “Season Two of the great blah-blah”. 

Political analysts are equally sceptical about the merits of grand constitutional reforms. “In France we believe in an institutional ideal, so we love changing the constitution,” says Anne Levade, professor of constitutional law at Sorbonne university, who counts 15 constitutions since the revolution in 1789.

“Yes, there is a crisis of representative democracy around the world, with fewer people going out to vote. Campaigns are more and more about insults and invective rather than projects, manifestos or campaigns. Political parties have problems around the world with inspiring voters, and in France we see this as a crisis of representative democracy and look for constitutional and institutional change . . . There are always these grand ideas.”

Revival of democracy

Yet political commentators agree that for all the recent turmoil in French politics and the rise of new parties and personalities, the old left-right divide may ultimately be revived as the framework for political action — even if the two opposing sides are represented by new parties, people or movements.

“What if Nupes [Mélenchon’s leftwing alliance] hangs together and Mélenchon becomes the leader of the opposition?” asks Dungan. “That could consolidate Ensemble [Macron’s alliance] and LR on the right and you would have a return to left-right politics but with new groups.”

This would force Macron into awkward compromises with other parties to get laws passed, including legislation for a highly controversial reform to the pension system that would increase the retirement age from 62 to 65. If a leftwing alliance could slow down or even derail this plan, it would please many who believe the French presidency — and Macron in particular — has too much power.

Supporters for the establishment of a Sixth Republic during a rally attended by French Presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in March
Mélenchon’s alliance wants to inaugurate a Sixth Republic for a real democracy’, involving proportional representation, referendums initiated by citizens and new rights for workers © Benjamin Girette/Bloomberg

“Strangely, Mélenchon may be doing French democracy a favour by creating a political movement that gives people the feeling they are represented and holds the elected government accountable,” Dungan says.

That could hold true even after the next round of national elections in 2027, when Macron cannot stand again. His current ally Philippe is likely to try his chances from the centre-right, and the eager new leftwing MPs in their twenties will have been in parliament for five years, just as Macron’s youthful cohort has been today.

In addition, the centre-right and centre-left parties, all but wiped out at a national level, still have strongholds in town halls and elected regional governments where the parties of Macron, Le Pen and Mélenchon are poorly represented.

“After the elections of 2027 when there is no more Macron it will be tricky for [Macron’s party],” says Cautrès. “Perhaps it will give the left-right conflict new life.” 

Data and visual journalism by Eir Nolsøe



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