Emmanuel Macron Already Lost. Will He Take France Down With Him?

Elections France
Emmanuel Macron Already Lost. Will He Take France Down With Him?

The far-right leads after the first round of voting in French elections, opening up the possibility that Marine Le Pen’s radical anti-immigration Rassemblement National (National Rally) could be the strongest presence in the country’s National Assembly. 

An outright majority is far from guaranteed, and France votes again in a July 7th runoff that will be decisive for the makeup of the parliament. But the best chance to try and block the National Rally’s rise may be a “republican front” between Macron’s Ensemble centrist coalition and a new leftist alliance.

However, this “cordon sanitaire” against the National Rally may already be out of reach – possibly because of Macron himself. 

“Faced with the Rassemblement National, the time has come for a broad, clearly democratic and republican rally for the second round,” Macron said in a statement on Sunday. But the question here is exactly how Macron – and his allies – define democratic and republican.

Macron’s cohort has so far been wishy-washy as to whether they will support all members of the left alliance, and they have not fully committed to standing down in constituencies where their candidates came in third. Macron may seek a cordon sanitaire, but only on his own terms. 

This tentative alliance, though, is already Macron’s second political failure. The current situation’s original sin is his hasty call for this wildcard snap election where he sought “clarity” on the strength of the far-right. The clarity Macron got is that he is deeply unpopular, as is his centrist Ensemble coalition, which got trounced. He is poised to lose seats, falling behind this leftist union, the Nouveau Front Popular (The New Popular Front, or NFP).

The NFP, however, has been unequivocal: it will do anything in its power to deny the National Rally votes. Its leaders have said that they will withdraw any NFP candidates who placed third and throw their weight behind whoever has the best chance to defeat a far-right politician. “Nowhere will we allow the National Rally to prevail,” declared Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the left-wing La France Insoumise, or France Unbowed (LFI), which is part of the NFP. “And that’s why, in the event that they came out on top, while we were only in third place, we will withdraw our candidate.”

“In all circumstances,” he continued, “wherever and whatever the case, our instructions are simple, direct, and clear: not one more vote, not one more seat for the National Rally.”

Macron and his allies have made no such explicit promises. What’s “not entirely surprising, but altogether appalling is the fact that many centrist politicians close to Macron have not called to vote for left,” said Aurelien Mondon, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath who studies the mainstreaming of the far-right. “I think this is an incredibly dangerous move from them, and I think it shows how mainstream far-right politics has gotten.” 

Long before this vote, Macron drew an equivalence between the far-left and the far-right, and specifically framed this election as a battle between extremes. He has said a vote for the far-left or far-right risks “a civil war.” 

“When you are fed up with everything, when daily life is hard, you can be tempted by extremes that have quicker solutions. But the solution will never lie in rejecting others,” Macron said in an interview. 

The far-left that Macron is referring to is Mélenchon’s party, LFI. It is one of the four parties in Nouveau Front Popular, alongside the center-left Socialist Party, the Greens, and the French Communist Party. It is an ideologically diverse group with many divisions that came together just weeks ago out of necessity and a sense of urgency. “The only thing that matters to me is that the National Rally doesn’t win the elections and won’t govern the country,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a popular Socialist member of the European Parliament. (The NFP’s name is a nod to the country’s pact in the 1930s between the Communists and Socialists to counter the fascists.)

But the NFP’s big thorn then, and now, is Mélenchon. Mélenchon is a controversial, but not unpopular, figure. He came in a very close third in the 2022 presidential elections, just shy of making the runoff. He’s embraced generous economic positions – raising the minimum wage, more expansive welfare benefits – and pretty bold climate policies. Yet he holds some radical positions and foreign policy views far outside the mainstream in French politics. He’s skeptical of the current European Union and NATO. Though he has criticized Russia for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he’s blamed NATO expansion for contributing to the conflict. His response to Hamas’s October 7th massacre deeply fractured the left, as he and his party initially failed to fully condemn Hamas’s attack, and he has been accused of ignoring antisemitism within LFI’s ranks

Rainbow Murray, a professor and French politics expert at Queen Mary University of London said that some of the criticisms of Mélenchon’s anti-democratic tendencies are legitimate, and some of his key loyalists have blocked parliamentary action in the National Assembly for opposition’s sake. Even some members of LFI have sought to distance the party from Mélenchon, seeing his brand as a touch too toxic.

But Mélenchon is not Marine Le Pen, either. He’s one faction of an alliance where more moderate figures, specifically the center-left Socialists, are on the rise. And Mélenchon – along with his fellow NFP leaders – all made clear that curtailing the National Rally was priority number one right now. “It discredits the Popular Front as an alternative, but it also legitimizes the far-right by equating it to politicians who are very much mainstream,” Mondon, told Splinter before this weekend’s election. “I mean, the Popular Front has Francois Holland amongst its ranks – and Francois Holland is hardly a radical figure on the left.” 

You heard that right, folks: Francois Holland, the former French Socialist president who left office with a four-percent approval rating is back at it, and now well on his way to a political comeback after coming in first in his constituency. He also is Macron’s former boss, which shows how Macron, in casting this election as one among extremes, has undermined his own case against the existential danger of the far-right.

It has also boxed Macron in. He cannot block Le Pen and the far-right without the left, but he’s spent years warning voters against them. “He cannot work with them, and he cannot support them,” Murray said of Mélenchon and LFI. “But he cannot do without them, as long as they are part of this block with the moderates.”

Which gets back to the mixed messages of Macron and his allies. His prime minister, the 34-year-old Gabriel Attal, said Sunday that “not a single vote must go to the Rassemblement National. In such circumstances, France deserves no hesitation. Never.” But, when it came to third runners-up dropping out, Attal said this would happen in cases where Ensemble politicians lost to “Republican candidates,” which many took to mean not Mélenchon’s LFI. 

Other members of Macron’s alliance have been even more explicit that it’s anybody but National Rally and LFI.  “No vote should go to the RN candidates, nor to those of La France Insoumise, with whom we diverge not just on policy but on fundamental values,” former prime minister Eduoard Philippe said Sunday, according to Le Monde. According to Reuters, Macron and his allies have discussed backing the LFI candidate on a case-by-case basis. But in some places, Macron-backed candidates who placed behind moderate leftists and who should be stepping down are basically saying to hell with it, and running anyway.

And even if Macron had not demonized the LFI, and went all on a united front, his unilateral decision to call snap elections means he’s already isolated a lot of his allies. In other words, people in his party are pissed at him, and many of them are now on the verge of losing their seats, so they’re not exactly thrilled to follow his lead. “The best phrase I would use to describe it is ‘hot mess’,” Murray said.

There is still some time ahead of Sunday’s runoff for Macron and his party to coalesce around a more consistent message for a cordon sanitaire. “Ultimately, if you’re going to protect the Republic from its enemies and you define its enemies as being the right, then you would accept an alliance with the left, if necessary,” said Paul Smith, an associate professor of French history and politics at the University of Nottingham before Sunday’s vote. On Monday, he said again it would be up to the center to decide if there were no enemies on the left. 

Still, it may already be too late to undo the damage. To be fair, a political deal with Macron would not be easy for the left, either. The NFP put forward an ambitious economic, social, and climate agenda, one that has such topline items as repealing Macron’s pension reform and freezing food and energy prices. Working with Macron would likely involve compromises on the NFP’s economic agenda, which could weaken their leftist credentials, hurt their standing, and deepen the French public’s disillusionment with the political status quo. 

The most likely outcome of France’s runoff next weekend: chaos. Despite the showing of the National Rally, they are still unlikely to win an outright majority. The NFP won’t either, and Macron and his allies certainly will fall short of one. But Macron will still have to be president, and find a way to govern for the remainder of his term.

The National Rally’s president, 28-year-old Justin Bardella has said that it’s majority or bust, and that the National Rally won’t take power unless they win outright — an admission that they don’t want to govern in chaos and harm their brand. That might leave Macron’s allies, the left, and whoever else is remaining in the center to try to cobble together some sort of deal and put aside their disagreements to at least attempt to govern responsibly. It will be difficult and messy, no matter what. 

“This election has been called over the soul of the Republic, if you’d like,” Smith said. “But the soul of the Republic is not a program of government. If we save the republic from the far-right, what are we going to do now? Where do we go?”

The first and most urgent step is making this firewall against the far-right as strong as possible. So far, Macron has not been able to vanquish Marine Le Pen on his own. Thinking this time will be different is another incredible gamble with France’s democracy.

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