The recent European elections have triggered dramatic changes in French politics but, with a murky political landscape, no one can predict where they might lead.
The year 2019 has turned out to be rich in pretexts for political predictions. While India managed to hold an election that produced what appears to be a definitive result, even if the result defied the predictions of many pundits, in Western democracies it’s a year with few major elections. The more symbolically than politically meaningful European elections that recently took place constitute an exception. It’s a time for predicting rather than voting. The ongoing Brexit drama may lead to an election in the UK before the end of the year, but no one is capable of predicting anything having to do with Brexit.
The European elections have kept political analysts busy, though with very little true political matter to work with. Except possibly in France, where there have been a few surprises. Politico breaks down the latest strategy of France’s centrist ruling party, President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LRM). It attributes a new strategic orientation thanks to which Macron can “suck votes from the center left and center right.” This “has led a number of pundits to already predict his victory in 2022, when France goes back to the polls to elect a new president.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Announce the future result of a national election, with a view either to display one’s intelligence and deeper understanding of a complex electoral context or to surreptitiously promote a certain candidate one hopes everyone will accept as being an inevitable choice
Marine Le Pen’s anti-European Rassemblement National (RN) narrowly beat Macron’s list for the European elections. But the French president —who had been struggling with the revolt of the yellow vests movement — managed the difficult task of drawing the most votes from those who believe in Europe. His list drew practically even, on its own, with the RN.
But something more dramatic happened. The traditional right, which had recently changed its name to Les Républicains, was absolutely humiliated in the European election, with 8.4% of the vote. The head of the party, Laurent Wauquiez, promptly resigned, leaving a major question mark about the future of the party. That could only be good news for President Macron, who jumped on the opportunity to pull away the moderate flank of the Républicains and rebuild his base that had been weakened by the yellow vests. It was time to reinstate.
Politico correctly spots a reason why, following the European elections and contrary to the predictions of the pundits, “Macron’s strategists should instead be worried.” Macron has never managed to impose his reformist identity, which was the key to his election in 2017. The bold reforms he proposed took now account of the temperature of the nation, which allowed the yellow vests to brand the former Rothschild banker as “the president of the rich.” It was the déjà vu of “bling-bling” Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, all over again, but without the political infrastructure to back him up.
With the next presidential election scheduled for 2022, the traditional right, which represents a persistent cultural reality in France, has plenty of time to reorganize. If it does, Macron’s new-found strength will disappear instantaneously since, in the meantime, he will have alienated all of the left and most everyone else, who have waited, with growing impatience, to see his reformist party emerge as an effective political force.
Over past decades, the parties that make up the mainstream right in France have occasionally fragmented into competing clans, only to reunite in the form of governing coalitions. They have always managed to do two things: affirm an image of legitimacy by being deemed capable of responsible government in the eyes of the French electorate and maintain a clear binary contrast with the left, also deemed capable of governing — much like the Democrats and Republicans in the US before Donald Trump or the Conservatives and Labour in the UK before Brexit. In all these cases, rival personalities, with different outlooks and loyalties, tended to consider themselves part of a family destined to govern.
In France, all that changed in 2017, more by accident than historical logic. The Républicain François Fillon won the primary on the right that pitted him against another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, a Gaullist, who was seen as more centrist and reassuring, with the ability to draw votes from the left. Every pundit in every media assumed that Fillon would handily beat the low-profile socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, whom the Socialist establishment deemed impertinent when he challenged the continuity of the Socialist establishment by opposing the incumbent prime minister, Emmanuel Valls. Hamon’s victory in the primary split the party in two.
Over the years, Fillon had managed to cultivate a “Mr. Clean” image. No sooner had he won the primary than a financial scandal emerged, involving a hefty remuneration of nonexistent work for his wife. Unable to deviate attention from the scandal and unwilling to remove his candidacy, the first round of the presidential election was no longer a traditional mainstream right vs mainstream left contest. It wasn’t even a less traditional but somewhat predictable race between an incumbent majority and an insurgent populist extreme right (a Le Pen, père or fille). Rather, it was a possible five-way contest between an enfeebled right and left, Macron’s amorphous centrist party, a reasonably solid radical left (Melanchon) and the sempiternal Le Pen (Marine).
Few observers have noticed that, in the 21st century, the anti-immigrant, populist Le Pens singlehandedly replaced the role the Communist Party (PC) had played in the French political landscape late in the 20th century as the party that protested the system in the name of ordinary working people and could be counted on to obtain 20% of the vote in any election. The media do their utmost to entertain the fear of the rise of the populist right, but in election after election, in numbers it mimics the PC of the mid to late-20th century.
Paradoxically, Macron, who obtained an unassailable majority in 2017 that is protected until 2022, hasn’t done better than the old PC or Le Pen’s current RN, with a base score of only between 20 and 25%. Jacques Chirac beat Jean-Maire Le Pen in 2002 with 82.21% of the vote. In 2017, Macron beat Marine Le Pen with only 66.1%, which allowed Le Pen to achieve the historic score of 33%. This was largely because Macron represented nothing other than himself, inspiring little enthusiasm except from voters intent on stopping Le Pen.
Whether it’s France, the US or the UK — to take only the most obvious examples — do the traditional parties and their leaders have what’s required for the public to have confidence in their ability to rule? And once elected, can any of them govern in a meaningful and constructive way? Or has the very idea of democracy reached its breaking point?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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