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The twilight of Macronism

2 weeks ago 32

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The once-unthinkable now seems an imminent reality. The French far right is poised to become the largest party in France’s parliament, if polls surrounding the two-stage snap election starting Sunday are accurate. Projections suggest that the far-right National Rally could emerge with the biggest bloc of seats, followed by a rival coalition comprising the French left, and then the centrist party loyal to French President Emmanuel Macron trailing in a distant third. The result would be astonishing on multiple levels, likely yielding France’s first far-right prime minister and plunging the final years of Macron’s presidency — he is ineligible to run for a third term — into dysfunctional crisis.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The political system of the Fifth Republic, established amid the upheavals provoked by France’s doomed war against Algerian independence, was intended to guarantee stability. The legislature would be a check against a strong executive presidency, and the two-round system of voting for both presidential and parliamentary elections, dictated by the constitution, would invariably work against the candidacies of polarizing extremists and the oft-smaller parties they represented.

Those guardrails no longer hold, in part thanks to Macron. He won the presidency in 2017 as a maverick centrist and consolidated power in parliament when his political movement effectively collapsed France’s traditional center-left and center-right parties. As a consequence, French opposition to Macron eventually clustered around the far right and far left, factions which have only gained in strength as anger over Macron’s tenure grew among the public.

After his party suffered a humiliating defeat in European parliamentary elections at the beginning of this month, the French president took a hubristic gamble: He dissolved parliament, blindsiding some of his closest allies, and called for fresh legislative elections. Macron was perhaps hoping to emulate his neighbor to the south — center-left Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who once risked early elections to secure a stronger political mandate. But all signs point to Macron’s further humbling and the distinct possibility that he will be compelled to tap a far-right politician as the country’s next prime minister.

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It’s likely “France will face an unprecedented situation in over 80 years — the far right coming to power, for the first time in the Fifth Republic’s history,” Tara Varma, a French visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, told me. “Another unprecedented outcome is that, until now, the two-round system helped maintain the far right at bay,” she added. “This time around, it may favor them. It seems unlikely they will get an absolute majority, so we are heading toward chaos.”

Almost immediately, it seemed Macron’s decision to call the election backfired. On one side of the political spectrum, it led to the creation of a left-wing alliance, spanning from the far left to the center-left Socialists to whom Macron once belonged, under a grouping called the New Popular Front. On the other, the traditional center-right party convulsed after its leader sought an alliance with the ascendant National Rally. Both major right and left blocs are certain to outperform Macron’s party, which has almost no chance of establishing a parliamentary majority.

No realistic scenario looks good for Macron. A far-right majority government would work to reverse or undermine much of the president’s economic policies — reversing pension reforms and restoring wealth taxes — while pursuing hard line laws on migration at home and possibly derailing the French agenda in Brussels, including Macron’s political and security commitments to Ukraine. Experts see a French debt crisis around the corner. A far-left government, in the eyes of some analysts, could be potentially even more dangerous for the French economy.

There have been “cohabitations” before in France between politically-opposed presidents and prime ministers. But a far-right prime minister under Macron would lead to “an intractable situation,” explained Varma, as their views are “diametrically opposed.”

Even the most likely outcome — a hung parliament — would spell trouble, as rules dictate that new elections can’t be called for another year. Twelve months of parliamentary paralysis would be a grievous blow to Macron, a constant striver and doer. His political pitch for close to a decade was that only his brand of politics — a mix of right-leaning economic pragmatism and an almost idealistic, liberal optimism on certain other fronts — could steer France through the perils of the current moment and toward a future at the heart of an emboldened and more robust European Union.

That vision appears to be reaching a dim twilight. Macron and his highhanded political style may be directly to blame, and so too his inability to forge a genuine grass-roots movement under his banner. “He was perceived as imperial, ‘Jupiterian,’ acting without consultation, while his reluctance to use redistribution to reduce inequality fed a perception that he was the ‘president of the rich,’” wrote French economist Olivier Blanchard. “In the absence of viable alternatives on the center-left and center-right, voters were attracted to the extremes, with populists on the far right vilifying immigrants, and populists on the far left, reflecting a long-standing French Marxist tradition, railing against the rich.”

When he was reelected as president in 2022, Macron’s party lost its parliamentary majority. The president then “multiplied the laws likely to please the right, on pensions and immigration, without getting the conservatives to agree to form a coalition with him and by driving away the center-left voters who had supported him,” observed Gilles Paris in Le Monde, a leading French daily.

Macron’s base of support dwindled, and his popularity crashed. “What was his strength has become his weakness,” Paris concluded. “His omnipresence and overactivity have become unbearable. Nothing protects him anymore.”

Despite saying he would stay out of the fray for the parliamentary election, Macron has been tacitly campaigning at every opportunity. In a podcast interview Monday, he said both the far right and far left promote “civil war” in the country, calling out the former’s antipathy to migrants and the latter’s supposed pandering to Muslim voters.

“When you are fed up, and daily life is hard, you can be tempted to vote for the extremes that have quicker solutions. But the solution will never be to reject others,” Macron said.

French voters, though, seem poised to reject him.

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