France Lives in Macron’s World Now
The French president has started the political revolution he always wanted—and the outcome is dangerously uncertain.
A group representing the have-nots of society, economically marginalized and culturally ostracized, find themselves invited into the world of the haves who command the economy’s levers and define the contours of its culture. By accepting the invitation, the have-nots challenge the supremacy of the haves, before the haves fight back, locking the two in a fight to destroy the other.
Such is the plot of Parasite, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s thriller that was awarded the Palme d’Or, or top prize, by the jury at the Cannes Film Festival this past weekend. But it also summarizes the other vote that took place in France this weekend, the one for European Parliament. Thanks to its scenarist, President Emmanuel Macron, the election, which could have been titled Macron vs. Le Pen: The Sequel, eerily paralleled Parasite. He has recast French politics in the manner he always wanted: bracketed exclusively on the struggle between himself and Le Pen and their respective followings. Now he must hope that his political revolution doesn’t end the same way as Bong’s movie—with an outright blood bath that tears the house down with it.
From the start of the French campaign for the European elections, its cast of characters wrestled over the storyline. The traditional left, represented by the Socialists—still reeling from their catastrophic performance in the presidential and legislative elections of 2017—presented it as a new beginning. Similarly, the traditional right, led by Les Républicains, cast the election as a rebirth from the heap of ashes in which the results of 2017 left them. As for the most prominent nontraditional party, the hard-left La France Insoumise, the election was street protests by other means. Its leader, the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, posed as the crusader for the gilets jaunes, determined to carry their cause to Brussels.
The election results shredded all of these scripts. The Socialists, hitched to Place Publique, the newly formed party of celebrity intellectual Raphaël Glucksmann, won slightly more than 6 percent of the vote. For those who see the glass half full, the performance was better than expected. Many had feared the slate would not reach 5 percent, the minimum required to send representatives to Brussels. As for those who see the glass half empty, the vote foretold the day when the glass will be dry as dust. Given the party’s recent record, the pessimists have the upper hand. Between the European elections of 2004 and 2014, the Socialist vote was reduced by half, from 28 percent to 14 percent. With Sunday’s results, this dire trend has quickened. Come the 2022 presidential elections, mathematicians might be called upon to answer whether zero percent can be halved.
To convey the magnitude of Les Républicains’ loss, commentators burrowed more than 200 years into France’s past. The party’s 8.5 percent was not a mere defeat. Instead, it was a “véritable bérézina”—a reference to the 1812 battle between the imperial French and Russian armies that left the former in bloody tatters. The disaster was all the greater, if only psychologically, since the polls had indicated the Républicain slate—led by yet another young intellectual, François-Xavier Bellamy—might crack 15 percent. In the wake of the shattering defeat, the party’s leading moderate, Valérie Pécresse, politely pointed her nemesis, Les Républicains’ hard-line leader Laurent Wauquiez, to the nearest exit. When asked if Wauquiez should step down, Pécresse replied that it was not for her to say. But she nevertheless went on to say that “if I were in his place and situation, I would certainly do that”—that is, resign.
As for La France Insoumise, the results were equally shattering. Ever since the elections of 2017, Mélenchon has presented his party as the left’s leading opponent to the policies and person of Macron. This claim was largely justified. In 2017, he won nearly 20 percent in the first round of the presidential election and his party, in the legislative elections that followed, humiliated the Socialists by winning nearly twice their number of seats. But between then and now Mélenchon made a number of political faux pas, most importantly his effort to persuade the gilets jaunes that his party represented their interests. The gilets jaunes, however, were not interested. Mélenchon’s slate, led by Manon Aubry, barely squeaked over 6 percent, and were overtaken by the Green party ticket, which won over 13 percent of the vote. As allergic to modesty as he is to measure, Mélenchon immediately blamed his slate’s performance not on himself, but instead on Macron.
In the postmortem he offered Sunday night, Mélenchon lambasted Macron for having defined the election as a face-off between his party, the neoliberal En Marche! (In Motion!), and Marine Le Pen’s hard-right movement, the National Rally. By transforming this election into the sequel to 2017 and prequel to 2022, Macron sidelined the country’s other parties and effectively disenfranchised their supporters. Mélenchon is not alone in making this claim; political figures from across the spectrum, as well as many observers, have echoed it. More dubious, however, is the conclusion that Mélenchon and others have drawn that Macron’s decision to boost the National Rally’s prominence will bite him on the derrière. Thanks to this “irresponsible tactic,” he insisted, Macron has “deepened our country’s crisis.”
This brings us back to Parasite. In Bong’s film—which he wrote as well as directed—the Parks, a wealthy family, invite a hardscrabble family into their house. This invitation backfires, as the impoverished guests try to commandeer their host’s house and possessions. Macron scripted a story with a similar Manichaean conceit, one in which he designated the National Rally as his party’s sole opponent. Moreover, it is an opponent that, like the desperately poor guests in Parasite, threatens the house—in this case, the republic—over which he presides.
While National Rally voters share precious little with the movie’s interlopers, they do have, at least in Macron’s telling, the same goal. In the final stretch of the campaign, during which he played an unusually active role, he slammed the National Rally’s record as a “catastrophe” for France. Determined to resist what others saw as the party’s “irresistible” rise, Macron thus portrayed himself as France’s sole rampart against the rise of populist demagoguery and white ethnonationalism.
From one perspective, the rampart did not hold. After the final tally, the National Rally slate, with 23.3 percent of the vote, had edged out En Marche! (at 22.4 percent) for first place. One of the elements of the National Rally’s relatively strong showing is that they, more so than any other party, seem to have benefited from the gilets jaunes effect. The material and financial situation of the yellow vests, who are overwhelmingly lower middle class, is not nearly as dire as that of the movie’s guests. Yet they are driven by the fear of demographic and economic forces that will marginalize, if not atomize, them. A substantial number of the gilets jaunes and their sympathizers thus found Le Pen, whose party has relentlessly hammered at the issues of immigration and identity, as their most credible defender.
Whether Le Pen will be more credible as a presidential candidate in 2022 than she was in 2017 is an entirely different question. The National Rally’s 23.3 percent in Sunday’s election fell short of the 24.8 percent it won in the European elections of 2014 as well as the 34 percent that Le Pen won in the second round of the presidential election three years later. Indeed, its path to power remains as problematic today as it was when Le Pen took over the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011. Despite the changing of the old guard and old name, the party remains largely radioactive for the traditional right. It is as incapable of forming alliances with these parties as it is of winning a majority of votes on its own. The political scientist Sylvain Crépon rightly observes that the National Rally has enlarged its hold on la France périphérique, but whether it can establish a presence in urban France still seems unlikely.
From this perspective, the rampart has held. Not only did Macron’s slate draw conservative voters made uncomfortable by Wauquiez’s overheated rhetoric, but it also drew voters from the moderate left who were either put off by Mélenchon’s chest puffing or put to sleep by Glucksmann’s head scratching. Though Macron’s party finished second, that was all he needed to do. He has succeeded in freezing out the other parties, has the opponent he wants, and has framed the national debate for the next two years. This will not lead to a blood bath, but it’s likely to make participatory democracy a bit more anemic.