If Emmanuel Macron has any sense he will be back in the office this morning. Sunday night’s celebratory shindig was good while it lasted but the Fifth Republic has never faced such a parlous future, either socially or economically. One can only hope that the attack on a priest in a Nice church on Sunday morning, barely mentioned by the media, is not a harbinger of things to come for Macron’s second term.
Of more general concern for France is the economic situation. Everything is rising, from the cost of petrol to the price of a baguette, and the war in Ukraine will only deepen the crisis in the months ahead. In an op-ed in last Thursday’s Le Figaro Agnès Verdier-Molinié, the director of an independent think-tank, expressed her dismay that throughout their campaigning neither Macron nor Marine Le Pen had addressed the ‘chasm of our public finances’. In 1980 France’s national debt was 21 per cent of its GDP and in 2022 it is 112.9 per cent. Verdier-Molinié reserved her fiercest criticism for successive governments that for decades have ‘spent without counting the cost’. France’s debt is unsustainable and it will require great political courage on the part of Macron to confront the challenge in his second mandate.
He will only be able to do that if he wins the third round of the presidential election, which are the parliamentary elections in June. Five years ago his nascent En Marche! party won a landslide victory, securing 350 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. This time, however, it will be a battle to win a majority, which could lead to a government of co-habitation. The last such government was in the late 1990s when President Jacques Chirac of the centre-right Rally for the Republic (now the Republicans) had as his Prime Minister the Socialist Lionel Jospin.
The Premiership is now being eyed by another socialist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, often described as a Gallic Jeremy Corbyn. They are of the same vintage and both have a curious ability to inspire fanaticism in their followers. A quarter of an hour after last night’s exit poll had been announced, Mélenchon – a brilliant media operator – gave a press conference in which he announced a coalition of the left ahead of the parliamentary elections with the aim of securing a majority in the National Assembly.
Up until now, the disparate left has been unable to put its differences aside and unite, but Mélenchon – who came third in the first round of the presidential election with 22 per cent of the vote, way ahead of the pitiful performances by the Greens and Socialists (6.5 per cent between them) – has achieved this by dint of his popularity among the under 40s. In effect, the Socialists were left with no choice: rally to Mélenchon or face extinction, and it was through gritted teeth that the grande dame of the Socialist party, Ségolène Royal (beaten by Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of the 2007 presidential election), endorsed Mélenchon on Sunday evening.
Economically, there was little between the protectionism espoused by Mélenchon and Le Pen. But whereas the former has managed to unite the left, Le Pen will not be able to rally the right ahead of the parliamentary elections. In an address to the party faithful on Sunday evening, she vowed to continue in the belief that eventually she will become president, but she won’t.
Le Pen’s problem is that her left-wing economics are a turn off for the middle-classes who otherwise agree with her position on immigration and Islamic extremism. Therein lies the conundrum facing the French right. This rings true of the centre-right Republican party who chose as their presidential candidate Valerie Pecresse over Eric Ciotti. Pecresse is Macron in a blouse, hence her humiliating performance in the first round (she polled under 5 per cent which meant she to failed to recoup her campaign expenses), while Ciotti would have been the hardline candidate.
There may be one figure, however, with the charisma and acumen to unite the right, and that is Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal. Elected to parliament as one of only two National Front MPs in 2012, Marechal fell out with her aunt in 2017 about the direction of the party and quit politics. More socially conservative than Le Pen, she is also far more liberal economically and in that regard is viewed by middle-class centre-right voters are more palatable than her aunt. Last week Marechal called for a coalition of the right to contest the parliamentary elections, but that is unlikely to happen as long as Le Pen remains on the scene.
But Le Pen must in the weeks ahead face a cold, hard truth: that she will never have the appeal or the skill to become president. Indeed, her deficiencies have been exposed by Mélenchon, every bit as ‘extreme’ as her in his ideology, but who is a far more polished performer and could, perhaps, as a result be the next Prime Minister.
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