Macron’s electoral gamble to see off the far-right

Dr Oliver Hartwich
25 June, 2024

“How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?”, asked Charles de Gaulle in 1962. Well, after its forthcoming elections, a plethora of cheese varieties may be the least of France’s problems. Risks abound for both France and Europe.

President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call snap legislative elections for 30 June and 7 July was a high-stakes gamble. His centrist alliance suffered a crushing defeat by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in the European Parliament elections. Macron hopes the early election will catch his opponents off guard and secure him a fresh mandate.

But his ploy might backfire spectacularly.

Recent polls suggest a seismic shift in French politics. The National Rally (Rassemblement National; RN) leads voting intentions, followed by the left-wing New Popular Front alliance. Macron’s own Ensemble coalition trails in third place. France could be heading for a hung parliament, with no party holding an absolute majority.

Macron swept to power in 2017 as a political outsider, promising to shake up France’s sclerotic economy and reinvigorate the European project. His early reforms showed promise, liberalising labour laws and attracting foreign investment. But the yellow vest protests and the Covid-19 pandemic derailed his agenda.

Now, Macron finds himself squeezed between a resurgent far-right and a newly united left. Le Pen has successfully softened her party’s image, focusing on cost-of-living issues while maintaining a hardline stance on immigration. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing alliance promises a radical break with Macron’s pro-business policies.

France’s two-round voting system adds another layer of uncertainty. In the first round, voters often support their preferred candidate regardless of viability. It is in the second round where the real drama unfolds, as voters coalesce around the candidates best positioned to defeat their ideological opponents. Th has long kept the far-right out of power. But 2024 could be different.

The RN has steadily increased its vote share in recent elections. If it emerges as the largest party, it could try to form a government with support from the traditional right-wing Les Républicains party. However, the prospect of an RN-led government remains uncertain.

Marine Le Pen has positioned her 28-year-old protégé, Jordan Bardella, as the party’s potential Prime Minister, but Bardella has set a high bar for accepting the role. He insists he would only become Prime Minister if the RN won an absolute majority in the National Assembly – at least 289 seats out of 577. Without that clear mandate, he says he would decline the appointment. Bardella’s stance reflects both the RN’s ambition and its awareness of the challenges of governing without a clear parliamentary backing.

Current polls suggest that while the RN may become the largest party, it is unlikely to gain a clear majority. That would indeed be a tall order for a party that, until recently, was widely considered extreme in its policies.

If the RN does fall short of a majority, France could face a period of political deadlock. Macron would likely try to appoint a Prime Minister from another party or cobble together a coalition to block the far-right. But in France’s fractured political landscape, this could prove a Herculean task.

The implications of an RN-led government, however unlikely, would be profound. The party’s economic nationalism, scepticism towards the EU, and longstanding affinity for Russia would pose significant challenges to European unity at a critical juncture.

A left-wing victory under Mélenchon would be no less disruptive. His platform includes massive public spending, withdrawal from NATO, and confrontational approach to the EU. Moves to implement this agenda would likely spook financial markets and strain relations with France’s allies.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is a hung parliament, with Macron’s alliance, Mélenchon’s alliance, and the RN all falling short of a majority. This could lead to political paralysis, with a government that struggles to pass legislation and implement reforms. With France facing pressing challenges – from an ageing population to the need for fiscal consolidation – such gridlock could prove costly.

The economic implications of the election are particularly concerning. France’s budget deficit reached 5.5% of GDP in 2023, well above the EU’s 3% limit. Public debt stood at 110.6% of GDP, nearly double the EU’s 60% ceiling. In response, the European Commission has launched an Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) against France, requiring corrective action to bring its finances in line with EU rules.

Yet both the far-right and far-left are promising increased government spending, setting France on a collision course with Brussels. The RN advocates generous welfare spending and protectionist measures, while Mélenchon’s alliance proposes massive public investments and lowering the retirement age. These plans, if implemented, could exacerbate France’s fiscal woes and potentially trigger a debt crisis.

Financial markets are already jittery. The spread between French and German bond yields, a key indicator of investor confidence, has widened significantly. A government perceived as fiscally irresponsible could face punitive borrowing costs, further straining public finances.

The rise of the far-right poses an especially significant challenge. Despite softened rhetoric, the National Rally’s core ideology remains deeply nationalist. Their economic policies could prove ruinous for France’s already strained finances, while their pro-Russian stance raises serious governance concerns amidst Europe’s gravest security crisis since the Cold War.

Yet, demonising RN supporters would be misguided. Their growing numbers reflect genuine grievances – economic insecurity, cultural anxieties, and profound distrust of the political establishment. Any viable solution must address these root issues comprehensively.

Macron’s reforms, while laudable, have not fundamentally altered France’s economic trajectory. The country’s rigid labour market, high taxes, and bloated public sector continue to hamper growth and job creation. Without bolder, more far-reaching changes, France risks falling further behind its more dynamic European neighbours.

The election’s outcome will shape both France’s and Europe’s future. A weakened France could embolden Eurosceptic forces across the continent. The rise of young leaders like Bardella signals a generational shift challenging mainstream parties.

As France votes, it faces a critical crossroads. The next government must balance populist demands with fiscal reality amid complex geopolitical challenges. The results will test the EU’s ability to enforce fiscal discipline without harsh austerity.

France’s establishment must address voter discontent or risk eroding trust in democratic institutions. These elections will determine if France can balance fiscal responsibility, social cohesion, and European solidarity. De Gaulle’s cheese quip reflects a deeper truth – France’s complexity defies easy solutions.

To read the full article on the Newsroom ($) website, click here.

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