Observations of an Expat: Macron’s Gamble

Emmanuel Macron is either a fool, a political genius or – what is most likely – supremely arrogant. Or perhaps it is a confusing mix of all three.

His decision to call early parliamentary elections is – on the face of it – a gamble worthy of a high stakes Las Vegas poker game.

But then, within hours of the president’s televised announcement, things were looking up for Macron as France’s political right started tearing itself apart. Then there is the strong possibility that a far-right victory could prove to be the poisoned chalice that keeps Marine Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace after the 2027 presidential vote.

That must be Macron’s goal. He is barred from running for a third term, but he firmly believes that Ms Le Pen and her National Rally (RN) is an existential threat to France, Europe and the wider world. He is determined that his political legacy should not read: “The man who put Le Pen in power.”

Most pundits agree that Macron had to call an election soon, but they expected it in the autumnal afterglow of the Paris Olympics. The poll has been on the cards ever since Macron lost his parliamentary majority in 2022. Since then he has either had to shift to the right or resort to ruling by decree with Article 49.3. The latter meant that he would eventually face and lose a vote of censure which would have forced him to hold an election. This way he chooses the date and the context.

Marine Le Pen has worked hard to de-demonise the far-right National Rally founded by her father as the National Front. She went so far as to expel her familial predecessor from the party and changed its name to National Rally.

Bowing to opinion polls, she has even also diluted the party’s euro-scepticism. Calls for “Frexit” and withdrawal from the Euro have been abandoned. But some of RN’s other policies make it hard for the party to shed the extremist label. RN opposes French intervention in Africa; wants to leave NATO’s integrated command structure, supports economic intervention and protectionism; seeks a “privileged partnership” with Russia; is anti-globalist and supports a policy of zero tolerance on law and order issues.

But it is RN’s policies towards immigration and ethnic minorities which are both the biggest problem and opportunity for the party. Marine Le Pen wants a moratorium on legal immigration; the “de-Islamisation” of French society; the repeal of laws allowing illegal immigrants to become legal residents and the rewriting of the European Treaty to prohibit free movement of immigrants within the Schengen Area.

Wars, climate change have created record numbers of displaced persons. This has inevitably resulted in the immigration issue moving inexorably up the global agenda.  RN’s political fortunes have risen correspondingly. In the recent European Parliamentary elections, France’s far-right won 32 percent of the vote—double that of Macron’s Renaissance Party. And opinion polls show Le Pen well ahead of any other potential candidate for the 2027 presidential vote.

Perhaps more significant was the recent passage of France’s Immigration and Asylum Bill. It was meant to demonstrate that Macron could be tough on migrants. But it was not tough enough for either the LR or RN and they blocked the legislation until Macron agreed to make it more difficult for immigrants to bring their families into France and delayed their access to welfare benefits.

Le Pen declared the amended legislation an “ideological victory” for RN. And after Macron called the election she said: “We are ready to exercise power; to put an end to mass immigration—that will be the issue” in this election.

Immigration is highly likely to dominate the campaign and the two-round vote on 30 June and 7 July. And the French public’s position on this emotive issue may result in an RN victory. But then the problems could start.  Le Pen’s RN may find that more pedestrian problems such as French government deficit and the complications inherent in “cohabitation” may prove to be a poisoned chalice.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic was written by Charles de Gaulle for Charles de Gaulle. It is basically a republican monarchy. The president has total control of foreign and defence policy and, because he appoints the prime minister, de facto control of domestic policy—as long as the president’s party can command a majority in the National Assembly.

If the president loses control of the National Assembly then he (or she) has problems. This has been painfully demonstrated on three occasions since 1958 as each “cohabitation” resulted in political stagnation and constant battles as the Elysee and the Hotel Matignon fought for political supremacy.

The problems of “cohabitation” were particularly apparent after conservative president Jacques Chirac was forced to appoint socialist Lionel Jospin as prime minister. Jospin planned to use his tenancy of the Hotel Matignon as a springboard for the presidential vote in 2002.  But Chirac successfully blamed Jospin for five years of political torpor and eliminated the socialist in the first round of voting.

The financial problems of the French government could be what keeps Le Pen out of the Elysee. Shortly before calling the election, Macron held a “crisis meeting” to discuss the government’s growing deficit. French public spending is now 110 percent of GDP, and it faces the prospect of an EU procedure at the end of this month because of excessive deficits.

This is a problem for RN. It is committed to reversing Macron’s raising of the retirement age (savings of $18 billion a year) and has a raft of other high-spending populist policies which will involve either raising taxes (unpopular) or borrowing (irresponsible). It was unsurprising, therefore, that shares on the Paris Bourse dropped dramatically at the prospect of a free-spending National Rally prime minister.

There is also the problem of cobbling together a government. It is unlikely that RN could win an absolute majority. They would almost certainly need a coalition arrangement with the Gaullist Les Republicains. But that party is divided. The grassroots membership wants to join forces with RN. But most of the party leadership continue to regard Le Pen’s party as toxic.

As soon as the election was called, the party’s leader, Eric Ciotti, called for an electoral alliance with Le Pen. But Senate Speaker Gerard Larcher said he would never accept a deal with RN and called for Ciotti’s immediate dismissal. Ciotti responded by locking himself in the party headquarters and declaring: “I am going nowhere.”

Ciotti’s antics inserted an element of high farce, but one must not forget the high stakes in the coming French parliamentary elections.

 

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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15 Comments

  • “But some of RN’s other policies make it hard for the party to shed the extremist label. RN opposes French intervention in Africa;…”
    Sorry, but is opposition to French post-colonial interventionism in Africa a sign of an extremist party? It has plenty of other policies worthy of an extremist label, but I do not regard this as one of them.

  • @Mary– Perhaps. But if you look at it in the context of shedding international responsibilities and opening the door to Putin and Jihadists you might take a different view.

  • @Mary and @Tom The French have long continued their colonialism by stealth under the guise of the African Franc whereby those countries who use it (and if they tried not to use it, then their governments got overthrown) had to deposit large amounts of their dosh in Paris, and also give sizable discounts in raw material prices. The French said years ago that without this little perk, then the French economy and German industry (they got to use said raw materials) would collapse.

    Here we go again, liberal principles of self-determination, human rights etc. become a cudgel to whack those with whom we disagree rather than being genuinely held beliefs in equality, fraternity etc… and we sit here in Europe still not getting why large swathes of the world are looking even more askance in our direction.

  • Does anyone have anything about the substance of the article: the French parliamentary elections, the political future of Emmanuel Macron, the dangers or otherwise implicit in an government headed by Len Pen’s National Rally, the dangers of French populism.

    Or are you all going to continue to fly off on the tangent of French colonialism? Sometimes I wonder why I bother to spend two days or more researching and writing.

  • there is more than one line in the article I wrote, In fact, I think the line about the French in Africa was about one percent of the whole in terms of wordage;

  • One thing puzzles me – and @Tom I hope this isn’t too much of another tangent. You mention the potential problems caused by France’s deficit and how that could impact a future RN Government. But France seems to have unusually high tax rates (according to https://www.oecd.org/tax/revenue-statistics-france.pdf it had the highest tax-to-GDP ratio of any OECD country in 2022 – by quite some margin). And I don’t get the impression its welfare system is especially generous. Yet you mention a possible EU procedure because of excessive deficits. So what is the French Government spending all its money on? Why, despite much higher tax rates, is it struggling so much compared to other countries? Do you, or does anyone, have any insights?

  • Nigel Quinton 16th Jun '24 - 7:51am

    @Tom – I promise not to mention French colonialism (although having worked in Francophonic Africa I have plenty to say on the subject!).

    We are currently holidaying in Corsica and not privy to much political discussion. What I have noticed in the papers and on French TV (plus one conversation with a politically aware ceramicist) since the election was called is a much stronger feeling that the far right must be stopped. It seems that the left have managed to form an electoral alliance in record quick time, do you have any insight into their chances of reversing their decline this time around?

  • Chris Moore 16th Jun '24 - 8:58am

    Thanks Tom for a very interesting article. Btl comments must be dispiriting sometimes. But please be assured that your articles have many usually silent readers like myself.

    I follow developments in France reasonably closely as I speak French fluently and have many contacts in France.

    he formation of the four party left-wing Popular Front – La France Insoumise, the communists, socialists and ecologists – is a direct response to the threat from Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. It deliberately echoes the Popular Front formed in the interwar years to take on increasingly extreme right-wing parties, that threatened democracy.

    The four parties will put up a single candidate in each constituency for the first round of the elections: France has a two-round system with the top two parties in each constituency passing to the second round, if no party has more than 50% in the first.

    The Popular Front will therefore increase the number of left-wing candidates that make it into the top two and through to the second round. In the many areas where Ensemble doesn’t make it to the second round, Ensemble voters will break more heavily to the left.

    Given the above, Popular Front is likely to be snapping at the heels of Rassemblement in terms of seats won.

    it’s fair to say however that Rassemblement National and La France Insoumise – the most important party in the Popular Front – share certain attitudes, though conventionally at opposite ends of the political spectrum, not least a lack of clarity in opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • Peter Martin 16th Jun '24 - 9:53am

    @ Chris Moore,

    What’s “BtL” ?

    @ Tom,

    The big question, of course, is why there is a rise in French right wing populism. There will be several causes but major one is always going to be economic. The rate of unemployment is France is 7.5%. It is more than double that for younger workers. There is a 75% economic activity level which would, on the face of it, mean that even those who have jobs would like to have extra work and to be able to earn more, and that some of those without them haven’t bothered to register as unemployed or aren’t included in the figures even if they do.

    These problems can lead to demands for economic change and a shift to the left. They can also lead to the scapegoating of ethnic minorities and a shift to the right.

  • Peter Martin 16th Jun '24 - 10:01am

    @ Chris Moore,

    The penny has dropped 🙂

    BtL = Below the Line

  • Hello Peter,

    I doubt whether the current unemployment and underemployment rates in France ARE a cause of the rise of the populist right in France.

    After all, the current rates are the best for many years in France and also represent a modest triumph for the current government’s labour reforms.

    You’d need to look at factors like high immigration, sense of decline in quality of public services, high levels of taxes, increasing inequality and others. (There is also chronic disenchantment with Macron as an individual: he’s seen as aloof and arrogant, whereas Le Pen is seen as much “nearer” to the people.)

    Should Le Rassemblement end up forming the government – in coalition with the republicans possibly – the electorate are going to be very rapidly disillusioned.

  • Peter Martin 16th Jun '24 - 12:28pm

    @ Chris,

    I think we’ll have to disagree about this.

    I’d just point out that we see the same effect in the UK. Fascism, the populist right if you prefer, is much stronger in areas of economic deprivation. These naturally have lower rates of immigration too. Why would anyone want to move to an area where there are fewer economic opportunities?

    It will be, and has been historically, a pattern to be repeated everywhere including the countries of the EU.

  • Chris Moore 17th Jun '24 - 8:24am

    Yes, fascist parties thrive on deprivation and setback.

    But unemployment figures in France are the best for decades, so unemployment per se can’t be the cause of Le Ressemblement’s most recent advances.

    You’d need to look at other factors, some of which I’ve mentioned.

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