The single headline across the front page of the centre-left daily Libération said it all: ‘La Gifle’. But much more than a slap in the face, Emmanuel Macron has taken a heavyweight sock in the jaw. With only 245 seats for his ‘Ensemble!’ grouping, the French president is a country mile from having a parliamentary absolute majority (289). Then there is the drubbing his lieutenants took with the ousting of three ministers, the president of the national assembly and the leader of his parliamentary LREM party. All lost their seats.
Sunday’s legislative results are a full-frontal humiliation for Macron personally, ideologically, politically and institutionally. Held in opprobrium, his globalist liberal ideas have been rejected and his Jupiterian political style and hyper-vertical management of France’s institutions scorned. Macron has run France constitutionally into a wall. The French regime will turn from being hyper-presidential to something far more parliamentary. But will the Fifth Republic’s institutions – designed by Charles de Gaulle to produce large governing majorities – hold, or will France be taken back to an unappreciated Fourth Republic split between three political groupings, unable to form stable governments and condemned to political immobilism?
Macron is crushed between radical left and right, despite proclaiming in 2017 that France under his beneficent management would eliminate extremes. Parliamentary majority aside, the president will be particularly concerned by the three opposition groups having over 60 seats each (RN 89, Republicans 61, La France Insoumise 72). This unlocks the constitutional holy grail of being able to demand a censure motion, to request the Constitutional Council arbitrate on the legality of parliamentary bills and pose weekly parliamentary questions to the government. And for the largest political grouping, constitutional custom traditionally hands it the presidency of the all-powerful Finance Commission, which other than overseeing the nation’s purse strings can also request any financial document, including individual tax returns for companies and individuals. There is every possibility of it going to the far left Nupes. That would send tremors through those demonised multinationals such as Total Energies or the big tech giants, not to mention France’s richest individuals.
Given there is little prospect of Macron dissolving parliament for fear of something worse, how can Macron govern? Some cite the example of Mitterrand’s prime minister Michel Rocard who, in 1988, was also short of a majority. He resorted to what one advisor and fixer called ‘governing in stereo’ – making deals with left then right to get legislation through. But Rocard was only 14 seats short; a mere bagatelle compared to Macron’s deficit of 44. Worse still for Macron, Mitterrand’s premier had the constitutional option of multiple guillotine motions to pass legislation without a vote, a nicety that has been seriously curtailed since 2009. Macron’s future will depend on how wily and creative he can be. But some see him as a lame duck president, should he even get to the end of his presidential mandate.
Emmanuel Macron’s worries do not stop at home. The coming week will see meetings of the G7, the EU Council and Nato, where Macron was hoping to push his agenda of avoiding Russian humiliation, arguing for more EU integration and greater EU defence. Regardless of his domestic travails, it would be surprising to find a contrite Macron. But in the international arena he is seriously wounded.
Given Macron’s reputation for lesson-giving many leaders will welcome his plight. A sullen European Commission – despondent at the mauling given to their ever deeper integration champion – will be all the more depressed at the sight of so many Eurosceptic députés in the French National Assembly. Many of those new parliamentarians have been vociferously opposed to Macron and Brussels’ unrelenting attempts to overturn the people’s Brexit vote. And many EU states, not least in Italy, Brussels and Germany, may feel a warm glow at the French president haggling with opponents to build working majorities, as they have done over the years. Meanwhile in Eastern Europe some leaders will have smelt blood and may take this opportunity to push back on Macron and Brussels inspired EU greater harmonisation.
So the picture is bleak for the youngest president in the history of the Fifth Republic, in whom so much hope was placed in 2017. His hyper-presidency may come to resemble more and more the weak and largely ceremonial role of the Third Republic, of whom the great Georges Clemenceau said: ‘There are two organs that are useless: the prostate and the president of the republic’.
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