The Twilight of Emmanuel Macron
Guillaume de Thieulloy surveys the events conspiring to threaten France’s liberal order
France and Europe are facing an uncertain autumn. Already, earlier this summer, the parliamentary election in France delivered a surprising blow to President Emmanuel Macron. After Macron handily won a second term, many observers expected a huge show of support for Macron’s candidates. Parliamentary elections are usually a few weeks after the presidential one and, in France’s highly “presidential” system, follow (or amplify) the result of the latter.
There were a lot of good reasons to think that this would be the case. The presidential campaign had been quite a “classic” one, despite the rise of the conservative journalist Eric Zemmour and of the far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In spite of those challengers, the second round brought, just as five years earlier, a battle between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Macron won just as easily as expected. It would have been logical to observe a “classical” parliamentary election, as well.
Instead the result was unexpected.
Not only did Renaissance (Emmanuel Macron’s party) not gain the absolute majority, but only a relative majority (289 seats out of 577). Though many politicians claimed this to be a major defeat for Macron, in fact it’s not such a staggering defeat and it’s not unprecedented. In 1988, François Mitterrand, then just reelected as a Socialist president, faced a similar situation with an even tinier majority in the National Assembly.
This spring’s political debate led everyone to think that the main opponent to Emmanuel Macron was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the talented far-left politician trained by the “Machiavellian master” François Mitterrand, who succeeded in unifying the “enemy brothers” of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. Mélenchon indeed made an impressive campaign. During the presidential race, Mélenchon ran with the support of what French far left calls a “rainbow coalition”—a coalition of opposite interests like supporters of radical Islam and LGBT activists, or Communist blue collars and ecological organizations.
Mélenchon’s rainbow coalition was certainly strange from an ideological point of view. But it was very powerful to campaign with: thousands of grassroots organizations, trade unions, think tanks and associations were supporting Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But his main success took place after the presidential election. He succeeded in unifying behind him all the leftist parties, despite their huge ideological differences and their mutual hatred, and to campaign as if he were running to be prime minister.
Mélenchon’s tactics were, of course, just a communication “coup”: the president is free to choose the prime minister, which according to the French constitution is not the result of an election but the result of a designation by the president. But it was a brilliant operation: the vast majority of media described the campaign as a duel between Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. So much for the duel: after Marine Le Pen made it to the second round, Mélenchon declared that none of his supporters should vote for Marine.
Overall, the unified Left did rather well. It gained 131 seats and Mélenchon’s party itself 72—which represents roughly double their previous results. It was still far from Mélenchon’s expectations or hopes—to have any chance to be nominated as prime minister he should gain at least twice as many seats—but it’s nevertheless the brilliant result of a brilliant campaign.
The main surprise, however, came from the other side of the Assembly: Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (previously known as the National Front) gained 89 seats—around ten times more than the previous election, becoming the main opposition group.
The electoral reason for these strange results is quite clear. With a huge abstention (more than the half of voters didn’t vote in the parliamentary elections), in almost each of the 577 electoral districts there was a duel between a candidate of Emmanuel Macron’s choosing and one other candidate either from the Left or from the RN.
Macron had won the presidential election “by default”—facing Marine Le Pen, who is always accused of not being “republican.” Less than 20 percent of the voters really supported Emmanuel Macron. The vast majority of people who voted for him voted indeed against Marine Le Pen and not for him. Therefore, in the parliamentary elections it was easy to vote against him again—or, more precisely, against his candidates. It was a way to say no, without any political risk, to President Macron.
The National Assembly now contains three main blocs: the Left, President Macron’s supporters, and the right wing (divided between the National Front and the Republican Party).
This parliamentary division won’t block political life. The government can ask for the support of the Right for some debates—for example, the debate about retirement, which is supposed to take place this autumn and will probably arouse violent social oppositions. In other cases, the government can draw on the support of the Left—as in the legalization of euthanasia or surrogacy.
But what is probably the most important for the future is the implosion of what we could call the “liberal order.” By this I mean the international and ideological order born after the fall of the Communist empire in Russia and Eastern Europe, when politicians were asked to destroy all the borders and to transform, as soon as it was possible, every human being into just another consumer, depriving them of religious or national roots and diminishing family ties with no economic values.
The three political blocs I mentioned in France’s National Assembly can be seen from this perspective. The Left supports the “liberal order” on migration or moral issues (it supports massive immigration and gender ideology) but not on economic issues. On the other side, the right-wing bloc stands for market freedom, but wants to restore borders against immigration or to maintain the sexual difference and complementarity between a man and a woman. In the middle, President Macron’s bloc stands for both.
The main political debate, in this context, will take place inside the right-wing bloc and the far-left one. We can expect some far-left politicians to stand against immigration, which has been a tool used by big business to decrease wages. In fact that has already happened, but we could see an acceleration of this process. And we could also expect, especially from some Rassemblement National MPs, a comeback to Poujadism—a 1950s economic and social rebellion from small companies against the growing welfare state, in which Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of National Front, fought his first political battles. Both tendencies appeared recently in France’s “yellow vests” crisis. And, in both cases, we could see a global opposition to the liberal order incarnated by Emmanuel Macron—with, once again, a very slender support from the population.
Liberalism has seen this challenge before. In the nineteenth century, France presented a very similar battlefield. At that time liberalism, born from the Revolution, was fought from both sides: on the left side by a growing socialism, and on the right side by royalism and social Catholicism (which were often promoted by the same people). Both sides attacked liberalism and, sometimes, even gathered together against it.
Today, ideologically, almost all intellectual circles as well as the mainstream media support the liberal order incarnated by Macron’s policy. For now, one cannot see any alternative project of government. Yet the neoliberal view of human beings and of the world is, politically, still a small minority in France. Although it still has the majority of the seats in the National Assembly, among voters less than a quarter support it.
In the coming months and years, there will be several occasions to decrease the political influence of this “liberal order.” The first one is likely to be the debate about retirement income, which could bring a lot of people into the streets—and a stalemate situation in the Assembly.
France is also likely to see some interesting debates about the energy crisis—where the political position of President Macron has not been very consistent. Macron began to destroy nuclear power centers, in support of radical ecology, but now is relaunching coal power stations that pollute much more. Above all, with the Russian/Ukrainian war and the consequent energy crisis in all of Europe, we see the limits of the borderless world proclaimed by Macron’s staunchest intellectual supporters.
France’s strange election, we can only conclude, is likely the eve of yet stranger political events. Stay tuned.
 One of the spokesmen of the campaign described the rainbow coalition this way: the red of communism, the green of ecological activism, the yellow of “yellow jackets,” the purple of feminism, and the multicolored of anti-racism.
Guillaume de Thieulloy, a longtime staffer in the Sénat de France, is a political scientist and publisher of Le Salon Beige, among other journals.