France readies for the third round

For the second time, Emmanuel Macron won drawing away. In 2017, the final polls for the second round put him in the low 60s, but he won with 66.1%; last Sunday, the consensus forecast had been around 56-44, but he finished on 58.5%. Each time, the movement in the last week ran strongly in his favor; confronted with the reality of voting for a neo-fascist, it looks as if quite a few French voters have second thoughts.

All the same, if Marine Le Pen could take the same rate of improvement into another rematch, it would be close to a dead heat. But that cannot happen; Macron is constitutionally limited to two terms, so in 2027 there will be at least one new participant in the runoff.

Successful centrist leadership depends on balancing between the opposing forces and avoiding falling captive to either side. On that score, Macron has done well. His administration has offered some comfort to both left and right without satisfying either, and without giving them a cause on which they could unite against him. Left-wing voters mostly backed him against Le Pen, just as right-wing voters would have backed him, had the first round gone the other way, against the left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The presidential election is only the first step; to govern effectively, Macron needs to retain a legislative majority in the National Assembly elections in six weeks time (in two rounds, on 12 and 19 June). Five years ago, that was a major unknown – could a president with no established party behind him really win enough seats to guarantee support for his government?

In fact, Macron won not just a majority but a big one, with 350 of the 577 seats. He is unlikely to do as well this time; his party, Republic on the Move (REM), performed relatively poorly in regional and departmental elections last year, and still seems to have difficulty in building a proper grassroots organisation. But he has a substantial cushion to fall back on.

And even if REM loses its majority, there is no prospect of its rivals agreeing on a common program. Macron would have to negotiate on a case by case basis to pass legislation, but with the ability to play off far right and centre-right against far left and centre-left, it would probably not be a major limit on his effectiveness.

The real significance of the legislative elections will be in what they reveal about the future of the French party system, and especially about the prospects for the presidency in 2027. With Macron out of the running, there seems a real possibility that no mainstream candidate will make the runoff, and that instead the contest will be between Le Pen and Mélenchon or their successors.

But for those (like me) who find that prospect disturbing, it’s not at all clear what the best strategy is to counteract it. One obvious answer is for Macron and his allies to put serious effort into building up their movement and grooming a candidate to succeed him – probably involving the appointment of such a person as prime minister.

That may work, but it won’t work forever. And if it comes at the price of continuing the hollowing out of the other mainstream parties that is already in process, then it creates a big problem for the future. Far left and far right would become the only viable alternatives, and a country with three major political forces, of which only one can safely be allowed to hold power, is in a perilous situation indeed.

Conversely, however, there doesn’t seem to be room for three parties in the centre. Perhaps Macron will shift more decisively one way or the other: if his administration moves to the left, the centre-right Republicans may be able to recover ground, or ditto for the Socialists if he moves to the right. But so far he shows no sign of such a shift.

It may instead be that the continued strength of the centre, as demonstrated last weekend, will have the effect of moderating the extremes, a trend already evident since 2017. Le Pen and Mélenchon are less the firebrands that they were and more like conventional political players; if they want to compete with Macron in a divided legislature, they will have to keep seeking mainstream appeal. In that event, by 2027 one or both of them may look like a normal option rather than a threat to French democracy.

The real triumph of democracy comes not when its supporters win: it comes when its opponents win, but still play by the rules. That may be France’s future.

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