Emmanuel Macron gave his political party the new name Renaissance during the legislative election campaign. Far from being reborn, Macron’s centrist coalition lost 104 of its 350 seats on Sunday, leaving it with a plurality of 246 deputies in the 577-strong assembly.
Macron’s is now the smallest parliamentary majority since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958.
Macron mistakenly thought French voters would be consistent and renew his absolute majority, after giving him 58 per cent of the presidential vote on April 24th. He thought they would not want to undermine their leader while war rages in Ukraine. On leaving for the war zone a week ago, Macron asked the French to give him “a solid majority” to avoid adding “a French disorder to the disorder of the world”.
In Kyiv on June 16th, Macron told TF1 television that his compatriots should “measure the moment when we must make this democratic choice. Two and a half hours by plane from Paris there is a war.” He linked the war to the rising cost of gas, petrol and groceries. At such a time, he said, it was important for France “to be credible abroad and to take exceptional decisions”.
Macron’s adversaries accused him of trying to blackmail voters with the argument “It’s me or chaos”. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose Nupes coalition of the extreme and traditional left and Greens won 142 seats on Sunday, mocked Macron, comparing him to de Gaulle flying off to Baden Baden during the May 1968 revolution. Mélenchon portrayed Macron as the emblem of worn-out globalisation and liberal economics, the perpetrator of “social and environmental ill treatment”.
The far left and far right transformed the poll into a referendum on Macron’s presidency. It was the third round of the presidential election, a revenge vote, Mélenchon said.
France’s parties of government had kept the Le Pens — father Jean-Marie, then daughter Marine — at bay with the mantra “anything but Le Pen”. Le Pen and Mélenchon turned that round to “anything but Macron”.
Macron swept to power on the wave of a fed-up, throw-the-rascals-out revolt known as “dégagisme” in 2017. On Sunday, that same sentiment was turned against him.
Now the French president finds himself wedged between two extreme blocs in the National Assembly, with serious doubts about his ability to govern. The word “ungovernable” appeared in numerous headlines on Monday. Commentators called the election a humiliating slap in the face for Macron, an earthquake and a leap into the unknown. The cartoonist Kak caricatured him as Napoleon on a rocking horse.
“Why would voters have given him a majority when he didn’t tell them what he would do with it?” the director of the conservative daily Le Figaro, Alexis Brézet, wrote in his front-page editorial. The risk was great, Brézet continued, that Macron “will go down in history as the impotent spectator of a term that died before it started.”
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The first-past-the-post system had prevented extremist parties from entering the legislature in significant numbers. The dam broke on Sunday, and the resulting assembly could almost have been elected by proportional representation. The Macron wave of 2017 brought middle-class novices to the assembly. The legislature that came out of Sunday’s election represents a wider spectrum of French society, and is in that sense more democratic.
The most symbolic victory was that of Nupes candidate Rachel Keke, a 48-year-old hotel maid and naturalised citizen from Ivory Coast who gained notoriety for having led a 22-month strike by chambermaids at the Accor hotel chain. In interviews, Keke apologised for her poor French and promised to talk to the cleaning ladies at the National Assembly about their working conditions.
The Communist, Socialist and Green components of Nupes respected the long-standing “republican front” by asking their voters to choose Macron over Le Pen in the presidential run-off. Macronists did not reciprocate, preferring to decide on a case-by-case basis in the legislative poll how their supporters should vote in contests between far right and far left. The republican front died on Sunday.
Attention initially focused on Nupes’ high score, obscuring the fact that the extreme right multiplied its seats 11 times, from eight in the outgoing assembly to 89 in the new assembly. Le Pen’s party won more seats than Mélenchon’s France Unbowed, which took 75 seats.
Le Pen can legitimately claim to represent the leading opposition party. As such, she will enjoy more speaking time in debates and more public financing. She can call no-confidence votes, draft legislation and demand to lead parliamentary commissions. (She reportedly aspires to be vice-president of the assembly, or to head the powerful finance commission.)
Macron has not spoken since the results were announced. The ministers for health, the environment, and the sea must be replaced in a cabinet reshuffle since they lost their election bids. The two most immediate questions are whether Macron will maintain Élisabeth Borne as prime minister, and whether he will be able to conclude a pact with the conservative party Les Républicains.
One of the most stunning results on Sunday night was that LR — the direct descendant of de Gaulle’s party — is now outnumbered in the National Assembly by Le Pen’s extreme right-wing RN, which won 25 more seats than the neo-Gaullists. Neither LR nor the Socialists won a single seat in Paris, whose past mayor Jacques Chirac and present mayor Anne Hidalgo were big forces in those parties.
One often hears Ukrainians say they did not vote for Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but like him now. In Paris, which Macron took by storm in 2017, one often hears people say, “I voted for Macron, but I don’t like him any more”.
The mood is one of apprehension that the machinery of government will grind to a halt, that the second economic power in the EU will become unstable, that the extremes will not hesitate to appeal to the street when needed. At the same time, there is palpable satisfaction that Macron has been knocked down a peg, sometimes among those who voted for him.