The European Parliament elections will be the first major test at the polls for Emmanuel Macron since being elected president in 2017. These elections come after six months of street protests that have derailed a reform programme the president is now anxious to get back on track. The elections are set to be a tightly fought battle for supremacy between Macron’s centrist, liberal, pro-EU governing party (LREM) and Marine Le Pen’s nationalist, populist, anti-EU party (RN). The outcome could have a significant impact not only on French domestic politics but also on France’s leadership role within the EU. As James Shields argues, this is a contest neither Macron nor Le Pen can afford to lose.
What a difference a year makes. In summer 2018, Emmanuel Macron was riding high as the Wunderkind of European politics. A year into his presidential mandate, he was well launched on his mission to revitalise France’s economy, liberalising the notoriously reform-resistant labour market, overhauling the tax system and pushing through contentious education reforms, all with a beguiling ability to overcome opposition through persuasive negotiation and the confident projection of his own authority. So secure did this young president feel that he pressed ahead with reform of the debt-ridden state railway system in the face of stiff union resistance and a three-month rolling rail strike. Here was an occupant of the Elysée who seemed impervious to the protests that had curtailed the reformist ambitions of his three most recent predecessors, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.
Not content with reforming France, Macron also came to office on a mission to reform Europe. His strongly pro-EU presidential campaign was a shining exception in an electoral context coloured by Brexit and the growing spectre of populist nationalism. For this devotion to an ideal of Europe under assault, Macron was awarded in May 2018 the Charlemagne Prize by an Aachen-based award committee that lauded his elevated European vision and recognised in him ‘a head of state with a claim to European leadership’. Fittingly, Macron used his acceptance speech to argue for a more politically, economically and fiscally integrated Europe. He also pointedly denounced ‘inward-looking nationalism’, singling out Italy, Hungary and Poland for special chastisement over the threat their governments posed to the hard-won liberties of their citizens.
Emmanuel Macron, Credit: Jacques Paquier (CC BY 2.0)
All of that was then. Now, Macron is a president under siege at home and struggling to maintain his lustre on the European stage. Since November 2018, he has found his reform agenda derailed by a popular insurgency accompanied by the worst civil disorder seen in France for decades. What began as a protest against a planned government fuel tax rise quickly became a much wider insurgency against the political class, focused on economic inequality, taxes, cost of living and the relentless thinning out of services in provincial France. With almost 300,000 taking part in the first actions to block roads and tollbooths and demonstrate in some city centres in November 2018, the gilets jaunes (so named after their improvised high viz jacket ‘uniform’), accompanied by opportunistic wreckers (casseurs), kept up a rhythm of protest bringing tens of thousands onto the streets of France weekend after weekend thereafter.
Confronted with the gravity of this uprising, Macron dispensed with fiscal discipline and conceded 10 billion euros in low pay rises and tax exemptions in December, followed in April by close to 10 billion euros more in tax cuts, pension rises and the withdrawal of planned public service job closures. These latest measures came at the end of a ‘great national debate’ hastily launched by the government that saw over 10,000 town hall meetings between January and March 2019, with almost two million online contributions. But the weekly protests continued – and, more worrying for Macron, public opinion continued largely to support them despite their excesses in terms of social disruption and public disorder, while his own approval ratings sank to the mid-20s.
Meanwhile, Macron’s proposals for EU reform have stalled. The changing of the political guard in Germany, the interminable tractations over Brexit, and wariness among some member states of Macron’s Gaullist designs on EU leadership have seen his calls for a ‘European renaissance’ given a lukewarm reception. The failure to win over Berlin, gatekeeper to all EU reform, on his plans for strengthening the eurozone is a major obstacle here; so, too, opposition from certain states to proposals for sharing refugee inflows and wider scepticism towards a European climate bank, an EU minimum wage and a grandly named but vaguely conceived ‘Conference for Europe’ to ‘define a roadmap for the EU’ with ‘all the changes our political project needs’.
The stakes in these elections
Such is the context in which France stages its 2019 European election campaign. Across much of the EU, these elections are shaping up as a contest between populist, Eurosceptic movements on one side and pro-European liberals on the other. Nowhere is this contest more starkly framed than in France, where Macron has styled himself as a progressive bulwark against populist nationalism and where Marine Le Pen and her rebranded National Rally (RN) are making a strong comeback after their defeats by Macron and his Republic on the Move (LREM) in 2017. Currently, the LREM and RN lists are neck-and-neck at around 22% of vote projections, way out in front of all others, with the RN nudging ahead in some recent polls (Ifop-Fiducial, Ipsos, Opinionway).
The one thing that unites Macron and Le Pen is that neither can afford to lose to the other in this contest. Macron must ensure his ‘Renaissance’ list finishes ahead of Le Pen’s ‘Take Power’ list if he is to signal his recovery from six months of street protests and governing paralysis and avoid defeat in what is seen by many as a referendum on his presidency. Coming first is vital to Macron on the bigger stage, too, if he is to reclaim his self-assigned role as the man to bring fresh impetus to the EU and lead its resistance to populist nationalism.
Conversely, Le Pen must ensure her party’s list finishes ahead of Macron’s in order to equal its poll-topping performance (24.9%, 24 seats) in the last European elections of 2014 and burnish her credentials as an opposition leader with winning potential. Coming even a close second now would count as failure and merely replay the outcome of the 2017 elections. On the bigger stage, too, claiming first place is vital for Le Pen’s ambition to lead the national-populist right within an EU where populist parties have increased their influence in the past two years, entering national coalition governments in Austria and Italy and bringing a new far-right leadership pretender to the fore in Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Lega boss, Matteo Salvini.
Of the other lists in the French frame (there are 34 in all), the centre-right Republicans occupy third place on around 14%, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left France Unbowed on 8-9% and the Greens on 7-8%. Conspicuous by their absence among the leading lists are France’s Socialists, in power under François Hollande from 2012 to 2017 but now languishing on barely 5% of projected vote share. The plight of the Socialists, who polled a dismal 6.4% in the 2017 presidential contest, is symptomatic of a powerful anti-incumbent mood and a loss of faith in the traditional institutions and representatives of liberal democracy in France. That same mood created the conditions both for Macron’s election from nowhere and for the sustained opposition he now faces, with recent polling showing public confidence in the presidency at an all-time low of 28% and trust in political parties at just 12%. In keeping with this disaffected mood, projected turnout of around 40% could break the record in France even for these traditionally low-turnout elections.
These elections also take place at a moment when disenchantment towards the EU is more widespread than ever in France. In the 2017 presidential election, over 45% of the first-round vote went to three Euro-hostile (‘Eurosceptic’ is too mild a term) candidates – Le Pen (21.3%), Mélenchon (19.6%) and the national-sovereignist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (4.7%). In recent polling in France, only 29% of respondents saw the European project as a ‘source of hope’, down from 61% in 2003, while an overwhelming majority judged Europe ‘ineffective’ in the key areas of employment (80%) and immigration (82%). That the mobilising issue in these elections for French voters is ‘purchasing power’, together with the protectionist inflection across much of the campaign discourse, attests the erosion of the idealism that once underpinned the construction of Europe.
All of this is of significance for these elections. If LREM’s ‘Renaissance’ list finishes first, it will inaugurate a new phase of the Macron presidency at home and provide grounds to continue pressing the case among EU leaders for reforms to deepen and strengthen the Union. If the governing party’s list cannot prevail over national populists in France, it will call into question the president’s mandate for continuing his reform programme at home and give a hollow ring to the manifesto for a ‘European renaissance’ which he grandly addressed in 22 languages and 28 newspapers to citizens across the entire Union back in March. These are elections with high stakes for the Macron presidency, the government of France and the possible direction of the EU as it struggles to counter the centrifugal pull of populist nationalism. Embodying the essence of that wider political confrontation, the contest between Macron and Le Pen will be keenly watched, and its effects may be keenly felt, far beyond the borders of France.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
James Shields – University of Warwick
James Shields is Honorary Professor in French Studies at the University of Warwick. He specialises in the history and politics of the far right and is author of The Extreme Right in France: From Pétain to Le Pen (Routledge, 2007). He recently completed a Leverhulme Research Fellowship studying the impact of populist nationalism in France.