France’s once-dominant center-left and center-right parties still haven’t recovered from their defeat two years ago at the hands of Emmanuel Macron.
The Socialists got only 6 percent support in European elections on Sunday, the same share as the far left. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans got 8.5 percent, down from 21 percent five years ago.
Most of the media attention has gone to the winners: Macron’s liberal-centrist alliance, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and the Greens, who got almost 60 percent support combined. But the collapse of the old parties — and with it an era in French politics — is just as big a story.
Center versus extreme
In the European election, Macron and Le Pen got roughly the same level of support they did in the first round of the 2017 presidential election: Macron went down from 24 to 22 percent, Le Pen up from 21 to 23 percent. Each has a solid base of between a fifth and a quarter of the electorate.
Le Pen has less potential for growth. She got 34 percent support in the second presidential voting round. Most of her gains came from the center-right Republicans. Hence her party, rebranded National Rally, has focused on winning over conservative voters, as I argued here at the time it would. It no longer calls for an immediate exit from the EU and emphasizes white identity politics.
Most of Macron’s room for growth is on the left. In a runoff, he would count on liberal Republicans, moderate Socialists and Greens to give him a majority.
The danger, John Lichfield has argued in Politico, is that France’s former two-party system is being replaced by a center-versus-extreme dynamic. The only alternative to Macron’s managerial centrism is the far right (or the far left, but it is much smaller).
What are the Republicans and Socialists to do?
They probably won’t recover while Macron is in office, but it is also doubtful that the president’s party, La République En Marche!, will survive him.
The Republicans must take the fight to Le Pen without becoming her. Austria’s Sebastian Kurz is the only center-right leader in Europe who has emerged stronger from a cooperation with the far right. Everywhere else, from Flanders to Spain, conservatives have come away battered from the experience. Shrink the gap between the mainstream right and the far right and you make it easier for voters to switch.
The French Socialists could follow the example of Portugal’s António Costa and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez and attempt the unite the left. The Communists, Greens and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed refused such an alliance in the European election this year. Now that the Greens are the largest party on the left, it may be too late for the Socialists. But only a single left-wing bloc could seriously compete with Macron and Le Pen.
Both strategies have tradeoffs. By sticking to the center and rejecting the far right’s ethnic nationalism, the Republicans could leave permanent space for a nativist party on the right. A left-wing pact could convince social liberals to stick with Macron. But not making such a choice at all is what caused support for the Republicans and Socialists to collapse in the first place.