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How Macron's failures created an ungovernable France

·17-min read
MACRON - Thomas Broom
MACRON - Thomas Broom

The last couple of days have not been kind to Boris Johnson, but Emmanuel Macron has just had the worst week of his life.

Last Sunday the French President lost his parliamentary majority in what the media described as a political “earthquake” that has left France “ungovernable”. His ruling bloc lost no fewer than 101 seats. Compared to that, a couple of by-election defeats are pretty small beer.

Just two months ago, Macron seemed to have France at his feet. Still only 44, and re-elected President of the Republic for five more years, “Jupiter” was apparently once again master of all he surveyed.

His comfortable margin of victory over Marine Le Pen (58.5 to 41.5 per cent) made Macron seem unassailable. Hardly anyone at the time realised that this triumph would so quickly prove to be a mirage - least of all the President himself.

With Angela Merkel gone and her successor, Olaf Scholz, discredited by his vacillation over Putin’s war on Ukraine, the French President could legitimately claim to be Monsieur Europe. One of his first acts on re-election was to call the Russian President, posing as a Bismarckian “honest broker”.

Macron clearly felt that he bestrode the Continent like a colossus. He also had ambitious plans to reform the EU, including more majority voting, a giant step towards realising his Napoleonic dream of a European superstate.

Fêted at home and abroad, Macron thought he could safely ignore his most resilient rival, the perennially embattled Boris Johnson. Across the Atlantic, the geriatric Joe Biden could hardly compete with his youthful vigour.

Walking as tall as his diminutive stature allowed, Macron sought to evoke the memory of General de Gaulle, promising an epoch-making “reconstruction of France” on the scale of the postwar era. Like Louis XIV in Versailles, the “Sun King” of our day, the autocrat of the autocue, could boast: “L’État c’est moi.

Pride comes before a fall — and Macron’s hubris was swiftly punished. His nemesis took the form of a crushing defeat in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections, leaving him with a hung parliament and France’s first minority government for two decades.

From Jupiter to Hephaestus

After the extreme Left and the far-Right unexpectedly deprived Macron of his majority, France now looks more unstable than for generations. Not only was the President’s coalition reduced to 245 seats in the National Assembly, far short of a majority, but there was little of the tactical voting on which Macron had relied to defeat Marine Le Pen in the presidential election.

This time, her National Rally scooped up 89 seats, while the ragbag NUPES alliance of the Left led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn, took 131. Macron’s own party was decimated; three ministers even lost their seats.

The humiliation for Macron was underlined when Elisabeth Borne, his new Prime Minister, offered her resignation this week after less than a month in office. Though he refused to accept her offer, few doubt that this dour ex-bureaucrat will be replaced in due course by a more charismatic figure.

It is likely that Macron, who began his career as a Socialist, will be forced to install a more Right-wing Prime Minister to woo the former Gaullists, now known as Les Républicains. The last President who had to endure “cohabitation” with an opposition government was François Mitterrand in 1988, when Macron was a schoolboy.

Les Républicains may have flopped in the presidential race, but they have more than 60 deputies in the new parliament. Without their support, it will be impossible for Macron to pass any of his legislative programme.

Elisabeth Borne - THOMAS COEX/ AFP
Elisabeth Borne - THOMAS COEX/ AFP

Two days of intensive talks at the Élysée Palace this week broke down without a coalition or pact. Macron was rebuffed by all the opposition parties, including Christian Jacob, parliamentary leader of Les Républicains. 

The offer of ministerial jobs was evidently not enough to win over the centre-Right, despite both of Macron’s previous Prime Ministers having been poached from their camp. For now, the Gaullist leadership prefers opposition.

No less implacable are the Socialists, whose vote has collapsed but who remain influential in the French establishment. Neither the Socialists nor les Républicains have forgiven Macron for smashing the traditional party system without any idea of what would replace it. What has in fact replaced it is a far more polarised politics, dominated by the extremes of Left and Right. The centre cannot hold.

Macron himself was initially shell-shocked by his rebuff from a French electorate he had come to take for granted. As he tries to hammer together a coalition, he has been telling friends he no longer identifies with Jupiter, the king of the gods, but Hephaestus, their blacksmith.

On Wednesday he emerged to address the nation on television. In a terse speech lasting just eight minutes, Macron acknowledged the “deep divisions” in French society and implored his compatriots to be more like the Germans, who were used to compromise and coalition government.

The TV address was meant to inaugurate a new, more consensual era. Yet the mask slipped when a supposedly humbled President insisted that he would carry on regardless, forcing his reforms through parliament on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis. The message was clear: no matter how you vote, you will get what’s good for you.

The French, however, will have noticed that their head of state still doesn’t get their message to him. That voters have tired of Macron’s arrogance was shown by a poll this week which showed that more than two thirds of the electorate see his defeat as a victory for democracy. They are enjoying seeing him get his comeuppance and will probably agree with Mélenchon’s dismissive remark that his speech was just “ratatouille”.

How did it go so badly wrong for Macron?

Under the constitution, the President is not supposed to take part in campaigning for the parliamentary elections. Yet previous heads of state have been more active in support of their party comrades; most have been able to win a majority in the National Assembly.

Just days before the second round of the election, Macron pulled out all the stops by persuading his German and Italian counterparts to join him on a train ride to Kyiv. Having previously insisted that Putin should not be “humiliated”, he now posed for photos embracing Zelensky — perhaps hoping that some of the Ukrainian leader’s heroic stardust would rub off on him.

If that was its aim, the stunt failed to impress French cynics, who noted that their President had waited for nearly four months to show solidarity with the brave defenders of European liberty. Actions speak louder than words and the French lag far behind the Americans and British in military aid to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) and French Fresident Emmanuel Macron embrace after giving a press conference in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022 - LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) and French Fresident Emmanuel Macron embrace after giving a press conference in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022 - LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

At the ballot box, Macron’s display of martial statesmanship was a damp squib. Particularly galling for him was the sheer indifference of the voters, a record proportion of whom (53 per cent) abstained. The President’s manic hyperactivity was met by a classic Gallic shrug.

And so, after taking a wrecking ball to the traditional parties, Macron has encountered an immovable object: apathy. The movement he created six years ago, La République en marche (“the Republic on the move”), has ground to a halt. He has renamed it Renaissance, but so far there has been no rebirth, nor even a reboot.

Though it was revolutionary France that invented the politics of Left and Right, Macron is hard to pigeonhole as either  — but then he is hardly a typical French politician. By nature more inclined to grand gestures than to ideological consistency, he often fails to listen to the man — and especially woman — in the street.

He has restored a measure of dignity to the presidency, an office that had been ridiculed under the venal Nicolas Sarkozy and the libidinous François Hollande. His eye for symbolism has served him well, for instance with his eloquent message to the Queen on her Platinum Jubilee.

However, symbolism is no longer enough for Macron. Marianne, the personification of France since 1789, has dumped her once-godlike lover.

'A chicken in his pot'

After five years in office, the President forgot that elections are ultimately decided by bread-and-butter issues. After years of lockdown and pandemic, he promised root-and-branch reform of the economy, but nothing for families already making drastic economies.

Macron tends to forget the most profound truth ever uttered in French politics, more than four centuries ago. Henri IV, who was pragmatic enough to change his religion in order to become king, declared: “I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he is unable to have a chicken in his pot (“sa poule au pot”) every Sunday.”

Like Britain, France is in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis for which the only real solution is a monetary squeeze that is deeply unpopular. The difference is that in France both the inflationary malaise and the recessionary medicine can be blamed in part on the European Central Bank — which, unlike the Bank of England, is unaccountable.

Another difference is that, while the British had Mrs Thatcher, the French have never radically reformed their public sector. Hence they have an even more bloated and bureaucratic state than the British: government spending accounts for more than 60 per cent of GDP, compared to around 50 per cent in the UK.

Before Brexit, it was easy for French financial services and entrepreneurs to migrate to London’s more benign fiscal and regulatory regime. This brain drain infuriated Macron and he has made it an article of faith to make France more competitive — with only limited success.

Having wasted years when the pandemic interrupted his reforms, Macron was hoping to use his second term to push through a liberalisation programme that would have rebalanced the economy, removing burdens on business and incentivising workers to retire later.

Macron’s hopes now lie in ruins. “His reform agenda will be far less ambitious than envisaged,” said Armin Steinbach, a Paris-based economist, who predicts that only big-spending proposals on renewable energy or to deal with fallout from inflation will gain cross-party support.

The crunch is likely to come on state pension reform, an issue that has already brought millions onto the streets at the May Day demonstrations. Macron wants to raise the pensionable age from 62 to 65 — still lower than in the UK, where it is now 66, rising to 67 in three years’ time.

Whereas the British are broadly agreed that improved health and longevity mean that people can and often want to have longer working lives, the French refuse to accept this demographic imperative. Populists of Left and Right are exploiting a population in denial, pretending that the economy can support an indefinitely growing number of pensioners. Mélenchon in particular campaigned to lower the pension age from 62 to 60.

Such fantasy policies are inspired by the economic theories of Thomas Piketty and other neo-Marxists or New Keynesians, who suggest that money can be created, borrowing is unlimited and taxation has no downsides.

A protester damages a campaign poster bearing French President and candidate for a second term Emmanuel Macron during a "Look up" march, to call on the presidential candidates to take into account the climate emergency, which protesters say is largely absent from the election campaign, less than two weeks after a warning from UN climate experts and a month before the presidential election, in Rennes, western France, on March 12, 2022 - DAMIEN MEYER/AFP
A protester damages a campaign poster bearing French President and candidate for a second term Emmanuel Macron during a "Look up" march, to call on the presidential candidates to take into account the climate emergency, which protesters say is largely absent from the election campaign, less than two weeks after a warning from UN climate experts and a month before the presidential election, in Rennes, western France, on March 12, 2022 - DAMIEN MEYER/AFP

It does not help that France is, and always has been, a deeply divided society: between rich and poor, Paris and the provinces, as well as between ethnic and religious groups. A study by the German historian Rainer Zitelmann shows that France has a much higher level of “social envy” than the UK, meaning that voters are more likely to support penal taxation on the rich, or even take to the streets to protest against the metropolitan elites.

The Fifth Republic's flaw

This year’s elections, like others over the past 15 years, also revealed that the divisions between the Muslim minority, Europe’s largest, and the rest of French society are deeper than ever. For the first time, Marine Le Pen will be able to pursue her demands to crack down on the public display of Islamic identity at the head of a large parliamentary party.

The consequences could be incendiary. In their TV debate, Macron accused Le Pen of inciting “civil war” with her proposed ban on the Muslim hijab or headscarf. But in large parts of la France profonde, especially in the Mediterranean south, the majority agrees with her.

One reason why France is increasingly ungovernable is that Macron has never abandoned his deep aversion to what he sees as the reactionary attitudes of a large part of the population. From time to time he expresses the contempt of the secular Parisian elite for provincial, Catholic France.

This division goes back at least as far as the 1789 Revolution, when peasants were massacred in the Vendée. It resurfaced under the dictatorship of Vichy France and again in the postwar Algerian crisis. A military coup was only averted by General de Gaulle, who imposed a new constitutional settlement designed to bolster his authority.

Though a man of the Left, Macron reveres “the General”. Yet the Fifth Republic he bequeathed has one major flaw: it only functions properly with a strong, broadly-based President.

Bonapartist tendencies

Without a majority in the National Assembly, the system inevitably pits the presidency against the people. Despite the executive power of the office, with control over foreign policy and the military, its prestige seldom lasts beyond the first term. De Gaulle himself resigned halfway through his second term, a year after students and workers protested in May 1968. Both the other Presidents who failed to win a parliamentary majority in their second terms, Mitterrand and Chirac, ended up as lame ducks.

Macron’s book is entitled simply Revolution and he sees himself as a revolutionary, thereby tapping into a long tradition in France. We tend to assume that there was only one French Revolution, but in fact there have been many, beginning in medieval Paris. During the lifetime of our Queen alone, France has lived through an occupation, a dictatorship and three republics.

It is not Emmanuel Macron’s fault that he bears a physical resemblance to Napoleon, but his Bonapartist tendencies are all his own. In character he resembles rather the first French President, the great Napoleon’s nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who was elected in 1848. Not content with that office, five years later he staged a coup d’état and made himself Emperor.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson before a meeting on Brexit at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, August 22, 2019 - GONZALO FUENTES/ REUTERS
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson before a meeting on Brexit at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, August 22, 2019 - GONZALO FUENTES/ REUTERS

Napoleon III, as he styled himself, was careful to favour both workers and capitalists, legalising the right to strike in law while liberalising the economy. His cultural legacy is still visible in Hausmann’s rebuilding of Paris. But Napoleon III’s imperial experiment had no democratic legitimacy and in 1870 the regime collapsed when he was defeated and captured by the Prussians.

Macron’s economic centrism is not dissimilar from that of Napoleon III and he, too, loves his grand designs. But, like the Bonapartes, he sees himself as above the fray. Such aloofness has its perils, especially when — unlike Napoleon I or De Gaulle — the incumbent has no military exploits to his name.

Five more years?

Oratory is no substitute for prowess in battle. In his post-election broadcast Macron warned, not without condescension, against the “politicking” of the opposition parties in the National Assembly. No sooner had he descended from the clouds than he took off again for two days of EU, G7 and NATO summits. He has not really let go of the Jupiter delusion.

Quite apart from unwisely giving the impression of detaching himself from the country that elected him, Macron seems dangerously close to being in denial about the risks to his own authority. What he doubtless sees as leaving allies and enemies alike to stew in their own juice, looks to the nation like a captain who is abandoning ship.

Such an abdication of responsibility is precisely the charge he likes to level at opponents such as Mélenchon, who refused even to negotiate with him in person. Yet for ordinary people who are struggling with rising prices, onerous taxes and falling living standards, the buck stops, not with demagogues of Left or Right, but with the head of state in the Élysée.

Wednesday’s televised address sounded as if it had been crafted by a patrician to put politicians in their place. Food for thought for them, but no crumbs of comfort for the watching plebeians.

 French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) leader and Member of Parliament Marine Le Pen walks away after being escorted by France's President Emmanuel Macron after talks at the presidential Elysee Palace, France, June 21, 2022 - REUTERS
French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) leader and Member of Parliament Marine Le Pen walks away after being escorted by France's President Emmanuel Macron after talks at the presidential Elysee Palace, France, June 21, 2022 - REUTERS

Telling the French to be more like the Germans is never going to endear them to you. On that score, they have enough of an inferiority complex already. But if Macron means what he says, he must know that coalition-building in Berlin is a matter of intensive horse-trading, not for days but for months.

Macron gave the opposition two days to agree to his terms. When Olaf Scholz took over from Angela Merkel last December, he was congratulated for having taken only since September to cobble together his “traffic light” (Ampel) coalition of red (Social Democrats), amber (Free Democrats) and the Greens. In French eyes, it looks as if Macron isn’t serious about a striking a deal and will let the country go to the dogs rather than get off his high horse.

Instead, the President prefers to float half-baked ideas about a new European “political community” — a kind of EU salon des réfusées where countries such as Ukraine that don’t qualify for full membership can be fobbed off with a second-class version. As an afterthought, he added that the British, too, would be eligible.

At this week’s EU summit, at which Ukraine was given official candidate status, Macron caused confusion by declaring that his (non-existent) community was still the right “geopolitical” place for the Ukrainians. He snubbed the new candidate member twice over by making it clear that there was no question of Ukraine joining Nato.

From Trump or indeed Biden, such remarks would be seen as mere gaffes. But from Macron they are a reminder that he really is keeping the door to Putin, if not open, then at least ajar.

Ignoring voters, alienating opponents, patronising allies: Macron has a singular notion of how to win friends and influence the people. His insistence on ambitious new measures to combat climate change at a time when petrol prices are rising at a record rate brings to mind the Marie Antoinette theory of politics: if they can’t afford bread, let them eat cake.

He has learned from the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests of 2018-19 that France can quickly descend into chaos if hundreds of thousands block roads and march on Paris. One of Mme Borne’s few acts as Prime Minister has been to offer fuel subsidies to those who must drive long distances to work.

Paris is quiet, as families prepare to depart en masse for les grandes vacances on July 7. But the omens are not good. Like the rest of Europe and America, France is being buffeted by economic headwinds over which it has limited control. Unlike most other countries, however, the French have a long history of violent street protest, which has sometimes cost rulers their jobs or even their heads. The land of revolution is more ungovernable than ever. Will Macron last five more years?

Daniel Johnson is the editor of TheArticle

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