France’s president has fallen prey to his own hubris
Gradually, then suddenly. As in Ernest Hemingway’s famous line on bankruptcy, the fall of the House of Macron came after months, years, of unheeded warning signs and patch-up fixes. Despite the Gilets Jaunes’ anti-establishment riots and the chaos and violence before football’s Champions League final in Paris, despite posturing against Brexit and posturing with Vladimir Putin, despite firing a too-popular PM and hiring two successive nonentities for the job, Emmanuel Macron thought he was, in every respect, invulnerable. He was, he believed, supremely post-politics, post-established parties and, in many ways, post-parliamentary democracy. He saw himself as the Francis Fukuyama of French politics, the man who put paid to the very idea of Left and Right.
Having secured a decisive re-election in April with more than 58 per cent of the vote against Marine Le Pen – the presidential opponent he always wanted – Macron assumed that tomorrow, and the next five years, belonged to him. Yet as a politician, he is a newcomer — this was part of his “safe populism” appeal. He’d never stood for any elected office in his life until, aged 37, newly appointed Minister for the Economy, he set his eyes on the Presidency. By the time he was 39, it was done.
In April and May 2017 a sweep of the National Assembly gave a large parliamentary majority to the unknown, untried MPs of En Marche!, the movement Macron had founded only a year earlier. En Marche! was never styled a “party”. Macron’s only experience of a political party had been his few years serving under Hollande, the mentor he eventually betrayed. Macron hated politics constrained by conventional party structure, he felt at the time, finding it too messy and time-consuming.
Once in the job, Macron acted accordingly. He took to calling himself, unironically, “Jupiter”. Throughout his presidency, he treated his MPs like junior employees – expecting, without a trace of sentiment or sadness, to shed some of them in this year’s elections. His loyalty was reserved for a mere half-dozen close associates, all of them thirtysomething young men who looked like his pale, 3D-printed clones.
Never, in his wildest imagining, did Macron think he would lose the legislative elections to the Assembly, held this June.
Le Pen’s party rally, held in the heady afterglow of its resurgence, was likened to a crowd of flabbergasted lottery winners trying to imagine how they’d spend the loot
Macron’s majority coalition group, cruelly called Ensemble!, ended up 44 seats short of a parliamentary majority — and that group included a couple of Centrist parties he had mistreated throughout his first term. For the first time in almost 30 years, the President has no clear majority in Parliament. When the extent of his defeat became clear, Macron was, by all accounts, shell-shocked. He lost some of his closest acolytes, among them the former Home Secretary-turned-parliamentary group leader, Christophe Castaner, and the En Marche! Chief Whip, Richard Ferrand.
That’s when “gradually” became “suddenly”. In the wake of the unexpected electoral drubbing several presidential meetings were held behind closed doors, peopled by Macron’s consiglieri and the dour PM he’d just appointed, Élisabeth Borne. A top civil servant, Borne has run a couple of public companies, yet, incurably corporate in her manner, still seems like the Préfet she once was.
The post-election meetings were, predictably, full of recrimination and confusion. The government spokeswoman, Olivia Grégoire, had prepared a statement calling the putative majority for Macron a “disappointing victory”. On a Zoom call, the re-elected Macronista MP Aurore Bergé laid into her: “You can’t possibly call this a victory!”, Le Monde reported her as saying. Borne, who’d been elected for the first time, in a constituency in Normandy, hadn’t even taken the time to thank her constituents before hurrying to the Élysée. She formally (and traditionally) offered her resignation to the President, but was denied. “There still is work to do,” she was told – and Macron then confirmed he wanted her in the job for an uncertain future. At the time of writing, she has decided to stick to her guns, attempting to sound more political than she’s ever managed previously.
The undoing of Emmanuel Macron has seen the rise of the balance of opposing blocs that he expected would secure his hold on power. On the Left, the most experienced politician of them all, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 70, who began his career under François Mitterrand, and who pulled in only 400,000 fewer votes than Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections, knew at once how to capitalise on the momentum away from Macron. It is likely that half of those who voted for Mélenchon were moderates, but despaired of not seeing a figure from the Left in the runoff.
By immediately framing himself as their leader, Mélenchon bullied the fragmented Socialists, Greens and Communists, then facing poll death in the single digits, and pushed them into an alliance, NUPES – the new ecological and social people’s union – formed on 1st May. Voters followed. June’s Assembly election gave NUPES 142 MPs. That would have made it the largest opposition parliamentary group, had not Mélenchon, heady with success, characteristically overreached himself the day after the vote by attempting to mould his ad hoc alliance into a single party. Wary of his autocratic tendencies, Mélenchon was rebuffed. That left Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) as the largest opposition party.
Barely present during the Assembly campaign, Le Pen never expected to do so well. Her party’s rally, held in the heady afterglow of its resurgence, was likened to a crowd of flabbergasted lottery winners trying to imagine how they’d spend the loot. The following week, Le Pen was careful to appear modest and magnanimous, smiling when she, along with other party leaders, was invited to the Élysée for talks with a subdued Macron. There was no reason, she said, why the RN wouldn’t support government legislation that was in tune with its own platform.
Le Pen has good cause to offer herself as a safe pair of hands. In June, entire départements fell to her RN: faced with a choice between the avowedly Marxist Mélenchon and a Rally candidate in the second round, many voters abstained – but some, especially the small businesspeople, had been scared enough of the economic consequences to opt for the Lepéniste.
An in-depth study of the Assembly election by the polling institute Opinion Way showed that voters transferred their allegiances more freely than ever before. Almost one-quarter of Républicains voted for the RN in the second round, but, counter-intuitively, so did one-third of NUPES voters — because of Marine Le Pen’s social policies. Both NUPES and RN stood for more state subsidies against inflation, both would lower the pension age to 60; both advocated more means for schools, hospital and social services; both would raise the minimum wage and old age pensions; both favoured free contraception. Similarly, 25 per cent of RN voters chose the NUPES candidate over the representative of the hated Macron. At either end of the horseshoe, voters wanted, first and foremost, to sock Macron one in the eye.
The animosity against a President seen as aloof, dismissive, patronising, unable to understand normal people’s concerns or to respect democratic usage, is what eventually put paid to Macron’s seemingly unstoppable ascent. When first elected, he was compared to the young Napoléon Bonaparte: he shared with him youth, insolent luck, cross-party appeal in a tired country, and disrespect for procedure. What he didn’t share with the great man was the common touch, or an eagle eye for the minutiae of a new legal framework.
A technocrat accustomed to finessing existing texts and adding layers of obfuscating measures to serve his own purposes, Macron lacks the clear mind of Napoleon the legislator, whose Civil Code is still largely in use not only in France but in places as different as Côte d’Ivoire, Louisiana or Vietnam. When it came to Macron’s turn to appoint three members of France’s nine-strong Constitutional Council – the French equivalent of the Supreme Court, and once home to the country’s best constitutionalists – he packed it with failed ministers who had no background in law.
As for the common touch, Macron simply doesn’t understand the notion. Soon after his 2019 general election victory, Boris Johnson travelled to the north of England to address “Red Wall” Tory voters, telling them he understood how difficult, even painful, it had been for many of them to vote Conservative for the first time; and that he and his party would remember their duty to these new voters. It was a rare moment of grace, acknowledging the gift of an electorate tired of unheeding southern elites. Similarly, there was Johnson’s first visit to Kyiv, in April. News of that trip led Macron to throw a strop at the Élysée, in front of his advisers. So furious was the President that he cancelled his own planned trip to Ukraine later that week. Johnson’s visit, and promise of untiring military support for Ukraine, was simply too straightforward for Macron, a man whose presidency has always been about triangulating.
Macron embodies the French elite in its most arrogant technocratic certainties. Whenever he stages initiatives to “listen to the people”, as in the 2019 Great Debate travelling circus that took him to half a dozen places across France at the tail-end of the initial Gilets Jaunes unrest – complete with carefully positioned “spontaneous” questioners – he merely ended up lecturing for hours. His wife Brigitte, a bright, no-nonsense woman with few airs and graces, has been unfairly compared to Marie-Antoinette. Macron is no Louis XVI. Rather, he is better compared to the decapitated king’s grandfather, Louis XV, who when he formally succeeded to the throne was dubbed le bien-aimé, the well-beloved. He was buried alone almost 59 years later, universally reviled by a nation left poorer and more angry by his reign. News of his demise was met by dancing in the streets.
Macron embodies the French elite in its most arrogant technocratic certainties
Emmanuel Macron is still president, but few expect him to stay the full five years. He can, in theory, call a general election at any time. But he won’t do so in the near future, so long as NUPES, which tabled a vote of no confidence at the first session of the new National Assembly on 5 July, has promised to bring the “revolt of the masses” into Parliament. Les Républicains have refused so far to enter into a coalition with him, preferring to vote on each Bill according to their own political platform. The RN’s notoriously absentee MPs will probably figure out how to use their new parliamentary strength. Macron is facing a difficult summer, and a worse rentrée.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a French journalist, editor, author, and a columnist for The Telegraph