Paul Taylor, co-editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.
PARIS – Despite the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, the forces of Eurosceptic nationalism, which frightened Europe this month, are still rattling at the gates of the Elysée Palace. A far-right populist won an unprecedented percentage of votes. There is no reason to believe that next time it could not get higher.
Before the EU establishment breathes a sigh of relief and continues with business as usual, it is worth thinking about how France – the Union’s co-founder and indispensable pillar – can avoid playing Russian roulette with Europe’s future every five years.
With the collapse of the two parties that have dominated France’s Fifth Republic policy since 1958 – the center-right Gaullists and the center-left socialists – the country is effectively left with a single, loose pro-European center bloc on one side and the diffuse but eruptive forces of anti-globalization, anti-EU, anti-immigration nationalism and protectionism on the other hand.
In a democracy, of course, power tends to alternate between two major political camps. But French democracy has been eroded. This is partly due to an overly powerfully elected presidency, which has reduced parliament to a rubber stamp as long as the president has a majority in the National Assembly.
Former President Jacques Chirac’s decision in 2001 to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years and synchronize the election cycle so that the legislature is elected during the newly crowned president’s honeymoon has also anchored the presidential regime and promoted voter apathy.
“Why do you bother to vote?” is a growing chorus, especially among young people who prefer political action through associations, individual protest groups or – on the radical fringes – violence.
“The order of the election was absolutely crucial to lead to this breakdown of the political landscape,” said political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right, in an interview.
The two-round constituency voting system for the National Assembly means that large sections of the population, measured by opinion polls, are strongly underrepresented. To reach the second ballot, candidates must score 12.5 percent of all registered voters – a high barrier when turnout is low. As a result, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally had only eight seats in the outgoing National Assembly with 577 seats, and left-leaning Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed had 17, while ecologist The Greens had 16.
Such a skewed legislature invites extra-parliamentary opposition, with regular street confrontations, rather than the search for consensus among democratic forces and social partners, which characterizes policies in many countries that have voting systems with full or partial proportional representation. In Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium or Denmark, no party can form a government without compromise.
Add to that the fact that Macron is widely perceived as an arrogant technocrat who condescends to ordinary people – an image reinforced by his body language during his only televised debate with Le Pen – and you have the ingredients for yet another potential social explosion as the Yellow Jackets movement, ignited in 2018 by a rise in fuel prices.
As such, Le Pen framed the drain as “Macron versus the people.” In the age of social media, the disruption between France’s elected leaders and ordinary citizens is increasingly apparent, and Macron’s affiliation with the imperial presidency – with endless memorial ceremonies and summits at the Palace of Versailles – overshadows his episodic attempts to connect with young people via video clips with popular vloggers.
However, the new phenomenon that emerged during this year’s campaign was an even more virulent form of anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-NATO nationalism, embodied by the far-right essayist Eric Zemmour. Although he only scored 7.1 percent in the end, he had at one point reached 18 percent support and lay neck and neck with Le Pen in the polls.
Zemmour served as a heat shield for Le Pen, making her look moderate and cute, even though her program included giving French citizens a “national preference” in housing, welfare, and employment; to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public and to anchor the supremacy of the French constitution over EU law.
One way to channel France’s political passions into a more constructive debate would be to change the parliamentary electoral system. In his first term, Macron had promised to introduce a dose of proportional representation, though he did not specify how much and gave up quickly when the Senate blocked his proposed constitutional reform. However, he was able to revise the voting rules by a simple parliamentary majority without amending the Constitution.
Another way would be to hold parliamentary elections before the presidential vote, which encouraged more diverse representation and greater division of power between the executive and the legislature.
Yet another approach would be to set up a kind of citizens’ assembly to discuss societal or constitutional issues to which the government must respond, which has existed in Ireland since 2016. Unpaid members are randomly selected by a polling institute to represent the diversity of society. However, Macron has already used a similar initiative to devise proposals for France’s response to climate change and has implemented only a few of its recommendations, undermining the process.
So what is the danger of a populist victory in 2027 if such reforms are not introduced and France remains a vertical, centralized state with a technocratic president?
It’s hard to say.
Harold Wilson reportedly said that a week is a long time in politics – five years is an eternity. And it is unclear who will lead the far left or the hard right. Mélenchon is 70 and Le Pen has now lost three elections.
It also depends in part on whether the Gaullists and Socialists manage to survive the June parliamentary elections and rebuild a left-right debate thereafter, or what grows in their place if they are decimated – and probably bankrupt – by losing their parliamentary seats. .
Next time, a better candidate than Le Pen – if it is able to capitalize on the left-wing and right-wing protest votes that rose to 57 percent in the first round on April 10 – can ride the wave of grassroots anger at the elite for victory, throwing The EU is in an existential crisis.
But Camus doubts that any populist leader will be able to unite left and right wing dissatisfaction into a winning majority. “They are sociologically too diverse, and there are some core issues that make it impossible to unite the radical left and right, especially immigration.”
A possible anti-European populist victory in France is not inevitable. But the country must find a better way to give its citizens more political choices.
That’s not how it can continue. Something must give.