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The Center Did Not Hold in France

What Macron’s loss means for the Fifth Republic.

Paris France
Skyline of Paris, France at night, February 9, 2019 (Unsplash/Sabina Fratila)

My hunch was correct after all. Before the French elections, I argued the most likely outcome was Emmanuel Macron winning a second term as president but losing his majority in the National Assembly and being forced into a coalition with the center-right.

After the presidential election, Macron’s liberals moved up in the polls. They also did reasonably well in the opening round of the legislative elections a week ago. It gave this Macronist hope that the president might defend his majority after all.

But no. His alliance, Together, is projected to fall to 234 seats, down from the 350 it won in 2017 and 55 short of a majority.

So what happens next?

Probably the Republicans

Christian Jacob, the Republican group leader in the National Assembly, has said his conservative party will remain in opposition. Perhaps they technically will, but a de facto coalition of the center and center-right is the obvious, and perhaps only, way to govern France. Combined the parties would have 309 seats.

Republicans, who were last in power under Nicolas Sarkozy — the former president is still the most powerful man in the party — agree with Macron’s plans to cut taxes, build more nuclear power plants and raise the retirement age from 62 to 65.

They’re not wild about his other energy plans: building fifty offshore wind farms, doubling onshore wind power and increasing solar energy output tenfold by 2050. Expect a less ambitious green-energy agenda.

Republicans may also demand concessions on immigration. Among their proposals are conditioning residency on learning French and introducing quotas for countries and professions.

Why not the left?

The far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon gave the left a fighting chance by bringing Communists, Greens, Socialists and his own France Unbowed together. Without him, the four parties would have split the left-wing vote and probably allowed Macron’s liberal centrists to eke into first place.

But Mélenchon is also the left’s weakness. He has repudiated the social democracy that birthed Macron (he was economy minister for the last Socialist president, François Hollande) in favor of higher taxes, price and rent controls, and renationalizations.

Bringing back the wealth tax, lowering the pension age to 60 and reneging on EU competition and fiscal rules are unacceptable to Macron.

The left-wing coalition isn’t formally for leaving NATO, but Mélenchon is. He has taken a harder line against Vladimir Putin but until a few months ago blamed Western “aggression” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Why not the far right?

The other winner of the election was Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. It is projected to go up from eight to ninety seats.

It has policies in common with the center as well as the left. Like Macron, Le Pen wants to cut taxes. Like Mélenchon, she would renationalize motorways.

But other planks of her platform, especially on immigration and security, are beyond the pale for most parties: ending family reunifications, giving the native French priority in employment and social housing, restoring mandatory minimum prison sentences and abolishing early release.

In addition, Le Pen’s past support for giving up the euro or even leaving the European Union (she now calls for referendums) makes her about as un-Macron as possible. The incumbent president wants more Europe, not less.

Long-term outlook

Long term, the election results call the longevity of the French Fifth Republic into question.

Charles de Gaulle replaced parliamentary with presidential democracy, and proportional with two-round voting, in 1958. His reforms channeled France’s three political traditions — a radical left, a moderate center and an authoritarian right — into two major parties that a president, simultaneously chief executive and head of state, could control as long as he (so far, they have all been men) commanded a majority in the National Assembly.

To reduce the risk of divided government, parliamentary and presidential elections have been held in the same year since 2002.

De Gaulle’s reforms split the center. Social democrats joined with the formerly radical left to create the Socialist Party. Liberals joined with conservatives and outnumbered authoritarians on the right. When Macron reunited social democrats and liberals in 2017, the two major parties collapsed. That gave radicals, like Mélenchon, the upper hand on the left. Mastery of the right is still contested by conservative Republicans and the far-right National Rally.

If Republicans supported Macron, that could convince their most right-wing voters to join Le Pen. France would see the return of a three-party system, which de Gaulle tore down for good reason: since the far left and far right cancel each other out, the center wins by default. But that causes resentment to grow on the flanks, where voters feel the system is stacked against them. Eventually the system folds in on itself, which it nearly did in the 1950s. The Communists became the largest party in 1956. Generals staged a coup in French-ruled Algeria in 1958. Metropolitan France was on the brink of civil war.

The country is not yet at the breaking point, but Macron cannot be president for life. To avoid a crisis of legitimacy in 2027, France needs either a consolidation of the current four parties into two — or a return to parliamentary democracy, but with more than three or four parties.