French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche, lost the country’s recent municipal elections. Logically enough, commentators now believe Macron is more vulnerable in the 2022 election, even though there is no candidate on the political landscape right now with a tangible chance to beat him.
But politics doesn't always follow logic, and certainly not in France. Nothing is ever permanently won or lost in political life. As social scientists say, “trend is not destiny.”
A victory too great can create the conditions of a subsequent defeat. Or, in this case, Macron’s stark defeat at the local level could actually increase his chances for re-election in two years. The commentariat may be right that he is in greater trouble now, but it is not immediately obvious, when looking at the broader state of French politics.
There remains no obvious candidate of Macron’s quality. What about Marine Le Pen, whom Macron defeated in the runoff last time? The national-populist right’s old war horse hangs on, but barely. She’s still seen as Macron’s likeliest runoff opponent, but this just shows a lack of political imagination among the commentators.
Le Pen has worn out her welcome even on the far right. Her campaign performance in 2017 was disastrous. In her single television debate with Macron, a few weeks before the vote, she disgusted even long-time supporters -- people who for decades had supported her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front party.
She appeared remarkably ignorant in economic matters, mean if not vicious politically, and totally out of her class intellectually. Her struggling party, renamed the National Rally, may in fact abandon her, or she it. A new populist party might be thrown together, perhaps with her own niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, as a candidate. In any case, Macron is unlikely to be beaten by a hard-right national-populist candidate. As in 2017, even hardened left-wing voters would support him against any far-right candidate.
Nevertheless, Macron’s position is weaker because in the past few years he’s lost a certain number of voters and deputies on his left. Being in government naturally uses up political capital.
Macron continues to hold the center and center-right. The traditional conservative right-wing parties have not yet recovered from Macron’s surge in 2017. (François Fillon, candidate of Les Républicains in 2017, was just last week sentenced to prison for corruption.)
On Macron’s other side, the once-formidable French left made up of Socialists and Communists is moribund. Except for the Greens (see below), the old French left is a rudderless group of has-beens and wannabes, including the “France Unbowed” surge movement led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, a political anti-capitalist buffoon who won 19% of the first-round vote in 2017. (Understanding die-hard left-wing French voters takes special skill.) A small swing in votes could have made the equally unprepared Melenchon, rather than Marine Le Pen, Macron’s runoff opponent.
But there is indeed something new in France’s historical dance with political precariousness. The very large Green/Ecology social-cultural movement, which ran as a coalition named Europe Ecologie Les Verts, enjoyed a completely unexpected triumph. It took several big cities in June's elections, including the second-largest, Marseille, where a long-governing right-wing coalition was ousted.
Looked at from Macron’s perspective, the Greens are not yet a looming disaster, because there is no outstanding Green leader at the presidential level, although one may emerge. There’s not much time for this to occur, but remember that Macron himself leapfrogged everyone in 2016-2017.
An imposing Green candidate would score higher than Le Pen or any other far-right candidate in the first round and would reach a runoff against Macron. It is even conceivable, given Macron’s decline in the polls, that a convincing Green candidate could beat Macron on the first ballot. But which one would win the runoff? Don’t bet against Macron.
Macron has made mistakes, but he is a serious and surprisingly courageous political leader. He has enacted difficult reforms, for example changes in worker protection rules and pension plans -- moves with an eye to the long term at the expense of short-term difficulties.
This has not increased his popularity. Instead, Macron got the usual corporatist trade union opposition and then faced the Yellow Jacket movement, which was the culmination of years of problems not of Macron’s making. Now he has been hit politically by the pandemic as well.
Macron has also lost appeal because of his sometimes arrogant, impatient temperament. But compare him to others: Among the major European leaders, only Germany’s Angela Merkel makes him look unusually difficult. French voters have a long history of spiteful attitudes toward politicians.
Neither has Macron been able to shake off the sobriquet “the president of the rich,” when he originally had a brilliant retort. “I don’t want to be the president of the rich”, he would say, “I want to be the president of those who want to get rich,” meaning motivating entrepreneurs and the start-up sector.
In sum, it is possible that the Macron/LREM defeat in local elections is less than meets the eye. Politics is paradoxes and zig-zags, and the one who defeats you today may be doing you a favor for tomorrow.
If France were to elect a genuinely capable Green president, that would be good for everybody. It would be as well or better if Macron, who is green in all but name, pulls through, has a successful second term and ultimately gets credit for a job well done.
The views expressed are the author's own.