If the polls are to be believed, in a few weeks’ time Emmanuel Macron will be president of France, having easily seen off Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting. Pundits will opine that populism has been defeated, and chaos averted. This will be a premature verdict.
Macron’s rise to pole position in French politics has been an astonishing one. He has never held elected office before; indeed the presidential contest is the first election he has ever fought. His career was in the civil service and in banking, before he was appointed first to President Hollande’s staff and then directly to Minister for the Economy, a post he held for just two years. He has no political party behind him in the conventional sense; he was previously a member of the Parti Socialiste, but has now set up his own ‘movement’, En Marche!, which claims to have 240,000 members but which does not have a single mayor or assembly member, and which has zero electoral experience. The lack of electoral expertise and of political hinterland is breathtaking for someone who seems likely to reach the highest office in one bound.
This matters, because the powers of the president in the Fifth Republic are actually quite limited. The president appoints and works with the prime minister, but that prime minister has to have the support of a majority of the 577 members of the National Assembly. Currently the Parti Socialiste and its allies have a majority, but once the presidential election is out of the way, there will be (in June) a second national election, this time for the Assembly. The new president will have to try to muster a majority in the new Assembly, which is where the legislative and budgetary power lies.
There have been three periods in the Fifth Republic where the president and the prime minister have been from opposing sides, most recently from 1997 to 2002 when Chirac was president and the socialist Lionel Jospin was PM. The French call this ‘cohabitation’ – and it wasn’t a happy experience for the presidents involved, who were reduced to largely ceremonial roles.
From a standing start, with no experience or organisation and few local political champions, En Marche! has no realistic chance of winning a majority of the 577 seats, although Macron says they will stand candidates in all districts. Therefore he will need to try to build a coalition of support from other parties – but from whom, and on what terms? The socialists are unpopular and in disarray; the centre-right Les Républicains are in slightly better shape, but are divided by the allegations against François Fillon, and in any case are not natural allies of Macron. Given this fragmentation in French politics, it may well be that no party grouping wins a majority, leaving Emmanuel Macron as a lame-duck president without even a coherent parliamentary group he can cohabit with. From a British point of view, we could find France weak and unpredictable during the Brexit negotiations.
Assuming the French do elect Macron and reject Le Pen, they may have rejected populism, but it’s not clear that they will have avoided political chaos, at a time when France, and Europe as a whole, face multiple serious challenges. Before Macron can even start to implement his programme for France, he needs to overcome not one but two major electoral hurdles – of which winning the presidency currently looks the easier.
In case you’re wondering: Marine Le Pen would have the same problem, to an even greater degree; currently her Front National has just two members in the Assembly, and the mainstream parties will not support her under any circumstances.