9 July 2024

Emmanuel Macron isn’t out of the woods yet


When the exit poll for the French legislative elections dropped on Friday, there was widespread elation. Rassemblement National (RN), formerly the National Front (FN), had seemed poised after the first round to form the next government; instead, it was pushed into third place, behind a hard-left coalition – the New Popular Front (NPF) – and Emmanuel Macron’s embattled centrists.

Yet commentators who rushed to proclaim that the President’s decision to gamble on early elections had paid off missed the mark. Le droit en France is down, but far from out – and the next few years could yet see it rise to the top.

The first warning klaxon is simply putting last week’s result into context. It was a bad result for the RN, but the measure of a bad result in 2024 is not forming a government, a possibility which would have seemed unthinkable only ten years ago. Moreover, it is still the RN’s best-ever parliamentary result, with its caucus growing from 89 to 142 (including 17 allied Republicans).

The second is that this result was down to unprecedented cooperation between the Left and the Centre; not only did lots of people who don’t normally vote turn out, but scores of candidates in three-way contests withdrew to leave one clear challenger to the Rightist candidate. 

Does that remind you of anything? In the 2002 presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen – father of Marine, founder of the National Front, and unreformed and unrepentant far-rightist – came second in the first round with 16.68% of the vote, only three points less than Jacques Chirac. That year, the rest of the French political spectrum rallied against him and Chirac routed the FN in the second round; Le Pen Snr only won 17% of the vote, his first-round share. 

That strongly echoes what happened this time, with the RN and allies failing to pick up second preferences as the rest of the system rallied to keep them out. But in the long run, it didn’t hold: Le Pen Jnr reached the run-off in both 2017 and 2022. Her party’s presence in the second round risks becoming the norm. 

Which brings us to the most important thing. The French Left and Centre are much further apart than their equivalents in the United Kingdom. It is not at all obvious that this parliament contains a viable government – and if it doesn’t, the anti-RN front could yet fall to pieces.

The NPF, understandably, is insisting that it appoint the prime minister and deliver its radical left-wing programme: slashing the retirement age, hiking the minimum wage, introducing price controls, and more. In short, rolling back Macron’s entire economic programme. 

That’s obviously bad news for the French economy. But in political terms, it also risks alienating centre-right voters from the anti-RN front. In the privacy of the ballot box, many of these might consider Le Pen the lesser of two evils compared to Jean-Luc Melenchon – especially as the far-left’s antisemitism has already helped detoxify the RN.

If so, that means that a lot might hinge on the decisions of the Republicans, the shattered remnants of France’s once-dominant Gaullist tradition. British Conservatives, now facing the very real prospect of a real Reform breakthrough in 2028 or 2029, would do well to pay attention to their dilemma – for the question of what to do about the National Rally has already torn the Republicans in half.

First Éric Ciotti, the Republican party president, shocked his party by forming an alliance with Jordan Bardella, parliamentary leader of the RN. The party’s political bureaux then voted to dismiss Ciotti, who subsequently challenged the decision in court. Say what you like about Tory chaos, but they have not yet managed to contest an actual election bearing the label ‘leadership disputed’.

Meanwhile both factions ran separate slates of candidates in the elections. While both call themselves Republicans, Ciotti’s faction bears the official label ‘UXD’, for ‘Union of the Far Right’ – a masterly display of impartiality by the French authorities.

In seat terms, the Official Republicans won out, returning 39 seats to UXD’s 17. They will also likely be relieved not to be involved in the agonising negotiations over the next government; they and Macron’s Ensemble would command only 200 seats, well short of a majority in the 577-seat chamber.

But that only makes the strategic dilemma which has riven the party even worse – especially if the NPF gets its way and the new government moves hard to the left.

Unless either the Republicans or the Centre stages a remarkable recovery, France will have to choose between the hard-left and the nationalist right. That makes life extremely difficult for a centre-right party. It’s one thing to uphold the cordon sanitaire when it benefits your own man, as it did in 2002, or a palatable, economically-reforming centrist, as it has in the Macron era. It would be quite another thing to do so if the choice were between installing (and perhaps even joining) a government of the Right or tacitly propping up a government of the Left. 

One assumes that those who ran the official Republican ticket would be bitterly opposed to joining up with Le Pen. But even if they hold firm, their voters might not – and UXD, or whatever it ends up being called, will be waiting. 

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.