France and the Weight of the Discontented

Politics - July 11, 2024

The French elections in recent weeks have been no small element in the European landscape. Especially if one takes into account the particular juncture that the European institutions are experiencing in the aftermath of the elections. Macron’s New Popular Front in France has now taken on a different meaning. It started as a governmental experience and has now become a real defensive strategy to try, mathematically, to stem the advance of the Rassemblement National. An initiative that, in recent weeks, has taken the attention of the French leader, grappling with his own decision to go to the polls. The position taken by Macron in the aftermath of the European elections has turned into an own goal. A strong man and politician’s decision, taken behind closed doors with the advice of very few collaborators, soon turned out to be a gamble that made the Elysée Palace tremble and Le Pen’s many Rassemblement National voters hope for a change of pace. The situation is different for the new British majority, which has staked everything on the reformist camp, looking to Downing Street with lighter reforms compared to the past of the last premiers.


Analysis – especially comparative analysis – in this case seems to be an exercise in style. What is certain is that there are huge differences between Paris and London. We are talking about two completely different paradigms in dealing with the ballot box. The Labour party went to the polls at the end of a long journey during which it presented a reformist programme that can be considered far removed from the political shocks of recent years. The very choice of not taking any abrupt steps backwards on Brexit (it was Starmer himself who declared that it would probably be the next generation of British politicians who would review this decision) gave a sense of stability that was rewarded by the citizens. The situation is different in France. Here, the alliance formed to counter Le Pen’s political design, especially in the second round, has no clear political sign, no precise construction or project. It is a combination of communists, socialists, ecologists, extreme leftists and much more (the internal nuances are many) that will most likely fall apart in no time at the test not so much of government, but in the formation of the new French executive itself.


These days there is a term that has strongly entered the vocabulary of European politics: it is the term ‘desistances’. This is how one indicates the step backwards of some candidates in the ballots to favour the new popular front and counter the advance of the Rassemblement National. A painstaking operation, carried out constituency by constituency, made necessary by the Premier’s rash decision to rely on the ballot box, with the certainty of being legitimised again by the popular vote. A confidence that was soon shaken by the data of the first round and by analysts’ forecasts that, while downplaying the ‘Le Pen’ phenomenon, still gave a margin of victory to the French right. An analysis for which the transalpine analysts can certainly not be blamed, strong in an axiom for which it was at least unlikely that Macron could find an understanding with Mélenchon’s left. But the improbable became reality with two-thirds of the three-candidate ballots being ‘desisted’ with the intention of maximizing votes towards a single candidate to oppose the Rassemblement.


The result of the Rassemblement national (143 seats) is nevertheless growing and this is undeniable. Especially if we compare it with others and with a second round that did not give France a clear and definite majority. None of the three camps is in fact able to govern alone and none has really won the elections. The internal differences between the camps also lead to a climate of uncertainty about the near future, which we will analyse later. However, it is undeniable that the Rassemblement National is the group that has gained the most seats in absolute terms. An opposition that promises to be stronger than a month ago. The formation of the next government cannot fail to take this factor into account. Of course, the dynamics that will be created will have to have strong and common assumptions in order to share the leadership of France. What can be glimpsed, however, is a forced grouping that is not in the best of health, mainly because it is based entirely on hatred against the enemy, rather than on truly shared ideas and paradigms.


The French Fifth Republic envisioned a semi-presidential system of government that would help the country to avoid stalemates by giving more weight to the elective instrument. The aim was to avoid strange and fruitless cohabitations within the Elysée thanks to the five-year presidential term introduced in 2002. In fact, the president’s term lasts five years and his elections take place just a few weeks before the legislative elections that shape the parliament. With Macron’s move, this balance has been upset, leading France into a situation of instability it has not experienced in years. With a coalition government, it is unlikely that there’ll be total common ground with the President. As we have already said, France does not have a clear majority at the moment. The left-wing alliance of the New Popular Front has collected 182 seats, Macron’s coalition with Ensemble has 168, and finally there is the Rassemblement National with its 143 seats. Three results far from the 289 seats needed to have a majority in the French parliament. So what will happen? First there will be the need to elect the President of the National Assembly (the first hurdle in the agreements between the parties), then Macron will have to elect a new Prime Minister to replace Attal who has resigned. After that, once the government team has been presented, the ball will be in the opposition’s court, which will have the option of tabling a no-confidence motion. At this juncture, it will be necessary to understand whether it will be possible to bring together the malcontents that in the coalition formed by Macron will probably exist. A possible alternative, even if French analysts do not give it as a favourite, would be resorting to a technical government that could ferry France towards a term of office, so as to rebalance the executive as envisaged by the system set up with the Fifth Republic. In any case, whether it comes to governing with Mélenchon’s left wing, with Glucksmann’s socialists, with an Ensemble executive leaning more towards the right along with the republicans, or with a majority formed by Ensemble, republicans and socialists, the possibility remains that the house of cards will not hold the weight of the discontented. For Le Pen’s right wing, this is an opportunity to gather the rightmost fringes within this discontent and make it much more difficult for Macron to remain at the Elysion. The right could even jeopardise the executive with a no-confidence motion or other parliamentary mechanisms that could embarrass the president even with European allies. Interesting in this regard is the comment made by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on the occasion of the NATO summit in Washington for the 75th anniversary of the Alliance. Meloni pointed out that once upon a time (not too long ago) Italy was considered an unstable nation, while other European nations had very solid governments, even granitic in some cases. Today, according to PM Meloni, a very different reality is being observed. Italy, in fact, boasts a solid executive in a continent where several governments are no longer as solid and stable as they once were.