Macron's electoral humiliation is a grim omen for Europe

Macron's electoral humiliation is a grim omen for Europe

Though constitutionally Emmanuel Macron can retain the presidency until the end of his term in May 2027, he may decide that, with his authority in tatters, his position is untenable.

Follow Us :

Last Updated : 02 July 2024, 03:11 IST

By Max Hastings

Predictions for the outcome of the French election, of which the second and decisive round takes place in six days, make plain that the far right Rassemblement Nationale is on course for a triumph, while national leader Emmanuel Macron faces humiliation. Though constitutionally he can retain the presidency until the end of his term in May 2027, he may decide that, with his authority in tatters, his position is untenable.

Of 577 seats in the National Assembly, the RN is expected to hold between 195 and 245, the far left alliance slightly fewer, and Macron’s centrists fewer than 100. The complexity of the French parliamentary election system, and its vulnerability to tactical voting make forecasting dangerous, but it appears almost certain that France is now plunged into a sustained political crisis, which can’t fail to extend to the European Union. Macron faces what the French call cohabitation with a prime minister of another party, a formula for weak government.

This outcome reflects a public mood of disgust that afflicts many countries around the world. A pensioner in Amiens, Macron’s northern hometown, told a BBC reporter last week: “France is in a total mess. Immigration, cost of living. Nothing works.” He explained his intention to vote for the RN with a Gallic shrug: “We can’t do worse than what we have now.” The young are also deeply disaffected.

The French vote emphasises the challenge facing centrist parties everywhere, who seek to tell electorates stuff they don’t want to hear. The surge for RN is driven by hostility to the EU’s centralism, though within the bloc France’s economic and trading position is better than that of Britain, which quit. Meanwhile French farmers and trades unionists are in ferment about energy and living costs.

Former Gaullist cabinet minister, EU commissioner Michel Barnier, claims that Macron bears much of the blame for his own predicament, by failing to hear earlier alarm bells about French voters’ disaffection: “I regret that this warning has not been listened to... about migration, security, authority of the state, and the respect and development of the poorest parts of the country.”

And trumping even popular anger about inflation, house prices and the cost of living is fury about Macron’s courageous crusade to raise the statutory retirement age to 64 from 62. Though most economic analysts question whether even this modest measure will suffice to keep France solvent a generation hence, as longevity increases, public stubbornness about a supposed French civil right has prompted street protests and now this election rejection of Macron’s policy.

The RN, like its rival far-left alliance, the New Popular Front, is pledged to repeal the pension age rise, which Macron was obliged to force through without a parliamentary vote, which he could not win. Moreover, the far-left promises that if it forms a government, it will further lower the retirement age to 60. It pledges also to raise the minimum wage from 1400 euros to 1600 a month, which Macron’s finance minister brands as madness. Meanwhile, RN promises to cut VAT — sales tax — on household energy and essential commodities.

All this adds up to what most economists deplore as a flight from reality. RN leader Marine Le Pen is far more extreme than Italy’s rightist prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, whom she is courting.

RN’s prospective prime minister, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who stands on the cusp of becoming a major power in France, is an extraordinary, enigmatic figure. He seems the embodiment of vacuous populism, yet must be taken seriously because millions of voters have shown themselves willing to entrust their political future to him.

He is impeccably groomed and dressed; women voters asked about him frequently use the world “gorgeous”; he was plucked from nowhere by Le Pen to become the public face of her party. Bardella posts on TikTok short videos of himself, packaged by a media company, which boast 1.3 million followers. He didn’t attend university and professes a humble background in a northern banlieue, but his father owns a business in which he spent a month one summer, his only experience of paid work. When the newspaper Le Monde investigated his history, its reporters could discover only that his parents’ origins were Italian, and that as a teenager he was mad about video games.

A media trainer named Pascal Humeau who worked for four years with Bardella — or rather, perhaps, worked on Bardella — describes him as “an empty shell. In terms of content there wasn’t any there. He didn’t read much. He wasn’t curious. He just absorbed the elements of language given to him by Marine.”

Humeau claims: “I had to humanise the cyborg. My job was to get people who would otherwise hate him to say “for a fascist he’s nice!”

Pierre-Stephane Fort, an investigative journalist who has made a documentary film about Bardella, says “he’s a chameleon. He adapts perfectly to the environment around him. And he’s a chronic opportunist. There is no ideology there. He’s pure strategy. He senses where the wind is blowing, and gets in there early.”

Bardella deserves attention from all of us fearful about the state of democracy. He may soon wield real power, yet he is an entirely artificial creation of Le Pen, to boost the image of her party, which has enjoyed warm relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and has little sympathy for beleaguered Ukraine. Though she has silenced RN’s Holocaust-deniers and admirers of the World War II Vichy collaborationist regime, they are still there, among those who voted for the party this weekend.

It is as frightening to many of us to see the RN of Le Pen and Bardella become a force in the mainstream as it is to witness the legitimising of US Trumpism.

French people with a sense of history are today fearful that their country risks lapsing into the chaos and weakness that characterised post-World War II France. Between 1946 and 1958 governments changed on average every six months, and there were almost two dozen prime ministers.

Charles De Gaulle thereafter introduced a new constitution because he was determined to make his nation more stable, by conferring more power on the presidency. He hated the fragmentation- “la pagaille” as he described it, “mayhem” — which political parties created. He blamed this for the moral and military collapse of France in 1940.

Macron’s own party has now suffered a defeat which will render him a limping national leader for the remainder of his term of office, even if he declines to resign immediately. He retains power to choose the next prime minister, but this decision must reflect the composition of parliament. The premier and cabinet will henceforward control domestic policy, while the president’s authority will be confined to foreign affairs and defense.

The triumph of the RN, a party deemed by the markets to be entirely irresponsible, threatens a financial crisis before France is much older. Even before the votes are counted for the final round of this election next weekend, it is plain that the center has been trounced; that the extremes of both right and left are the victors. This is a great misfortune for us all, if it proves an omen for other elections pending around the world.

Whatever the outcome of next week’s impending British general election, its consequences can’t be remotely as grave as those prompted by an extremist takeover of the EU’s second-most important nation, which threatens destabilization of the bloc, of Europe’s support for Ukraine, and indeed of NATO.


Follow us on :

Follow Us