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The Great Destroyer. President Macron’s Fatal Gamble

Emmanuel Macron’s tenure of office has already eroded the two-party system of Gaullists and Socialists that brought stability to France‘s Fifth Republic. John Keiger explains how, this week, in calling a snap election after the victory in the European elections of Marine le Pen’s party, the President threatens more parliamentary chaos. Now a revived coalition of greens, communists, socialists, Trotskyists and the dominant radical-left France Insoumise has spooked the markets and may cost France dear.

In 2017 a not yet 40-year-old young man with no traditional party affiliation, no real political experience, detonated the institutions of the Vth Republic by winning the French presidential elections. The Fifth Republic, France’s second most enduring and stable regime since the Great French Revolution, has continued to suffer the aftershocks. Its two great parties of government, Gaullists and Socialists, which had ruled France from the moderate right and left, shrivelled electorally. Nature abhors a vacuum. In their place a nationalist right and a radical left expanded as Macron’s centrists were squeezed. President Macron’s stunning decision last Sunday night to dissolve the National Assembly in the wake of the nationalist Rassemblement National’s (RN) remarkable European election victory is likely to complete his oeuvre by turning a series of political crises into a full-blown crise de régime.

Since Macron’s 2022 re-election, devoid of a working majority, France’s slow building crisis accelerated. This week saw the implosion of the rump of the Republican Party, the Gaullists who gave France the stable institutions of the Fifth Republic and four presidents. Its leader, Éric Ciotti, broke the taboo of no collusion with the ‘far right’, by sealing an agreement with the RN, which the party’s grandees have disavowed, though not grass roots members. The cathartic stabilising effect of alternation between the historic Gaullist and Socialist parties will be finally interred by the second round of the snap election on 7 July. The EU elections saw over 50% of votes cast for non-traditional parties, which Macron called ‘extremist’ in his panicked press conference last Wednesday.

What then is the state of play of the parties for the forthcoming legislative elections? An Elab poll on Thursday put the RN on 31%, with the radical left-wing coalition ‘Popular Front’ in second place on 28% and Macron’s centrist grouping trailing third on 18%. At a pinch, that could translate into an absolute majority of seats for the RN given the multiplier effect of the two round majority voting system for winners. In the European elections the RN came first in 96 of 101 French departments. Taking into account the two different electoral systems, Le Monde has used the European results to project the first round legislative election results. Here the RN comes first in 457 of France’s 577 constituencies, though this translates into a less impressive tally of seats in the second round. Other seat distribution analysis gives the RN as the largest party within a broad range up to an overall majority. That distribution could improve further in the wake of the deal with Ciotti’s Republicans.

Two scenarios emerge: an RN with either a working majority or a relative majority. What would be the outcome of each of these scenarios for France? In either case President Macron would appoint the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella as prime minister, even though the constitution does not specify that the appointment be made from the largest party (leaving lee-way for Macron to be even more iconoclastic).

Even with a working majority the RN will have great difficulty implementing its main policies. The ideological gap between president and prime minister will ensure that theirs will be no benign ‘cohabitation’, as in the 1980s and 1990s. First, the RN’s flag-ship policy of holding a referendum on immigration requires presidential consent. Given Macron’s stated opposition this would be dead in the water. Foreign and defence policy are presidential prerogatives and therefore RN policy on Ukraine and the EU would be stymied. The Bardella government would have to settle for domestic policies around law, order and immigration, perhaps concentrating on returning illegal immigrants to their country of origin, although this carries a foreign policy dimension. The president could also make life difficult for the prime minister and government, as Socialist François Mitterrand did for Gaullist Jacques Chirac from 1986 to 1988, by refusing for instance to sign off on governmental decrees he disliked, such as privatisations.

The second scenario of the RN having only a relative majority is even more a recipe for stalemate and parliamentary chaos, worse even than the last two years.  A hung RN National Assembly with a defeated and bitter hard left opposition would verge on the unmanageable. The scene is likely to be one of repeated censure motions, as the government resorts to use of the constitutional device (article 49.3) to press through legislation without a vote, as Macron’s governments have done. The greatest tussle will be over the budget. The RN has generous cost of living spending plans, such as slashing VAT on energy and fuel, aimed at its working class demographic or reversing Macron’s raising of the retirement age to 64. RN reforms are costed by the Institut Montaigne (a centre-right think tank) at some 100 billion euros, much of which is as yet unfunded and certain to up France’s already vertiginous national debt and budget deficit.
Thus with a working majority or not, an RN government will struggle to get its business in the two years until the presidential elections of 2027. Political paralysis will be the likely order of the day. President Macron will use this to grind down the government and diminish its standing with the electorate. Meanwhile financial reform not being part of the RN’s agenda, everything this week suggests that France will be at the mercy of financial markets in the manner of the Liz Truss government. This week the French Bourse dropped 6.2%, the premium France pays on her debt compared to Germany, the ‘spread’, saw its biggest weekly rise since the eurozone debt crisis of 2011, according to Deutsche Bank. France’s large and small business community is already in a state of anxiety as investment projects are put on hold.

Some of this will be used as a French ‘Project Fear’. But panic is beginning to consume even the Macronists about their leader’s decision to dissolve. And many are beginning, sotto voce, to signal that it is he who is the problem, with numerous candidates refusing to  feature the president’s photograph on their campaign literature.

If these scenarios were not bad enough another hoves into view as of yesterday, Friday. Until now French and international media have targeted what they regard as the threat of the ‘extreme right’, because of its triumph in the European elections. But as of yesterday, a more potent threat to French political and financial stability may come from the left-wing new ‘Popular Front’. This coalition of greens, communists, socialists and Trotskyists and the dominant radical-left France Insoumise party today signed a common manifesto and agreement on constituency candidates that many observers thought impossible, and which makes their election more plausible than polls hitherto suggest. This will spook the markets and Brussels far more than the RN, given the commitment to big government, big spending, high taxation and refusal to kow-tow to the EU stability pact. France’s finance minister claimed its spendthrift programme was ‘madness’, certain to provoke financial ruin, even Frexit. Likening it to when François Mitterrand first came to power with the communists, Bruno LeMaire described the manifesto as ‘1981 to the power of 10’.

The 5th Republic faces the biggest test of its existence thanks to Emmanuel Macron. Forever at pains to curate a favourable image in the eyes of history he may be disappointed by the result. Ironically in this 65th anniversary of the 5th republic, President Macron may be responsible for the regime reverting to the political instability and immobilism that characterised the 4th Republic.

Professor John Keiger

John Keiger is a historian of France and former research director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. His expertise covers France in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a special interest in foreign policy and international relations. His books include: Raymond Poincaré; France and the World since 1870 and Ils ont fait la paix: le traité de Versailles vu de France et d’ailleurs.

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