Can the center no longer fit in Macron’s France?

French President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election on April 24 may have seemed straightforward enough to anyone following events from outside the country. But this victory, with 58% of the vote, was far from being categorical enough to ease the divisions in a torn and troubled country.

The stark reality to ponder as another election approaches in France, to decide who leads parliament, is that the outcome hid a hidden majority: people unimpressed with Mr Macron’s centrist presidency.

While 18.7 million people voted for him, nearly 27 million did not. They are divided almost equally between those who preferred the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, and those who abstained or filed blank or invalid papers.

It is this notion of the “badly elected” president – elected but unconvincing – who inspires Mr Macron’s opposition to believe they can turn his second term at the Elysee Palace into a rocky ride, denying him the clear parliamentary majority he needs for successful implementation of his policy.

Before the two rounds of voting on June 12 and 19, the most likely outcome remains, as before the presidential election, that his party – formerly La République en Marche but now called Renaissance – will do the trick. well enough to avoid awkward “cohabitation”. This occurs when a president’s policy is not shared by the majority in the National Assembly; modern French history suggests that this is not a recipe for effective government.

Seeking to weaken Macron’s presidency, the left is pursuing many of the same voters as the far right

With the collapse of conventional left and right parties, French voters are more than ever drawn to the lure of populists at both ends of the political spectrum.

Both the far right and far left have been emboldened by the closeness of their presidential election scores in the first round of voting last month. Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), was on the verge of beating Ms. Le Pen for a place in the decider.

Had more moderate leftist voters pledged allegiance to him, he would have succeeded. And for the legislative elections, Mr. Melenchon has drawn the Socialists, Greens and Communists into an alliance with the catchy but wordy name, New Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale.

In seeking to weaken Mr Macron’s presidency, he is pursuing many of the same voters as the far right. The mix essentially adds euroscepticism – a threat of disobeying some EU treaties – to costly measures to tackle the cost of living crisis. Both extremes also fiercely oppose Mr Macron’s modest plans to reform pensions, gradually raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2028.

The left alliance and the extreme right should increase their presence in parliament. A recent poll indicates a Macronist majority, but Mr Melenchon and Ms Le Pen hope their candidates can produce a late push as the vote nears.

In the long run, the far right appears to pose the biggest threat to Mr Macron.

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According to an analysis of the presidential election, her triumph only delayed the rise to power, once considered unthinkable, of Ms Le Pen. “It may be in 2027, in 2032, 2037… Marine le Pen will eventually succeed in becoming president of the republic,” experienced commentator Franz-Olivier Giesbert told French television after Mr Macron’s victory. . “She progresses with each election. She is 53 years old, she is still young and has room for manoeuvre.

Mr Giesbert said that would require further changes from Ms Le Pen. Some of her supporters protest that she should not – or at least no longer – be tarnished by association with the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic obsessions attributed to her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now 93, Le Pen senior is a seasoned apologist for France’s collaborative wartime Vichy government and a polemicist keen to downplay the horrors of the Nazi occupation.

But her daughter has already succeeded in her “de-demonization” campaign, cleansing the party of its historical stigma.

During the presidential campaign, she liked to portray herself as anti-Islamist, not anti-Islamic. The studied makeover, and especially the presence among the candidates of Eric Zemmour, even more on the right, made her appear soft by comparison, almost a Republican political figure like the others.

Marine Le Pen, in the center, is Emmanuel Macron's most formidable opponent.  AFP

However, this overlooked disturbing relics of traditional Le Penist philosophy. As Mr. Macron pointed out, his plan to ban Muslim head coverings would have criminalized, among countless others, Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of a Muslim soldier who was among the victims of Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people on behalf of al-Qaeda in the southwestern cities of Toulouse and Montauban in 2012. She won widespread admiration, including the Zayed Prize for Human Fraternity, for her campaign against youth radicalization from the poor suburbs, even facing – and earning respect – a group of young people from the same Toulouse estate where Merah grew up and who initially saw him as something of a hero.

The composition of the French parliament after June 19 will be important to Mr. Macron’s vision for the next five years, but equally crucial in determining whether France can hope to overcome stark and mutually antagonistic divisions in its society.

Mr. Macron is too shrewd to rely unduly on his support only in big cities and among professionals. His share of the vote was perhaps a very impressive support of 93% of registered expats at the French consulate in London. But in France’s largest state, Var, which includes part of the Riviera and is not the country’s poorest region, 55% voted for Ms Le Pen.

However, public minds are currently focused more on real or projected shortages – blamed on the war in Ukraine – of goods including mustard, cooking oil and glass bottles, and the threat of summer drought.

The real challenge for anyone hoping to participate in the government of France is, once again, getting them to vote.

Posted: May 10, 2022, 04:00

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