Fresh challenges for France’s centrists

Two years from France’s presidential election, can Emmanuel Macron reconcile left and right?

In the 2017 French president election, Emmanuel Macron’s black-and-white branding said it all. Until then, the country’s leaders were either red – for the left-of-centre Parti socialiste (PS) – or blue – for the right-of-centre UMP, now Les Républicains (LR). Mr. Macron’s new centrist party, La République en Marche (LREM), built a new French consensus, and bridged both sides of the political landscape.

Mr. Macron’s presidential-election strategy was a clever one. By constructing a party with politicians from left and right, he broke down the ideological boundaries which would otherwise have prevented his election. And in the parliamentary elections a month later, LREM returned an overwhelming majority to France’s lower house, the Assemblée nationale. Mr. Macron’s opponents were in the palm of his hand.

Three hears on, however, Mr. Macron faces numerous challenges. Pre-Covid, his popularity had been hovering around the mid-to-low thirties. Mr. Macron’s popularity increased by a few points during the Covid-19 crisis but, post-Covid, his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, is more popular than he is. Further pressure was piled onto Mr. Macron on Sunday, when French citizens elected their local councils and mayors in the second round of the municipal elections. With an unprecedented “green wave”, a handful of French cities were taken by France’s green party, Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV). Bordeaux, led by a Conservative politician since 1947, was taken by EELV. Lyon, led by former PS (now LREM) politician Gérard Collomb since 2001, also lost to EELV. Strasbourg, led by PS since 2008, fell to the écologistes on Sunday, too, as well as Poitiers and Marseille. Green successes in numerous cities were down to alliances with PS and other left-wing parties. And, in reverse, PS itself received heightened support thanks to alliances with EELV. Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, held onto power with a largely eco-focused campaign of green urban upheaval. PS also managed to win Montpellier, Nancy and Saint-Denis from other parties on Sunday evening.

Indeed, the results cannot be viewed through uniquely green and red lenses. Right-wing alliances gained significant support in Toulouse and Nice, and the far-right Rassemblement national (RN) won Perpignan, its first ever city of more than 100,000 people. And with one of the highest ever abstention rates of 58.4%, the results must be taken with a pinch of salt. But this left-wing surge will send shockwaves to centrist Mr. Macron, who will be seeking re-election as president in May 2022.

Mr. Macron is a centrist who is “neither on the right nor on the left”. He frequently throws the catchphrase “en même temps” (“at the same time”) into speeches, in order to prevent being seen as too partisan. But some politicians and voters have questioned the extent to which Mr. Macron has genuinely balanced both sides over his first three years. Many have been angered by what they see as a centre-right approach instead of the centrist one he promised.

According to a study carried out by the OECD in February, Mr. Macron’s reforms have benefitted the top five percent of households most of all, with only marginal improvements among the poorest. His reform of the ISF, the tax on France’s highest fortunes, has also advantaged the wealthiest. His contradictory remarks on the place of the Muslim burqa (see my previous blog post) play into the hands of France’s conservatives and, most importantly, RN. With little support, several LREM candidates pulled out from the mayoral races in Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg and backed LR candidates instead, fearing the socialists and greens who ended up pipping them to the post. Many have interpreted this as a clear sign of what might come from Mr. Macron over the next two years.

The question now is whether Mr. Macron will succeed in the impossible task of pleasing everyone, or whether he will have to pick a side.

The recent momentum of France’s left will only increase the pressure on Mr. Macron to make peace with centre-left voters and politicians who supported him in 2017, and voted against him on Sunday. Last month, seventeen left-of-centre MPs who were converted to macronie in 2017 quit LREM‘s parliamentary group in order to form a new one named Écologie, Démocratie, Solidarité. Its founders wasted no time in laying into LREM, calling for voters to re-elect the socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, in last week’s municipal elections, instead of backing LREM candidate Agnès Buzyn. In the 2019 European elections, the Renaissance list, comprising LREM and a smaller centrist party called Mouvement démocrate (MoDem), lost the support of left-of-centre voters and gained support among right-of-centre voters. Failing to win the left-of-centre supporters back over the next two years could be proof that Mr. Macron leans too far to the right, and could only increase support for the left in retaliation.

The most likely outcome, however, is that Mr. Macron continues to find favour with the right. At the moment, it looks like Mr. Macron will be facing Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right RN, in the second round of the 2022 election. If this is the case, both the parties of Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen could squash the traditionally conservative LR. From a tactical point of view, however, this situation would serve Mr. Macron well. In a current prediction for the first round of the election, whereby French voters support any candidate of their choice, with the top two making it through to the final round, LR would only gain 12% of the vote, compared to 26% for Mr. Macron and 28% for Ms. Le Pen. And it is for this reason that Mr. Macron may choose to stick to the right. If he moved towards the left, support for LR would almost certainly increase in the first round, eating away at the currently high levels of support for Mr. Macron among traditional LR voters. Even if Mr. Macron did still make it to the second round, and managed to win back centre-left voters, Ms. Le Pen would almost certainly paint Mr. Macron as a left-winger to beware, and support for her own party among the most loyal supporters of the French right could increase. And even if Mr. Macron did choose to adopt a centre-left programme over the next two years, winning back the trust of France’s left wing would be a gradual process.

Mr. Macron now finds himself in a catch-22 situation. If the latest predictions are correct, and his politics remains the same over the next two years, he will need the support of the right to ensure re-election. But doing exactly that risks upsetting the disillusioned left-wing voters who supported him in 2017. Last weekend’s municipal elections have demonstrated, however, that EELV and PS, which have long viewed each other with suspicion, could put up a strong fight with Mr. Macron if he continues to court France’s right. Ségolène Royal, the PS candidate who lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, announced yesterday that she would be willing to work with EELV to challenge Mr. Macron in 2022.

The next two years will test Mr. Macron’s centrism to its limits. But despite originally taking on the impossible task of pleasing everyone, he may soon have to pick a side.

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