Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.
PARIS — Despite President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection on Sunday, the forces of Euroskeptic nationalism, which gave Europe a fright this month, are still rattling at the gates of the Elysée Palace. A far-right populist won an unprecedented percentage of the vote. There’s no reason to believe that next time it couldn’t be higher.
Before the European Union establishment breathes a sigh of relief and carries on with business as usual, it’s worth thinking about how France — the union’s co-founder and indispensable pillar — can avoid playing Russian roulette with Europe’s future every five years.
With the collapse of the two parties that dominated France’s Fifth Republic politics since 1958 — the center-right Gaullists and the center-left Socialists — the country is effectively left with a single, loose pro-European centrist bloc on one hand and the diffuse but eruptive forces of anti-globalization, anti-EU, anti-immigration nationalism and protectionism on the other.
In a democracy, power naturally tends to alternate between two major political camps. But French democracy has been hollowed out. This is partly due to an overly mighty elected presidency, which has reduced parliament to a rubber stamp as long as the president has a majority in the National Assembly.
Former President Jacques Chirac’s decision in 2001 to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years and synchronize the electoral cycle, so that the legislature is chosen during the newly crowned president’s honeymoon, has also entrenched presidential rule and fueled voter apathy.
“Why bother voting?” is a growing refrain, especially among young people, who prefer political action through associations, single-issue protest groups or — on the radical fringes — violence.
“The sequencing of the elections was absolutely decisive in leading to this decomposition of the political landscape,” political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the extreme right, said in an interview.
The two-round constituency voting system for the National Assembly means large segments of the population, as measured by opinion polls, are severely underrepresented. To reach the second ballot, candidates must score 12.5 percent of all registered voters — a high barrier when turnout is low. As a result, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally had just eight seats in the outgoing 577-seat National Assembly and leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed had 17, while the ecologist Greens had 16.
Such a skewed legislature invites extra-parliamentary opposition, with regular confrontations in the street, rather than the quest for consensus among democratic forces and negotiation among social partners, which characterizes politics in many countries that have voting systems with full or partial proportional representation. In Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium or Denmark, no party can form a government without compromise.
Add to that the fact that Macron is widely seen as an arrogant technocrat condescending to ordinary people — an image reinforced by his body language during his sole TV debate with Le Pen — and you have the ingredients for another potential social explosion like the Yellow Jackets movement, ignited in 2018 by a hike in fuel prices.
As such, Le Pen framed the run-off as “Macron versus the people.” In the age of social media, the disconnect between France’s elected leaders and ordinary citizens is ever more glaring, and Macron’s attachment to the trappings of the imperial presidency — with endless commemorations and summits at the Palace of Versailles — dwarf his episodic attempts to connect with young people via video clips with popular vloggers.
However, the new phenomenon to emerge during this year’s campaign was an even more virulent form of anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-NATO nationalism, embodied by far-right essayist Eric Zemmour. Although he only scored 7.1 percent in the end, at one point he had reached up to 18 percent support and was neck and neck with Le Pen in opinion polls.
Zemmour served as a heat shield for Le Pen, making her look moderate and cuddly, even though her program included giving a “national preference” to French citizens in housing, welfare and employment; banning Muslim women from wearing the headscarf in public and enshrining the supremacy of the French constitution over EU law.
One way to channel France’s political passions into a more constructive debate would be to change the parliamentary electoral system. In his first term, Macron had promised to introduce a dose of proportional representation, though he did not specify how much and gave up quickly when the Senate blocked his proposed constitutional reform. However, he could overhaul voting rules by a simple parliamentary majority, without changing the constitution.
Another way would be to hold the parliamentary election before the presidential vote, encouraging more diverse representation and greater power-sharing between the executive and the legislature.
Yet another approach would be to create some form of citizens’ assembly to deliberate on societal or constitutional issues to which the government must respond, as has existed in Ireland since 2016. There, unpaid members are randomly selected by a polling institute to represent the diversity of society. However, Macron already used a similar gambit to devise proposals for France’s response to climate change, and has only implemented few of its recommendations, undermining the process.
So how great is the danger of a populist victory in 2027, if no such reforms are introduced and France remains a vertical, centralized state with a technocratic president?
It’s hard to tell.
Harold Wilson reportedly said that a week is a long time in politics — five years is an eternity. And it’s unclear who will lead the far left or the hard right. Mélenchon is 70, and Le Pen has now lost three elections.
It also partly depends on whether the Gaullists and Socialists manage to survive in the June legislative elections and rebuild a left-right debate thereafter, or what grows in their place if they are decimated — and probably bankrupted — by losing their parliamentary seats.
Next time, a better candidate than Le Pen — if able to harness the left-wing and far-right protest votes that added up to 57 percent in the first round on April 10 — could ride the wave of grassroots anger against the elite to victory, casting the EU into an existential crisis.
But Camus doubts that any populist leader will be able to unite the malcontents of the left and right into a winning majority. “They are sociologically too different, and there are some core issues that make it impossible to federate the radical left and right, especially immigration.”
An eventual anti-European populist victory in France is not inevitable. But the country needs to find a better way to give its citizens more political choices.
It can’t go on like this. Something must give.