The outcome of the French Presidential election held on Sunday 24 April was, of course, an enormous relief to all who identify as Europeans and who love France, our near neighbour. The incumbent President’s victory with 58.5 per cent of the vote gave him a clear margin over his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, who gained 41.5 per cent. There were, however, many abstentions and spoiled ballots, reflecting disillusionment amongst the low-paid and the young, so that Macron won support from only 38.5 per cent of the total electorate.
In the past, he has been accused of having an imperious style, and being a ‘President of the rich’, but in his acceptance speech he conceded the need, during his five year second term, to address “the hardships of people’s lives and …the anger expressed.”
His victory was undoubtedly a significant achievement, as he was the first French President to gain a consecutive term in over 20 years, and the only one to do so having governed with a parliamentary majority since the Fifth Republic was established in 1958. Some have suggested that this appetite to reject incumbents has reflected France’s history and national character – a desire to overturn the ancien régime with mass protest. Having personally run the gauntlet of several ‘gilets jaunes’(yellow vests) blockades in 2018, (in an effort to reach the ferry at Dieppe), which was quite an intimidating experience, for me this begged the question of why similar protests have not erupted in Britain given the many social divides here in the UK?
According to the French writer Sylvain Tesson, “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they’re in hell.” Marine Le Pen has capitalised on these sentiments, describing France last year as “the world champion of debt…world champion of unemployment, the world champion of poverty”. These seem extraordinary claims in relation to a rich country which many of us regard as one of the most favoured in the world. They reflect opposition to Macron’s attempts, for example, to raise the legal age for a full pension from 62 to 64 (as UK pension ages climb towards 67 in 2028).
However, there was a clear urban/rural divide, with major cities such as Paris, Lyon and Toulouse, as well as those in the south-west which had supported left-leaning Mélenchon in the first round, supporting Macron, with rural and run-down industrial areas in the north and the east supporting Le Pen. There was also a large educational and cultural divide, with degree holders largely voting for Macron, while those without a baccalaureate mainly voted for Le Pen.
Challenges facing Macron
Domestically, therefore, Macron will face some formidable challenges as he enters his second term. First amongst these will be the retaining his parliamentary majority, as French voters will be called to the polls once more on 12 and 19 June, to elect the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly) MPs who will represent them for the next five years. Tactical voting and electoral pacts can be important in these elections. To retain control, Macron’s La République en Marche and its allies will require a majority of 289 MPs in the 577 seat lower house.
The success of Macron’s En Marche in 2017 has left the more traditional centre left and centre right parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, hollowed out. In the recent election, they gained only seven per cent of the vote, compared to 26 per cent in 2017. So effectively, the French opposition currently consists of a group of divergent extremist parties.
Much may depend on which alliances are formed. Le Pen, who currently only holds eight seats in the Assemblée Nationale, has vowed to fight on in June parliamentary polls. Her speech conceding defeat failed to include the traditional congratulations to the winner, calling into question a pledge that she would not stand again as President. Despite conceding, she counted her significant vote share – the best a right-wing party has gained in a presidential election – a victory.
Cooperation between Le Pen and her even more extreme far-right rival Eric Zemmour and his Reconquête movement looks unlikely, however, following attacks on the former by the latter after Sunday’s poll. Melénchon, on the far left, who came third in the first Presidential poll with 22 per cent, seems an unlikely partner in any future Macron-led coalition. He refused to explicitly endorse Macron and has painted him as Thatcher reincarnated. “The fight continues,” he vowed and he is calling on voters to make him prime minister in the June elections.
Relief in the EU
The importance of Macron’s win for the future of Europe cannot be overestimated. On 22 April, the leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal (unusually) published an open letter in ‘Le Monde’, in support of: “A France that defends our common values, in a Europe that we recognise, that is free and open to the world, sovereign, strong and generous”. Against the background of the war in Ukraine, the result was therefore greeted with delight in Brussels.
The President of the European Council of Ministers, former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, welcomed the French commitment to “a more sovereign and more strategic European Union”. During the first six months of 2022, France holds the rolling Presidency of the Council of the European Union, so Macron can now pursue his priorities within the EU. NATO allies, notably the US, were similarly relieved.
What the future holds
Following constitutional reforms in 2008, French Presidents can serve only two consecutive terms, so that looking ahead to the next Presidential election in 2027, a potential centrist successor to Macron needs to emerge. Édouard Philippe, Macron’s former prime minister who saw the country through the pandemic, recently created the centre-right party Horizons, but wants to keep his movement separate as a launchpad for a 2027 presidential run.
In 2016, Macron himself wrote: “If we don’t pull ourselves together, in five years or ten years, [Ms Le Pen] will be in power”. Let’s hope that in that respect at least, he is wrong.