by MaNlio Graziano
Murky Waters:
Remarks on the French Political Crisis
Also Published by the International Affairs Forum on 20th January, 2024
Photo Credits: Unsplash
The upcoming European elections will seal Marine Le Pen’s victory in France, an event that many treat as if it were the pivotal moment of the century. In reality, Le Pen’s party had already secured victories in the two preceding European elections: in 2019, garnering 23.3 percent of valid votes (equivalent to 11.7 percent of the electorate, amid a 50 percent abstention rate), and in 2014, with 24.9 percent (translating to 10.4 percent of the electorate, amid a 57 percent abstention rate). Two preliminary considerations must be made. Firstly, slightly more than one in ten voters opted for LePen’s Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National), a meager score to label as a far-right “landslide.” Secondly, voters, not just in France, exhibit little interest in the European Parliament, often using its election to “send a message” to their national governments, with scant concern about the future governance of the European Union. After all, a poll from a couple of years ago revealed that two-thirds of French citizens did not know who Ursula von der Leyen was, and three-quarters had never heard of Charles Michel.

It is highly probable that in June, Le Pen’s party will surpass its previous European elections share, with polls indicating support ranging from 27 to 31 percent, and the collective far-right formations possibly reaching up to 37 percent of the votes. However, given an anticipated abstention rate again close to 50 percent, the so-called “landslide” would be determined by only 1.8 out of 10 French voters. Nonetheless, the political problem is real: instead of leading the country, political parties are being led by the moods of an electorate increasingly fearful of the future, an electorate increasingly inclined to rely on politicians who offer simple solutions to complex problems. We need not delve here into the analysis of the root causes of this growing social anxiety: the international political situation would suffice to justify it, even though it is not the primary cause. Nor let us dwell on the obvious fact that simple solutions to complex issues are not solutions, and almost always exacerbate problems. Instead, let’s direct our attention to the so-called "leaders" who have very often become "followers," frequently succumbing to the lowest – albeit understandable – self-preservation instincts of the population.

The 2017 election of Emmanuel Macron was a stroke of luck for him, or, more aptly put, a consequence of the stupidity of the party that was expected to secure victory, and which stubbornly bowed to a candidate embroiled in a nepotism scandal, eventually leading him to a four-year prison sentence. Nevertheless, Macron was not just a president by default: what resonated positively with voters were his competence, his noteworthy experience despite his youth, and his substantial alienation from a gridlocked political system. Also resonating, perhaps, was his central idea, which can be summarized as: France is nothing without Europe.
The practical translation of these qualities has, to put it mildly, fallen short of expectations. Macron’s Europeanism, while more resolute than that of his predecessors, has not significantly deviated from their vision: that is, Europe as the continuation of France by other means – a vision that, when translated into practice, complicates Europe’s trajectory rather than streamlining it. Macron’s reform initiatives have been caught in the opposing pulls of the far right and far left, frequently aligning, as evident in their support for the yellow vest movement. These reforms have transformed into mere semblances of reforms, ratified through institutional extra-parliamentary mechanisms. Moreover, Macron’s competence has often manifested as an annoying emphatic vanity and overconfidence. However, what has most undermined Macron’s credibility has been his tendency to be swayed by the fluctuating sentiments of the electorate, subordinating many of his original policies to a frenetic pursuit of consensus.

The “immigration law” was the latest masterpiece of the genre. Tracking the popular propensity for self-absolution – according to which it is always others, those from outside – who are the source of our problems, Macron has gone so far as to expand, on that specific issue, his majority to Marine Le Pen’s far-right. So, it will come as no surprise if, in June, the far right enjoys electoral gains on the basis of a very simple argument: trust us, because we have been attacked and demonized for years for supporting what today the government finally does, and parliament approves, by a large majority.

Macron’s latest attempt to regain support involves the replacement of Élisabeth Borne with Gabriel Attal as prime minister. It is important to bear in mind that the prime minister in France is just a fuse, that is, a device whose purpose is to protect the president by burning out in case of overloads or short-circuits. That will be Attal’s main task as long as he remains prime minister. However, according to many, Attal has been chosen to be not only Macron’s dauphin, but also a kind of Macron 2.0, in view of a 2027 presidential election in which the current Elysee tenant cannot run again.

As of now, however, the only qualities of the new prime minister that are vaguely reminiscent of the 2017 candidate Macron are his young age (which is not necessarily an asset) and his communication skills. His competence and strategic vision are yet to be proven. Thus far, using the well-known Platonian metaphor, Attal has been a mere shadow of Macron's shadow, and a track record as a yes-man is hardly a guarantee of great individuality, even less of maturity. Moreover, during his tenure as a fuse, Attal may burn his chances; and there is little doubt that the aspirants to the 2027 presidency, even from within his own government, will do their utmost to ensure that he burns out, thus ultimately helping a Marine Le Pen who sits on the riverbank patiently waiting the corpses of her opponents to float past.

In a historical phase marked by escalating international tensions, soaring public debts, and looming crises, subservience to polls further complicates the predicament. Competence is often sold out for a plate of electoral lentils, leaving real problems unaddressed and worsening. While anything is possible in politics, the likelihood of Gabriel Attal righting the fortunes of France and Europe seems, at the present time, rather slim.

The opinions expressed in this article are of the author alone. The Spykman Center provides a neutral and non-partisan platform to learn how to make geopolitical analysis. It acknowledges how diverse perspectives impact geopolitical analyses, without necessarily endorsing them.