Thu. Jul 25th, 2024


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Welcome back to our special French election edition of Europe Express. 

A day before France goes to the polls in the first-round vote to elect a new National Assembly — followed by a run-off second round on July 7 — voters seem keener than ever on extreme politics. 

We are dedicating this and the next two editions of Europe Express to French politics, after President Emmanuel Macron’s decision on June 9 to call a snap election which threatens to crush the political mainstream. This is the English edition but you can also read it en français here. I can be reached at peggy.hollinger@ft.com.

Where are we now?

Polls this week showed roughly 36.5 per cent of the vote in the first round supporting the far-right Rassemblement National, a party that wants to bar dual nationals from certain public posts and has declared a culture war on Islam, as revealed in our interview with its chief Jordan Bardella. That score is up from the unprecedented 31 per cent the party won at the European elections earlier this month. 

In second place with 29 per cent is still the New Popular Front, a fragile alliance of the mainstream Parti Socialiste with the far-left and virulently anti-capitalist La France Insoumise. 

So a run-off between the extremes is looking likely in most seats after tomorrow’s first round vote, with the moderate centre likely to be relegated to a bit-part player in the theatre of French parliamentary politics. 

Faire barrage à l’extrême droite

And yet . . . voter turnout is forecast to hit 64 per cent or more, a level not seen in legislative elections for 20 years. And this week so many French citizens abroad rushed to lodge proxy votes that the government website had to be suspended temporarily to cope with demand. On Thursday, the interior ministry announced that 2.1mn proxies had been registered so far, twice as many as in the previous legislative vote. 

Some see this as a sign that the French are heeding calls to “faire barrage” — or unite across party lines — to vote against the far right in the first round. They hope voters will yet again reject government by extreme, as they have done three times before (2002, 2017 and 2022) when the RN, and its predecessor the Front National, lost to the centre right in the second round of presidential elections. Bruno Le Maire, finance minister, said in this interview on France’s BFM business channel that he was “delighted with this start. I see it as an awareness that the future of France is really at stake.”

But not everyone is as optimistic. A veteran centrist deputy fighting to hold his seat told me this week that the depth of voter animosity towards Macron and his autocratic style of governing has devastated the centre he sought to lead, shocking even government ministers out on the campaign trail. “One rang me last week to tell me that we will be swept away,” he said. The candidate has deleted any mention of Macron or his Ensemble alliance from his campaign brochures, but that hasn’t stopped voters from berating him on the street or on social media.

The Macron era — which began with the promise of a dynamic reinvigorated France and went on to deliver record employment along with a wave of new business start-ups — seems to be coming to an end in a fog of anger and frustration. Olivier Blanchard, the former chief economist of the IMF, dissects the four acts of the Macron tragedy here

But not all the blame can be laid on the current president, says political scientist Olivier Roy in this thoughtful essay. The story has been decades in the making, with French society no longer finding its reflection in the institutions and practices of the Fifth Republic. 

When the left rallied to support the centre-right Jacques Chirac against FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen in the presidential race of 2002, people across political divides were prepared to defend the state and its institutions, Roy says.

But this was when different parties saw themselves as rooted in a common history and had deep ties to local politics, where compromises and personal relationships with opponents are essential. That is no longer the case.

Then Macron, following a trend initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy, president from 2007 to 2012, tried to bypass France’s institutions, Roy says. 

This contempt for the “deep state” was accompanied by a contempt for traditional politics,” he writes. “The arrival of the RN in government might entail, not a complete rupture, but rather an intensification of trends already evident.

Economics homework

Back to the campaign, and polls this week suggested that voters trust the untested RN more than centrists or the left to manage the economy. It is a sign that Le Pen’s strategy of de-demonising (her words) the RN, depicting it as a champion of small business and ordinary working folk, is succeeding, even if the party’s economic policies are rudimentary, confused and likely to spark a series of legal challenges in Brussels. 

On Monday, Bardella — the 28-year-old party chief who will be prime minister if the RN wins a majority, unveiled his economic programme. He has backtracked on some of the more costly policies, postponing the reversal of pension reforms, for example. But much of the proposals are still unfunded. Les Echos columnist Étienne Lefebvre described it as little more than a “budgetary deceit”, despite Bardella’s claims that he wanted to be fiscally responsible. 

Meanwhile, business leaders are wrestling with how they should respond if the RN wins a majority, or even the biggest share of seats in the National Assembly. Despite years of careful message management, the RN has not entirely shed its reputation for toxic nationalism. The election of dozens of untried deputies is likely to reveal some more unpleasant currents in the populist movement. “We are trying to decide how to approach them, who to meet and whether or not we should ask them to defend some of our policies,” said one executive this week. 

Nevertheless some business leaders have already begun to court the party, judging the RN’s nascent economic programme is still more susceptible to influence than that of a leftwing coalition led by the anti-capitalist La France Insoumise.

 “It is a choice between two evils,” the chair of a French blue-chip company confided. “The mad policies of the NFP [alliance] have actually resulted in making the RN seem reasonable by contrast. But some of the RN’s proposals will put us into a head-to-head conflict with Europe. Business dreads that, and the consequences for French borrowing rates. It will cost us more.”

Some business leaders may be going even further. Two French media outlets, Le Monde and Mediapart, have detailed the exposure given to RN views and candidates on stations owned by media magnate Vincent Bolloré. On Thursday, France’s media watchdog put Bolloré’s Europe 1 on notice for a “lack of measure and honesty” in the election commentary of pro-RN presenter Cyril Hanouna.

So what now?

Marine Le Pen, architect of the RN’s “normalisation”, has been adept at controlling the party’s image in the 13 years since she took over from her father, Jean-Marie. However, in the final days of the campaign, her grip — even over herself — may be slipping. Speaking to regional news outlet Le Télégramme, Le Pen described the president’s role as head of the armed forces as “an honorary title because the prime minister holds the purse strings”. In that short sentence Le Pen not only challenged the institution of France’s powerful executive, but the constitution itself. Her comments, which she then partially retracted, gave RN’s opponents in Thursday’s televised debate the chance to attack the party’s willingness to work with the executive in any shared government.

Her slip reminded me of an interview I did with Le Pen in 2011, just a month after she assumed leadership of the RN, then called the Front National. She had been well prepared for the questions about the party’s reputation for antisemitism and racism. Not so much, however, for the sudden question about whether she would approve of her daughter marrying a Muslim. Instinctively, she responded — “I would warn her that ….” — then stopped, quickly, getting back on message and changing the subject. It was a brief moment, but enough. 

I also asked her about her mission as the new leader of the far right. “I am here to build the National Front’s accession to power,” she told me with absolute conviction. 

Over the next week, she may well realise that ambition. 

More on this topic

The BBC’s Hugh Schofield dives into the family life and influences of Marine Le Pen in an effort to understand the “normalisation” of France’s biggest far-right party. It may have been written in 2017, when Le Pen was challenging Macron in the presidential election, but it is still one of the best dissections of the RN’s “normalisation” I have read.

Peggy’s picks of the week  

  • Thank you Simon Kuper for explaining why France may not be not as lost as the French think!

  • If you need a break from elections in France, the US and UK, then this essay on teen slang by Canadian essayist Stephen Marche is an entertaining read. You may even begin to understand your own offspring.

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