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Difficult times ahead for Macron at home

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French President Emmanuel Macron has made two contrasting records within three months.

In April, he became the first French president in two decades to win his second term at the Elysee Palace, and in June, he also became the first newly-elected president in 20 years whose party failed to win enough seats to maintain its absolute majority in the National Assembly. The rout of the presidential party in the second round of parliamentary elections has shocked everyone. 

In 1988, President Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist Party also failed to cobble together enough votes to constitute an absolute majority in the National assembly, but at that time Mitterrand and his partymen had already anticipated their electoral setback.

However, the quantum of rebuke from the French voters has surprised President Macron and his team because the most recent pre-election opinion polls were predicting Macron’s centre coalition, Ensemble, to win around 330 seats, but it could capture only 245 seats in the 577-member House – losing the absolute majority which it was enjoying since 2017.

The centrist party Emmanuel Macron founded in 2016, La République En Marche! (LREM), in alliance with the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem), won 350 of the 577 seats—a substantial majority—in the 15th National Assembly.

But the results of the second round have drastically changed the whole complexion of the parliament. The left-wing and Green alliance Nupes, led by the veteran far-left polemicist Jean-Luc Melenchon, made significant advances by winning 133 seats – almost double compared to their share in the previous assembly – and becoming the biggest opposition force.

While Ms Le Pen’s National Rally increased made astounding progress from 8 to 89 seats (more than a ten-fold jump). She was never expecting this kind of huge tally of seats in the assembly after her defeat in the presidential election two months back.

In fact, her participation was quite lukewarm, but still, her party managed to win unprecedented voters. But Macron’s predicament is further aggravated by the fact a big number of his close associates also lost their seats, including Richard Ferrand, the president of the National Assembly, and Amélie de Montchalin, his minister for green transition. 

A “democratic shock” is how Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called the election results, while “The Slap” was the headline on the front page of the left-leaning daily Libération. Certainly a big shock for President Macron who had been pleading for a strong mandate during an acrimonious election campaign against the backdrop of the Ukraine war that has triggered energy and food crises globally, eroding the budgets of every household.

Just three months back, the hopelessly divided left-wing parties had been literally written off by the political observers, although it is too early to clearly demarcate the factors behind this unusual success of more radical opponents of Macron, one thing is quite certain the war on the eastern flank of Europe has started affecting the political outlook of the inhabitants of this continent very rapidly.

Macron did not make any change in the theme of the parliamentary election campaign from his presidential election campaign. Macron aggressively propagated that he intends to gradually raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, he also intends to raise the minimum pension to EUR 1,100 (from EUR 917) as part of a pension overhaul. At the same time, he even more passionately advocated the expansion of the European Union as the main thrust of his campaign.

Ironically, ever since the invasion of Ukraine on February 26, he has made the “deepening of the EU” the key element of his foreign policy and used this as the “unique selling point” to vow the French voters. He tried to utilize the Ukraine war and the proposed EU expansion in the Western Balkans as the main topic of his electoral rhetoric. “Foreign policy” became his main bludgeon to vow the French voters.

After winning the presidential election, he spent more time on foreign policy matters than election campaign for the National Assembly. His lack of a lacklustre electoral campaign in the second round was quite evident in the last two months. He spent more time convincing other European capitals to support his campaign for the speedy expansion of the EU. 

He believed that voters were more concerned about the Ukraine war and its fallouts and, therefore, he should utilize his frequent trips to neighbouring capitals and Kyiv and photos with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the main plank of his election campaign, he also pitched himself as the “most suitable moderator” between Moscow and Kyiv to bolster his image at home as an insightful statesman to win a thumping majority. But all this was shattered in the third week of June when French voters surprised him by supporting his opponents on both extremes of the political horizon – far right, far left as well as centre – creating almost a hung parliament. But, seen as out of touch by many voters, he could not identify the true needs of disenchanted and divided voters who supported populist parties on the right and left.

His main opponent Melenchon’s Nupes alliance was campaigning for freezing the prices of essential goods, reducing the retirement age from 62, capping inheritance and banning companies that pay dividends from firing workers.

Melenchon also actively campaigned for distancing from the European Union. While his opponent in the presidential race, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally Movement (RN), with historic association with racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, displayed a complete makeover by increasing its bench strength in the assembly more than ten-fold. The recent electoral bourgeon of Ms Le Pen is a result of her energetic drive to detoxify her party’s reputation, convincing large sections of the public to forgive or forget its baleful past. These results have exposed deep division within the political spectrum of France where ‘extremism” has emerged as the new normal.

The Ukraine war – and resultant food and energy insecurity- has also directly played a role in augmenting this chasm within French society. Though Ms Le Pen enthusiastically labelled the electoral results as the beginning of the end of “the Macron adventure”, all is not lost for Macron. He has a handsome majority in the parliament. The only problem now will be the compromises that he will have to make with other parties while pushing his favourite legislation through the National Assembly

For the last five years, having more than an absolute majority in the National Assembly, President Macron practically used it as a rubber stamp through his “top to down” leadership style. Now his second term will be disrupted by compromises in the parliament.

Most probably Macron will seek support from the conservative Les Republicains, which is more compatible with Ensemble, to have a working relationship on a case-by-case basis rather than a coalition-kind of arrangement.

Indubitably, President Emmanuel Macron enjoys a big fan following and a colossal list of admirers at home who see him as a far-sighted statesman trying his best to establish France’s leadership role within the EU and on the global power in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. However, the political landscape of France is passing through an intricate evolutionary phase of a tussle between the extremists – on both sides – and the centrists. Interesting ahead for French politics.

Given the unique configuration of the French Political system, which amalgamates the presidential and parliamentary forms of government into an atypical equation, political acrimony seems to be deeply embedded in these election results. Macron’s opponents, particularly Le Pen and Melenchon, who are literally in a state of ecstasy over such an astounding victory in the elections, are expected to display excessive arrogance to create more problems for Macron in the National Assembly. 

At this time, when the European continent is whirling down in the quagmire of a war, fuel crisis, skyrocketing inflation and looming threat of recession, French voters have pushed their political system into a serious kind of turbulence and uncertainty – the real testing time for Macron and his opponents.

Dr. Khalid wrote from Karachi. Pakistan.

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