Jun 21, 2022

Can Macron Do Chancellor?

President Emmanuel Macron’s loss of a majority in France’s parliament means that little will get done in terms of domestic policy in the coming years. This could be excellent news for France.

Emmanuel Macron illustration
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The historian Sudhir Haazareesingh wrote, “The French like to divide things into two.” Well, last Sunday, the French decided for once to set free of the shackles of binary thought and politics. They went on to elect a parliament with four major forces. For the first time in decades, the Assemblée Nationale comes close to reflecting the true political preferences of the French.

Starting on the left, the electoral alliance of France’s major left-wing parties NUPES has secured 131 seats. It’s a major success that has the additional benefit of the entire spectrum of the left now being represented in parliament. The Greens and the Socialists have won enough seats to have their own factions. They will be able to chart their course independently from the far-left France Insoumise and their leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

If NUPES is Mélenchon’s success, it is en même temps the highwater mark of his dominance of the left. This also because the gains in seats mask a larger problem. France’s left faces the Jeremy Corbyn problem. By joining forces, pivoting sharply to the left on policy, and raising hopes that Mélenchon could become prime minister, NUPES managed to energize left-wing voters and get media attention. But Mélenchon’s magical thinking failed to attract any new voters to the cause.

A New Normal

This brings us to the other end of the spectrum. In terms of voter dynamics, Sunday’s election shows above all one thing: France is shifting ever more to the right.

The traditional Gaullist party Les Républicains (LR) has shed some seats, but resisted remarkably well considering that Macron has tried very hard over the past years to eliminate them for good. But despite getting LR leaders to join him and presenting himself as tough on crime, Macron is just not right enough for true conservatives.

Even more significant, however, is the fact that the election confirms the rise of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN). Practically without campaigning, Marine Le Pen’s party won 89 seats, the party’s best legislative election result ever. RN secured the majority of second-round run-offs against candidates from NUPES as well as Macron’s Ensemble alliance. Neither left-wing nor centrists were willing to vote for each other to prevent a RN candidate wining in their constituency.

This is probably the most significant development of Sunday’s election. The left unifying as NUPES has rendered life difficult for Macron’s Ensemble, but it is ultimately RN’s surprise score that has denied it a majority. The republican front no longer holds in legislative elections, and this means that it will become very difficult for any party to win an absolute majority in parliament in the future. That is the real game-changer.

Trust the Process

Finally, we have Macron’s Ensemble alliance that remains the largest caucus, but clearly failed to win an absolute majority after a haughty campaign void of policy proposals. But Macron not only lost the election. By failing to tell his supporters that “not a single vote should go to the far-right” and suggesting that NUPES was not a republican formation, Macron also lost his standing as a president able to differentiate between France’s and his own interests.

Anyway, the French did not buy Macron’s desperate “project fear” messaging that without a majority the country faces chaos. In fact, if there is anything the heterogenous French can agree on today, it is this: President Macron’s wings must be clipped.

For five years, Macron has ruled France like an enlightened king dictating policy to his technocratic ministers and often inexperienced MPs. It is not an exaggeration to say that politics in France has never been as top down since the times of Charles de Gaulle, who founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. It worked in terms of policy. Macron has gotten more reforms done than his three predecessors in 22 years. And with unemployment down, there are results. Inflation is now the challenge, of course, but there is no doubt that France is in better shape than it was five years ago.

Just after the 2017 election, Macron promised his reform program would be such a success that there would be no reason for the French to vote for the extreme parties anymore. But that promise already highlighted the problem in Macron’s conception of politics that has now come to haunt him.

Politics is not just about obtaining results. Devising policy is not just an intellectual exercise where you have to find the right formula to get unemployment down and purchasing power up, and then apply it. Especially in a democracy, politics is at least as much about process and performative aspects. After all, we cherish liberal democracy not only because it has rendered us wealthy, but also because it gives us a stake in politics and recognizes us as emancipated individuals.

Stable Stagnation

The French have thus retaken power on Sunday. They want a change in how politics is conducted. Consequently, they have given no party a majority in parliament. So what happens now?

Macron will try to strike a deal with parts of LR or NUPES on the most pressing issue of how to deal with sky-high energy costs and inflation. Here the chances are not bad, as there is urgency to act. Perhaps he will also be able to pass some more forward-looking reforms with them, for example in energy policy. Apart from that, France’s legislative machine will hit the pause button.

If Macron’s first term might be compared to the turbulent reform years under Germany’s Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, his second term might rather resemble the Angela Merkel era, when Berlin only managed to go beyond timid reforms in moments of crisis.

But that might exactly be what France needs right now. After five years of reform politics, the French people’s tolerance is exhausted. Even if Macron had a majority in parliament, any far-reaching reforms would probably have made the French take to the streets en masse and perform their traditional role as veto power of last resort. Macron’s second term was always going to be much less ambitious. That it is now parliament and not the street that can raise the stop signal is welcome news not only for shop owners on the Champs Elysées.

Moreover, while Macron’s hands are now tied, the opposition can’t do anything against the will of the president’s political forces, either. Usually, an incoming new government in France spends the first months in power undoing everything their predecessor has done. That won’t happen this time. This kind of policy stability is already an achievement for France and important for the economy.

Superficially, however, the upcoming era of policy stagnation might look like political chaos when scrolling through your Twitter feed. Snap parliamentary elections are likely to be called at some point, which are likely to produce another hung parliament. And that will be an important moment. It is probably only then that France’s political elites will fully grasp that there is no going back to the future of presidentialism and winner-takes-it-all politics.

Chancellor Macron?

So, the coming years could well turn out to be not that bad for France. As Germans know, stagnation rhymes with policy stability and relative social peace. And it buys time for France to mentally transition toward a more parliamentary democracy—a step that is long overdue and that actually would be in line with France’s history.

Throughout its republican history, France has always pivoted back and forth between parliamentarism and top-down politics. The parliamentary Fourth Republic has bad press, but it performed quiet well on many fronts, especially on the economy, laying the groundwork for les trente glorieuses, the three decades of growth. It failed because a divided France was unable to resolve the issues of Algerian dependence. General de Gaulle needed to take control and create the Fifth Republic to break the deadlock. France certainly faces many challenges today, but none are as divisive or existential as Algeria was in the late 1950s. So there is no reason to deny the longing of the French for a more representative government.

And Macron? Can he pivot and become a moderator, an enabler of France’s republican life instead of trying to continue to decide everything on his own? “Can he do chancellor?,” the Germans would ask.

Responding to a question on why he never dared to publish one of his novels, Macron said: “In politics, dissatisfaction is tackled—or at least confronted—with action. As long as you are not happy, you stay mobile and keep going. In literature, however, you have to put a full stop one day and let others read what you have written. I find that difficult. Probably I am too proud.”

Macron can satisfy his urge for action and longing for recognition with defense and foreign policy, where he doesn’t need to heed parliament. (Foreign policy think tankers, prepare for even more competition). But on domestic policy, he needs to change, or he will fail. Over the last five years he was the single author of France’s roman national. Last Sunday, the French have taken the pen out of his hands. He is now an actor among others in the great French play. But he can rest assured: even boring German chancellors can, at times, make history.

Joseph de Weck is the author of the (German-language) book Emmanuel Macron: Der revolutionäre Präsident and a Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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