Blocked for now, the threat of far-right remains - GulfToday

Blocked for now, the threat of far-right remains

Jean-Luc Melenchon

Jean-Luc Melenchon

Mark Dejevsky, The Independent

If there was anyone more disappointed than France’s far-right National Rally (RN) party, by the results of the legislative elections, there were times when it seemed to be the legion of doom-watchers across the Channel, deprived of their chance to condemn the dangerous and deluded French.  From the first exit polls through to the actual results, the tone of much Anglophone analysis was shock-horror that the dreaded return to a latter-day Vichy regime was not going to happen.  In France itself, the prevailing reaction — outside the ranks of National Rally — was relief: relief that the time-honoured tactic of the so-called Republican Front, where the political centre and left join forces to barricade the far-right’s access to power, had succeeded again.

The most spectacular precedent for this was the presidential election of 2002, when the far-right National Front, then headed by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, beat the Socialists into third place, only to be trounced in the run-off by the sitting president, Jacques Chirac, who won 80 per cent of the vote.  The weekend’s results placed the left alliance, the New Popular Front (NFP) led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, first, with 182 parliamentary seats. President Emmanuel Macron’s Ensemble grouping came second, with 168 seats, and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally third, with 143.

The figures defied polling through the week between the two rounds, which had National Rally falling short of its hoped-for overall majority, but running neck and neck with the NFP to win most seats.  That National Rally would be beaten into third place, however, was a shock to everyone, welcome to many, not to some. National Rally’s young prime ministerial hopeful, Jordan Bardella, expressed his party’s disappointment and frustration at the party’s failure.

The party’s planned celebrations turned into a wake. To the extent that French voters have defied the forecasts to keep the far right out of government means that France has salvaged its honour in Europe and everywhere that far-right nationalism is seen as a threat.

At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that National Rally’s dreams of winning an overall majority in the new parliament were never going to be realised. Its first-round tally was just over a third of the votes, and past national elections suggest that its first-round numbers generally represent the high point of the far-right’s achievement, whether they call themselves the National Front, or National Rally — Marine Le Pen’s sanitised version of her father’s party, shorn of its overtly xenophobic and anti-EU positions.

As to why the turnaround was so great within the seven days that separated the two rounds of the election, French commentators offered several explanations, from fear of the unknown to the mounting evidence of the RN’s lack of experience when it started to talk about governing, and a widely shared concern about the possible damage to France’s international prestige.

So, what is the state of French politics following the elections — and President Macron’s position in particular? These are separate questions from the failure of the RN. Macron may have avoided the worst-case scenario after he called snap elections in response to his party’s drubbing by the RN at the EU elections.  He has also demonstrated — for the time being — how remote the far right remains from power, which will allay fears among France’s Nato partners and its neighbours, including the UK. But the result will not have the effect of inoculating French voters against the appeal of the far right in future, as he may have hoped.

Nor will it make France any easier to govern. Macron is now stuck with a hung parliament for at least a year — which is long as he must wait, according to the constitution, before calling another election. He also faces a particular sort of hung parliament, quite evenly divided three ways, with the main opposition grouping, the left-leaning NFP, being an alliance of convenience that is fragile, to say the least.

When Melenchon used his victory speech to demand the right to form a government, he was overreaching in a big way. Macron’s 32-year-old prime minister Gabriel Attal, who has been in office only seven months, quite properly tendered his resignation and Macron now faces the difficulty of forming a new government that will reflect the composition of the new parliament.  Any hope that it could be more stable than the government that preceded it is completely unrealistic, however. Macron is likely to find it even harder to legislate than before, with some of his most cherished, necessary and hard-won reforms, such as the rise in the state pension age, likely to be in the firing line.

The first-round result, which had National Rally heading the poll but judged unlikely to win an overall majority, prompted international markets to rise. They could be less sanguine this time around.

Macron may have avoided his worst-case scenario, a government led by the far right that might have precipitated his own resignation, but he is by no means out of the woods and faces a muddled and potentially ineffective year. The gamble he hoped would strengthen his position has failed, albeit not as destructively for him or France as might have been feared. But the French left should not exult too soon, either.

It may have topped the polls this time around but the alliance of convenience, put together for the express purpose of defeating National Rally, is far from durable. Macron may have drawn the sting of the far right but he may also have stored up trouble for the left before the next presidential election in 2027. Nor should the capacity for disruption of what will now be the third main group in parliament be underestimated.

There is real anger on the far right, whose supporters are drawn mainly from rural France and the urban poor. For the umpteenth time, as they will see it, they have been barred from power by the chicanery of the urban middle classes and the country’s elite. “Don’t let them steal your victory,” was the plea of National Rally’s leaders on the eve of the poll but that is exactly how they will view what has happened.

The risk for Macron, and France, now is that their frustration could find expression on the streets, in something akin to a reprise of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement that disrupted France for three years before it fizzled out with the onset of the pandemic. Emmanuel Macron’s high-handed challenge to the far right after the EU elections has exacted a price, in terms of political stability in France, the president’s own prestige, and French authority abroad.  So far, though, the price is less than it might have been, even if the potential of the left-wing alliance to break means that there may yet be more, and perhaps a lot more, to pay.


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