Emmanuel Macron took up the challenges of the far right and the far left during the French presidential election. Joseph Downing writes that with Macron unable to run for a third term, the door is open for Jean-Luc Mélenchon or another figure from France’s far left to win the presidency in 2027.
Emmanuel Macron made history by winning the French presidential election of 2022. He becomes the first French president since the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 with a parliamentary majority to be re-elected. He now sits alongside two historic heavyweights in French politics who have won consecutive terms as president: François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.
The French constitution limits presidents to two terms, so for Macron this will be his swan song whether he likes it or not. This could be interpreted as a carte blanche for Macron to press ahead with his much-discussed reforms to the French state, retirement age and employment conditions. However, it is important to consider how the larger trends behind Macron’s rise in French politics will unfold over the next five years.
Key here are the unprecedented tectonic shifts that have taken place in the French party system over the past few years. Candidates representing the former powerful center-left Socialist Party and center-right Republicans each fell to less than 5% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. These parties now seem for all intents and purposes to be finished off as viable challengers for power.
What France is left with are increasingly polarized left and right parties and a personalized party built around Macron, who reluctantly represents the center. This is extremely dangerous for France given that Macron’s mandated departure in 2027 could lead to possible competition between the far left and the far right. Whichever side emerges victorious, the result would be a radical government in the heart of Europe and a clear challenge to the global economic and security order.
Since The Republic on the move! in the Renaissance
Many have overlooked the magnitude of Macron’s achievement in 2017 because he was centrist and a product of the Socialist Party. However, the victory of an “outsider” candidate who had started his own movement was a precursor to the collapse of established party structures that we are witnessing today.
Macron’s movement has always been an extension of his own vision and ideas. The personalized nature of The Republic on the move! was even visible in his name, which featured Marcon’s own initials. Following his victory in the 2022 presidential election, Macron immediately sought to address this issue by renaming the movement “Renaissance”. This is the first step in creating a legacy party capable of holding the center of French politics in 2027.
To achieve this, the party will have to overcome at least two major hurdles. The first is to overcome the personalization around Macron that has been central to the movement’s appeal, as well as the somewhat inconsistent political agenda that the French president has pursued in office.
The fluidity of Macron’s agenda was evident in the 2022 election, where he appeared to undergo something of an ecological “wake-up” between the first two rounds, subsequently promising voters a rapid ecological transition. This was seen by many as a cynical attempt to win over left-leaning voters and underscored the fact that many citizens still don’t know what his party really stands for. It will be difficult for a party that lacks clear messages to build lasting support after Macron leaves.
Second, at present there is no one within the party who seems ready to act as Macron’s successor. The movement was essentially built around a single individual and it is hard to imagine that the next five years will see the emergence of a new leader who can appeal to the electorate in the same way.
The death and rebirth of the left
The French left experienced simultaneous death and rebirth in a much more radical form. The “death” was the candidacy of Anne Hidalgo – the ex-mayor of Paris – who ran for the Socialist Party in the presidential election and won a shockingly low 1.8% of the vote. Significantly, Hidalgo didn’t even perform well in his greater Paris backyard Ile-de-France Region. It is from the candidate of a party that delivered the French president as recently as 2012.
However, the left is not as dull as it seems. Under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, it was reborn in a more radical form, on the far left. Mélenchon finished third in the first round of the 2022 presidential election, dominating the vote both in the poor suburbs of Paris and in the poorer neighborhoods in the northeast of the capital itself.
Ahead of legislative elections scheduled for June 12 and 19, Mélenchon achieved something significant by building a left-wing coalition under his leadership. This led the Socialist Party to accept its role as second fiddle to the much more radical Mélenchon, who left the Socialist Party in 2008. Had such a coalition been present in the first round of the presidential election, it is possible that Mélenchon could have advanced to the second round and defeated Macron in the second round.
The political agenda proposed by Mélenchon includes lowering the retirement age to 60, adopting a more Eurosceptic stance and renegotiating EU treaties, capping food prices and withdrawing NATO. These policies will likely be tempered to some degree to keep the new leftist coalition intact, but even a watered down version of this program would mean substantial upheaval for France and the global economic and security orders. The left-wing coalition could perform well in the legislative elections, with the possibility of Mélenchon even claiming the role of prime minister – which would cripple Macron’s presidency and hopes for reform.
Where does the law go from here?
Marine Le Pen, with much less shock and panic than in 2017, made the second round as the second most popular candidate in France. Le Pen has worked tirelessly to soften his image in France, renaming the National Front the National Rally and choosing to focus his 2022 campaign on issues such as inflation and purchasing power, which have proven popular among voters. . However, his classic anti-Islamic platform remained prominent, with his policy proposals including a pledge to ban the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in public places. However, after a second defeat, where do Le Pen and the far right go from here?
Le Pen has high hopes for the legislative elections. It will aim to build on its somewhat paradoxical gains in French overseas territories, such as the predominantly Muslim island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. However, of the three main players, Le Pen is most likely to follow the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra and carry on as usual.
This will involve maintaining a strong grassroots presence, strengthening its hard core in the North and South, and playing the opposition card against Macron. While Le Pen is unlikely to go anywhere in the next five years, building a party bigger than her that a successor can steer to victory will be a major undertaking. At one point, Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal was considered a potential successor, but her alliance with Éric Zemmour in the 2022 presidential election underscored her estrangement from Marine and the Le Pen clan.
A far-left future?
The French party landscape has changed dramatically since Macron came to power. We are now entering a new era of extremely polarized politics, with Le Pen on the far right and a new, reinvigorated far-left coalition under Mélenchon challenging the fundamentals of the French, European and even global order. Much of the focus in the past has been on the far right’s challenging of the status quo, but it is likely the left will pose the greatest threat to the French mainstream over the next five coming years.
This will be facilitated by three key factors. First, inflation and the possibility of a global recession will cement the economy and social welfare as key issues in France. Second, the left under Mélenchon will be able to articulate a protectionist vision that has similarities to Le Pen’s platform, but while retaining the ideological credentials of lifelong socialists that it lacks.
Finally, the left’s rejection of xenophobia opens the door to ethnic minority voters, as well as many white French voters who have found themselves faced with the choice between a neoliberal Macron they disagree with or a Le Pen more protectionist but xenophobic. . It remains to be seen how things will evolve during Macron’s second presidency, but it is increasingly likely that the battle of 2027 will be defined by the far left’s questioning of the existing order in France, Europe and beyond.
Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: The Left (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)