Jupiter no more. On Sunday French voters brought Emmanuel Macron crashing down to earth barely two months after he had won, decisively, a second term as French president.
Not only did Macron’s Ensemble alliance fall far short of an absolute majority in the second round of legislative elections, it may also struggle to pass legislation comfortably and predictably, with a diminished and fractious centre-right its mostly likely reservoir of support.
After winning re-election, Macron was positioned to be the EU’s most powerful leader, with a full five years in office ahead of him, unlike Italy’s Mario Draghi, and with a likely if slender absolute majority, unlike Germany’s Olaf Scholz. Now he has neither the bipartisan appeal of Draghi nor the stability of the coalition deal underpinning Scholz.
Macron shot to power in 2017 after positioning himself as a centrist bulwark against extremist political forces. He repeated the trick last month, when voters balked once again at installing Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, in the Elysée Palace. But the rise of the political extremes during his term is only underscored by Sunday’s vote.
Extremist parties will now control around half the seats in parliament. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an anti-American, Eurosceptic, Kremlin-friendly bruiser is now the undisputed leader of the opposition.
Mélenchon skilfully parlayed his third place in the first round of the presidential election into a political triumph. He skilfully assembled a union of the far left, socialists and greens under his iron-fisted command. Deep differences over policy — especially over attitudes to the EU — were swept aside. Together, the left rose. Remarkably, given how the presidential election was fought on centre-right and far-right themes, the parliamentary contest tilted to the left, with Macron appointing a prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, with socialist ties, and echoing Mélenchon’s call for more state planning to combat climate change.
It would be unfair to characterise all of the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (Nupes) as extremist. But there is no question that the hard left is in charge. Mélenchon wanted to be elected prime minister in what would have been an excruciating cohabitation with the president. Having fallen well short of that goal, Mélenchon can be expected to give Macron full-throated, uncompromising opposition.
Mélenchon celebrated “routing” Macron’s party, saying it vindicated his strategy. But the more significant breakthrough may actually belong to Le Pen. Her Rassemblement National party was on course to win perhaps 10 times as many seats as in 2017 and, crucially, a larger tally than the mainstream centre-right Republicans.
The Republicans, it seems, performed better than their abysmal showing in presidential election suggested. They are the obvious partners for Macron, who has drawn on their policies and personnel. But they are also deeply divided on strategy and positioning. Being overtaken by the far right will only make them more difficult to deal with. The first reaction of Christian Jacob, the Republicans’ chair on Sunday night, was to say the party would stay in opposition.
France has a highly centralised state. Macron took it to a new level, concentrating power, sidelining other institutions and civil society as he ran the country from his palace. Although not quite a rubber stamp, parliament broadly followed his orders. The next five years now look very different. France is a parliamentary democracy, after all.
The result is a humiliation. Some of Macron’s closest political allies, including Richard Ferrand, president of the outgoing National Assembly, and Christophe Castaner, the leader of Macron’s party in parliament, lost their seats. Many French voters will see the result as a rejection of an arrogant, over-personalised way of governing; others will fear the country with all its social tensions will become impossible to run, further undermining faith in democracy and feeding extremist forces.
Macron has his own mandate. The president has power over foreign policy and defence and can dissolve parliament in case of paralysis. He is nothing if not ideologically versatile. But it will take new political skills and some humility to salvage his second term.