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Sun. July 14, 2024
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Another Blow to France’s (and Europe’s) Prestige

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The voting across Europe on Sunday essentially confirmed what the pre-election polls had anticipated: at first blush, no big surprises. Among those who on Monday were bemoaning the result are those who failed to see the prolonged impact of the “great fear” spawned by the 2008 financial crisis, that is, the dismay of people in the “rich” countries in the face of the risk – indeed, the certainty – that they will, sooner or later, have to relinquish some of the privileges accumulated over centuries of global dominance.

It is well known that the fear of losing what one possesses is far more disruptive than the fear of not gaining what one does not yet possess. This leads to social hypochondria, tribalism, and outright hostility toward those who can easily (albeit erroneously) be blamed for the decline in well-being. Hence, the growing success of populists – the smug heralds of easy solutions and eagerly suppliers of scapegoats.

So far, then, nothing new. Except, perhaps, for the slight decline of Viktor Orbán’s party in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s in Poland, and Robert Fico’s in Slovakia, evidence, perhaps, that making unkeepable promises doesn’t pay off in the long run. However, there should be no illusions: the more public debt knocks at the door, the faster will protectionist impulses expand, the more intensely will international tensions escalate, and the more open will voters’ ears be to the beguiling message of the miracle peddlers.

The real surprise of election day came from Paris: not because of the immediate outcome, which had been predicted with surprising accuracy by polls for at least six months, but because of President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly and call for snap elections. Since the vote’s outcome was known before voters even went to the polls, it can be assumed that this move was carefully planned.

Before speculating on Macron’s intentions -- always challenging given his tendency for sudden reversals -- let’s focus on some indisputable data. First, the victory of the Rassemblement National (RN), formerly the National Front, is not in itself “historic,” since the far-right party also won the previous two European elections. The proportions, however, have changed: in 2014, it garnered 24.9 percent of the valid votes, in 2019, 23.3 percent, and in 2024, it reached 31.5 percent (provisional results), or more than 36 percent if including the far-far-right extremists of éric Zemmour and Marion Maréchal. When translated into real numbers—i.e., in terms of eligible voters—this means that one in ten French people voted for the far-right in 2014, 1.2 in ten in 2019, a little less than 1.6 in ten in 2024 (1.8 with the far-far-right included). In terms of real popularity, this is still far from a plebiscite or landslide. Politically, however, the impact is significant, especially considering that Macron’s party received votes from less than 0.8 out of ten French people, the “respectable right,” formerly Gaullist, from less than 0.4 out of ten, and the Socialists, celebrating their “return” to the political scene, from 0.7 out of ten. The Greens received votes from only 0.25 out of ten French people, reflecting a social psychology that has become increasingly oriented – and not only in France – toward military concerns rather than environmental ones, the two being hardly compatible.

Before moving from hard data to speculation, we must consider a near certainty: The elections that President Macron has set for late June to early July will likely be won by the far right, and that will be “historic” indeed. So, Macron already knows that he will be forced into cohabitation with a Rassemblement National prime minister. Based on this near certainty, four hypotheses, not necessarily mutually exclusive, can be proposed.

First hypothesis: Macron had no other choice. His term expires in 2027, and he currently lacks a parliamentary majority. He is, in a sense, a “lame duck,” as the Americans say, but with the crucial difference that the French president wields much broader powers than the U.S. president. Nevertheless, the parliamentary path for his policies (see the second hypothesis) would have become increasingly difficult, potentially leading to his resignation. It remains that after July 7, Macron’s party will almost certainly have an even slimmer parliamentary presence, certainly not a majority of seats.

Second hypothesis: Macron wants to pass the hot potato of the 2025 finance law to those who fiercely opposed his 2024 budget. Some economists have called the state of public accounts “the worst of the Fifth Republic,” and on March 10 the daily l’Opinion estimated the necessary budget cuts at 20 billion euros. The president could unload on a hostile government and parliament a burden that some say was sure to cause another political crisis, possibly breaking the back of the incumbent executive. The downside is the risk that a populist government might ignore spending constraints and engage in a head-on confrontation with Brussels, much as the Italian government did between 2018 and 2019.

Third hypothesis: Macron aims for cohabitation with the far right to attempt to tame it, facilitating its normalization and turning Marine Le Pen into a kind of French version of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, more compatible with France’s European and international imperatives. If Macron were to persist with a minority government until 2027, a possible victory then by the former National Front in both presidential and parliamentary elections would have likely brought amateurs to power, with potentially disastrous results similar to those experienced by Italy in 2018-2019.

Fourth hypothesis: Macron intends to pit Jordan Bardella, the photogenic 28-year-old official leader of the Rassemblement National, against his mentor Marine Le Pen, to separate the wheat from the chaff and continue the droitisation, the shift to the right, of his party by integrating the “healthy part” of the RN. This, however, would be a risky and petty calculation. Petty, like all calculations of those who, knowing they cannot win, seek to sabotage their opponents. And risky, not only because it might not work, but because the droitisation has reduced Macron’s party’s share of voters from 28.2 percent in 2017 to 15.2 percent in 2024, while the far-right has increased from 13.2 percent in 2017 to 31.5 percent in 2024 (and over 36 percent when including Zemmour-Maréchal defectors).

In his televised message on June 9, Macron stated that “France needs a clear majority to act with serenity and concord” – necessary platitudes, perhaps, but more wishful thinking than a concrete plan. If the RN’s victory on July 7 is almost certain, it is also almost certain that the far-right party will not achieve a “clear majority.” Instead, it is far more likely that the outcome will worsen the “disorder that shocks and worries you” – the looming disorder that Macron claims he wants to avert through the snap elections.

Whatever the outcome, in the current chaotic international context France’s prestige has suffered another severe blow. Consider the resonant symbolism in this: three days before the European elections, Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a speech full of hope and gratitude before the French parliament—a parliament that, three days later, no longer exists.

Manlio Graziano, PhD, teaches Geopolitics and Geopolitics of Religions at Sciences Po Paris, at la Sorbonne, and at the Geneva Institute of Geopolitics. He collaborates with the Corriere della Sera and with the geopolitical journals Limes and Gnosis. He founded and directs the Nicholas Spykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis. He published several books in the US, with Stanford UP, Columbia UP and Palgrave. His latest book is Disordine mondiale: Perché viviamo in un'epoca di crescente caos.

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