France: The Republic Marches On, but in What Direction?

Main Image Credit Decision time: election posters in Plaisir, France. Image: Allan Leonard / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

As France heads to the polls for the second and decisive round of its presidential elections, Jonathan Eyal spoke to Georgina Wright, Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Programme at the Institut Montaigne in Paris, about the mood in the country, and the anticipated priorities of the next French president.

Jonathan Eyal (JE): The electoral campaign was frequently deemed boring and topic-free, with just some sloganeering. Is this true?

Georgina Wright (GW): In the run-up to the first round, there was not really a debate. One reason was that people were tired after two years of the pandemic. The war in Ukraine understandably overshadowed the political debate. And then, you had a president who was not really campaigning at all.

Emmanuel Macron made a strategic bet to delay his candidature as long as possible, partly because his campaign team thought he would benefit from publicity and media ‘airtime’ outside the strict rules of an electoral campaign, and partly because Macron was thwarted in selecting the right moment to launch his campaign. The Ukraine war delayed his rallies and meetings. The result is that, while the French electorate knew what he had stood for over the past five years, they knew little about what he was standing for in the next five years. So, the two weeks between the two electoral rounds had to be devoted to communicating his programme and galvanising people outside his support base if he wanted to win.

JE: The president has been deeply involved in diplomacy before and during the Ukraine war. Has this helped him electorally?

GW: About three weeks before the first electoral round, his diplomatic engagement seemed to be paying off: he presented himself as a president capable of weathering any crisis. But that waned because as the war continued, voters returned to thinking about rising energy prices, the cost of living and questions of identity and belonging. So, diplomacy in Ukraine is not sufficient to get him through.

JE: If one tallies the votes for Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, one sees almost half of the electorate in France voting for either the extreme left or the extreme right. Do we have a president who claims to be a centrist but an electorate that veers to the extremes?

GW: The political landscape in France is completely fragmented. The fragmentation started in 2017 when both the mainstream right and left parties lost heavily, which is now confirmed as a continuing trend. The real question is whether Macron, assuming he wins, can now bridge this gulf in society. In 2017, Macron was elected on the promise of change and on the basis of a popular movement; his Republique en Marche party was intended to be neither exclusively left nor right but to include the best and the brightest of both. Yet, people have criticised his presidency, arguing that gaining power was more about him than about the whole movement he helped create. And this continues to be the case if one looks at his current campaign team: it is small, and it is mostly centred around him. One of my main takeaways from the current campaign is how personalised the presidential election has become.

Critics of Macron's presidency have argued that gaining power was more about him than about the whole movement he helped create

Furthermore, we are seeing a political system where power is very much concentrated around the president. Even though the French constitution is very clear that the prime minister and the government decide and set policy, it is very much the president who is now the pilot. Yet the reality is that, even if Macron is re-elected, he would only be able to exercise the same kind of ‘unfettered’ power if he also manages to secure a parliamentary majority in the June parliamentary elections. And many people are speculating that he might not do that, because his party does not have the widespread support it needs. And if that were the case, he would end up with a prime minister with a different political standpoint and from a different party. And that might reduce his ambitions and his ability to accomplish what he wants to achieve in the next five years.

JE: What would happen if Marine Le Pen confounds current predictions and wins? What would be the reaction in Europe?

GW: I would start by saying that I think there is a possibility that she will be elected president. A Macron victory remains more likely, but one should not discount a Le Pen victory in the second round.

I doubt that European countries have prepared for that possibility. And we cannot blame them: until recently, the polls suggested that Macron would easily win this election. What happens if she is elected? Well, of course, it is a democratic outcome that would have to be respected. But there are questions about what would happen inside the EU and across Europe. Shifting alliances would be one outcome: her closest friends will presumably be Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

And there are lots of questions about how solid the Franco-German axis would be. She has already openly criticised Germany, claiming that the two countries do not share the same industrial interests. Le Pen also criticises Germany for its pro-Americanism, and she has already said that she wants to pull France out of NATO’s military command structure. It is worth pointing out that, in her policy speeches, she has not said that she is against partnerships with allies and countries around the world; what she has specified is that these partnerships need to serve France’s interests. So, one could perhaps see under her presidency a push for a new defence relationship with the UK, but one in which the UK would be expected to purchase more French-produced military equipment. One can also expect demands to revisit some of the UK’s post-Brexit fishing agreements, because she may claim they are not good enough for French fishermen. And then, there are all the bilateral arrangements on migration. There are all sorts of reasons that she could try to change the nature of existing bilateral relationships, the alliances and the balance of power within the EU, and the future foreign policy priorities of France.

JE: Could it be said that if she were to find herself in power, Marine Le Pen would be tamed by the responsibilities of office?

GW: Let us remember that to pass all the policy reforms she has suggested, she would need a supportive prime minister, which would depend on the parliamentary elections in June. If she fails to secure a majority, she could be forced into a cohabitation arrangement – that is, she will have a prime minister from a different party and who has different viewpoints, which may constrain what she can achieve. But beyond this, it is difficult to predict what a Le Pen presidency may look like. Her supporters do not care all that much about foreign policy. Nor do we know if Le Pen will be a coalition-builder in Europe or seek to impose her will unilaterally. Therefore, we have limited scope to speculate further.

Macron sees the EU as part of the solution to many of the problems French citizens face, whereas Marine Le Pen thinks that less Europe would be better

JE: And what is the likely scenario of a second Macron term? Since he cannot be re-elected for a third term, presumably the talk about France’s political succession will start immediately after the election?

GW: We know that his former prime minister, Édouard Philippe, who is centre-right, is now thinking about promoting his party entitled Horizons; he could be a key player in the parliamentary elections or provide essential support on the side. He is very popular with centre-right voters, but he is also quite popular with centre-left voters, so it will be interesting to see how he positions himself. But also, it will be essential to watch out for the extremes. And there is the question of whether the centre can survive without Macron at its head.

As we all know, President Macron does not lack ideas. As soon as he was elected in 2017, he made an extensive speech at Sorbonne University, where he outlined more than 60 ideas and proposals for the EU. And I suspect that the EU – if he is re-elected – will continue to be a key feature of his domestic and foreign policy agenda. This is the big difference between him and Marine Le Pen: Macron sees the EU as part of the solution to many of the problems French citizens face, whereas Marine Le Pen thinks that less Europe would be better. But in terms of what he can achieve, that will also depend on the outcome of the parliamentary elections in June.

JE: You are in a unique position of having watched the relationship between the UK and France from both sides of the Channel. Is it going to be more of the same, assuming that the Macron presidency goes into a second term?

GW: The UK plays a minor role in French politics. Since I moved to Paris over a year ago, I have heard little being spoken about the UK or about what is happening in the UK. And that is not because it is not attracting strategic interest; it is simply because the UK is not a priority for France. France’s focus is much more on Germany and what happens with the EU.

That being said, there is nothing like a geopolitical crisis to focus minds. And since the Ukraine war there has been a real speeding up, or at least a strengthening, of relations. France and the UK share many of the same instincts regarding foreign policy. But so long as London continues to display what is seen as a competitive tone towards the EU, it makes it difficult for a French president who has made the EU such a central pillar of his domestic and foreign policy to collaborate with the UK.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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