France is being thrown into uncharted territory

French President Emmanuel Macron. (Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron. (Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson/AFP/Getty Images)

Summary

  • It could soon have a government led by the hard-left or hard-right

A week after Emmanuel Macron decided to call a snap parliamentary election, the upcoming vote has turned into one of the most crucial in post-war French history. At stake at the two-round election on June 30th and July 7th is the serious possibility of a government led by the hard-right or hard-left. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) is well ahead in the polls, followed by the New Popular Front, an alliance of left-wing parties. Either could mean extremist politics, economic populism and financial instability. Among Mr Macron’s allies, fears are growing of a rout. “He has thrown us under a bus," says one minister.

On June 16th the deadline passed for parliamentary candidates to register. There has been intensifying drama, skulduggery and betrayal on both the left and the right, following the unexpected decision by Mr Macron, the president, on June 9th to dissolve the National Assembly. Three main political blocs have now emerged from the last-minute scramble by parties to select candidates for parliament. Under France’s constitution presidential and parliamentary elections take place at different moments. The upcoming vote concerns only the lower house of parliament; the upper house is not affected, and Mr Macron will remain president.

The biggest bloc is the hard right. Ms Le Pen’s RN held only 88 seats out of 577 in the outgoing lower house. Now, according to a poll by IFOP published on June 15th, it tops first-round voting with 35%, though other polls have the RN as much as five points lower. The remains of the divided centre-right Republicans, who had 61 seats in the outgoing National Assembly, are polling at 7%. Many Republicans are co-operating with Ms Le Pen’s RN, which breaks the cordon sanitaire that has henceforth kept her party untouchable by the mainstream.

The left, meanwhile, is running nine points behind RN in the same poll, under the banner of The New Popular Front. It is a left-wing alliance of four parties: Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unsubmissive France (LFI), the Communists, the Greens and the Socialists. Finally, Mr Macron’s centrist Renaissance-led alliance trails in third place, with 19%.

Under France’s two-round system, seat projections depend heavily on the political manoeuvring between the first and second rounds. On paper, unless a candidate is elected with over 50% of the first-round vote, any contenders who secure at least 12.5% of registered voters go through to a final vote. In reality, parties do deals with each other, to gang up on rivals. At the previous parliamentary election, in 2022, there were only eight such three-way votes.

An analysis by Le Figaro, a newspaper, based (somewhat tendentiously) on voting to the European Parliament on June 9th, suggested that the RN could come top in nearly two-thirds of the constituencies on June 30th. Thanks to Ms Le Pen’s efforts to make her party more presentable and shed its formerly thuggish image, the RN’s support base has spread from its traditional strongholds of the industrial north-east and the south of France into villages and suburbs even in places such as Brittany. Moreover, according to this analysis, in 536 second-round run-offs Ms Le Pen’s candidates would face not Mr Macron’s but those of the left-wing front. Renaissance and its friends would go through to the second round in as few as 41 constituencies, half of them in the Paris region.

Mr Macron’s bet is that the RN’s score at the European poll was an exaggerated protest vote, as they usually tend to be. Yet elections are often about dynamics, and voters now seem determined that they want change. They give him no credit for bringing down inflation and joblessness in France, nor for capping energy bills during the pandemic and long afterwards. A majority approves of his decision to call a snap election, but not because they want him to win it.

Above all, voters seem no longer either ashamed or nervous about backing the RN. As early as December 2023, for the first time, fewer people (41%) judged the party to be a “danger for democracy" than thought that it was not (45%). Ms Le Pen’s party is in triumphant mood. She has won support from Marion Maréchal, her niece, who was kicked out of Reconquest, Eric Zemmour’s ultra-Catholic far-right party, for her “world record betrayal".

Ms Le Pen’s victory at the European vote, with over twice the score of Mr Macron’s centrists, has already begun to shake up politics on the nationalist right. Eric Ciotti, head of the centre-right Republicans, is defiantly putting up over 62 candidates in an alliance with the RN. Indeed Mr Ciotti’s decision led, mid-week, to scenes in Paris worthy of a melodramatic mini-series. The party met to oust him. Mr Ciotti holed himself up alone at party headquarters, filming himself to dramatic music in an empty office. A court then invalidated that expulsion, leaving him to claim the right to the party’s logo and, apparently, its finances. Some Republicans, such as Othman Nasrou, a candidate in the western Paris suburb of Les Yvelines, are having to stand under the banner of “the republican right". Republicans against Mr Ciotti’s alliance say they are putting up nearly 400 candidates anyway.

The political shenanigans have been no less surreal on the left, where electoral expediency has triumphed over deep political differences. As part of a pre-election pact announced on June 14th, the New Popular Front announced a swathe of populist economic policies that would reverse much of Mr Macron’s agenda since he has been in power, including raising the minimum wage by 13% to €1,600 net a month, lowering the legal pension age from 64 years to 60, capping energy prices even though costs have stabilised and restoring the wealth tax. Moderate Socialists, in return, secured a promise to support Ukraine against Russia.

Yet behind the scenes is a wrestling match over control of this fractious alliance. On June 14th it was Mr Mélenchon’s turn to flex his muscles, deselecting three parliamentary candidates from his own party whom he did not fancy and putting up instead Adrien Quatennens, a close ally formerly convicted of domestic violence. François Ruffin, an LFI deputy, accused the party of “idiocy" and “sectarianism", and declared that the party prefers “a man who beats his wife…to colleagues who dare to disagree with the big boss." Mr Quatennens then stood down.

In a further twist, on June 15th François Hollande, a former Socialist president, declared—to initial denials at his own party headquarters—that he was standing for the Socialists in his old rural heartland of the Corrèze. Portraying himself as a bulwark against the hard right, he declared that “the situation is grave". By agreeing to run under the left-wing alliance, Mr Hollande is both lending it legitimacy and attempting to wrest control of it.

The sense of chaos and rising risk of extremism will continue to weigh on the markets. Already French assets have taken a battering. Between the start of June 10th and the end of June 14th the French stock market, the world’s sixth biggest, fell by 6%. Shares of domestically focused firms such as banks dropped by more than this. A key measure of perceived risk, the yield on French ten-year government bonds compared with German ones, increased by 0.29 percentage points. France’s budget deficit is projected by the IMF to be about 5% in 2024. The policies of the RN, and the New Popular Front alliance of left-leaning parties, both imply a substantial further increase in the deficit. The more the odds rise of either political group becoming the largest force in parliament, or even having a majority, the more jittery markets will get.

The most likely outcome on July 7th remains a hung parliament, with the RN the biggest party. Mr Macron’s alliance faces massive losses. Those who have spoken to the president say that he remains “combative" and determined not to cede to what he calls the “spirit of defeat". Kylian Mbappé, a French football star, has called on voters not the back “the extremes". Mr Macron’s supporters point to the courage it took to let the people decide too. But the people seem to be gripped by a sort of dégagiste (get rid of them) fervour. And France looks ever closer to entering the uncharted territory of a government led by the hard right; or possibly by the hard left; or perhaps a chaotic hung parliament with no government at all. It is not a pretty picture.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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