Some thoughts on the French elections

by Chris Bertram on June 20, 2022

The results of the second round of the French legislative election are, despite some elements of respite, close to a disaster. The key element of that disaster is the advance of the far-right Rassemblement national to a total of 89 seats, by far the most significant representation for the extreme right under the 5th Republic. The position does not look markedly better if we look at vote shares, where the RN (plus other far-right parties such as Reconquête gathered in the first round 22.92%, up from 13.5% for similar parties in the comparable contest five years ago. A brighter sign was that the left-wing alliance NUPES gained 142 seats, though the domination of the NUPES by its figurehead, the left-nationalist Eurosceptic Jean-Luc Mélenchon opens the probabilty that its constituent elements will fragment in all directions quite early on.

That Emmanuel Macron and his right-centrist Ensemble group have not got a majority is hardly a bad thing in itself, but it is likely that far from seeking a compromise with the left (if one were really on offer) he will rely on the support of the right-wing Gaullist Les Républicains party, and so we can expect right-wing austerity coupled with ideological competition with the far right around an anti-immigrant and Islamophobic agenda.

Macron is in power, just, but his five years, far from fixing France’s problems have left them festering, despite some good management of the COVID crisis. Moreover, he has, by destroying the historic political parties of France and such links as they had to the grass roots in favour of co-opting the elite elements of them into his governing operation, left a vacuum into which has flowed a combination of mass apathy and bitter resentment. Some of this was manifested with the Gilets jaunes phenomenon, but we also see it in the high levels of absention in the second round of the legislatives, where only 48% of voters turned up. Ironically, this pervasive alienation is taking place in a country which by most comparative measures (the UK! the US!) is well-governed and which is also quite prosperous: an ominous sign given that we can expect European populations to slip down the international scale of prosperity in relative terms over the coming decades. What is clear in France is that a resentful population is ripe for exploitation by whatever demagogue is most effective in the future in telling them that their perceived malaise is someone else’s fault. I suspect that unless the left can restore its organizational integrity and rebuild political engagement, that demagogue is most likely some successor to Le Pen.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Ebenezer Scrooge 06.20.22 at 2:18 pm

I’m beginning to think that some of my conservative friends are correct, and resentment is a disease of democracy. Their proposed cure might be worse than the disease, but what is our treatment plan?

2

TM 06.20.22 at 3:28 pm

The abstention rate is even higher. Bizarrely, of the 46% that showed up to vote, almost two million voted empty so only like 43% of eligible voters cast a vote for a candidate. That participation reaches a record low despite a very diverse (or “polarized” if you like) multi party offering contradicts the received wisdom that people lose interest in politics because the mainstream parties are too much alike.

The record result for Le Pen points to a breakdown of the “Republican front”. It used to be understood that in a runoff with the far right, the left and center right would support each other to prevent the FN/RN from winning. Apparently no more.

3

Phil 06.20.22 at 6:30 pm

TM @2: It used to be understood that in a runoff with the far right, the left and center right would support each other to prevent the FN/RN from winning. Apparently no more.

This relates to – or rather, contributes to – the other big story raised here, the abstention problem. Abstention wasn’t only a tactic of people alienated from or by the centre: in seats with a NUPES/RN runoff, so I read, 72% of Macron supporters abstained rather than vote for the Left, thus avoiding a much stronger NUPES bloc by creating a historically unprecedented RN bloc. To do something as destructive as that, after turning out to vote for the candidates of a centrist technocrat, suggests something more motivated and resentful than mere apathy.

4

Stephen 06.20.22 at 6:59 pm

I would not pretend to have a deep understanding of contemporary French politics. Therefore, I would be grateful if somebody better informed than me would explain: if French voters are being driven by resentment to supporting the RN, or failing to support NUPES against the RN, what exactly or even approximately is it that they resent?

5

John Quiggin 06.20.22 at 8:34 pm

I have a more optimistic view of this outcome, but that reflects a different starting point, one which takes the destruction of the historic parties and the rise of right and left alternatives as a given, arising from the failure of neoliberalism. (This is what I’ve been calling the three-party system. )
From this perspective, the right (traditional and far-right) did worse than might have been expected on the basis of the presidential election. The left did better, both in terms of votes and in making the compromises necessary to produce a successful united front. Like Chris, I’d prefer a different figurehead, but for the moment, there’s decent left representation in the legislature.

6

Alex SL 06.20.22 at 9:29 pm

Ironically, this pervasive alienation is taking place in a country which by most comparative measures (the UK! the US!) is well-governed and which is also quite prosperous: an ominous sign given that we can expect European populations to slip down the international scale of prosperity in relative terms over the coming decades.

Two thoughts. First, be it France or other countries, I find it rather odd that the loudest, most ‘alienated’ people are generally not those who are genuinely struggling, the poor barely able to make ends meet, but rather middle class suburbanites and well-off retirees, who for some reason want to have a demagogue smash the entire system despite not really having anything substantial to complain about. That is, I will immediately admit, historically the nature of everything on the spectrum from right-wing populism to fascism, but I just don’t get it, personally.

Second, worries about “slipping down the international scale of prosperity in relative terms” are another item that I don’t get. The panic about, and I saw that written quite literally, the fact that soon half of global economic activity will happen in Asia, when objectively that is as it should be because half the world population is in Asia, boggles my mind. Is the idea of so many of my fellow ‘Westerners’ really that the poorer nations should forever stay poor, and anything else is an unacceptable calamity? And what is the problem if the terms are relative, and the Westerner in question remains well-off?

Putting these side-by-side, I realise also that they are the same impulse, only the first is about privilege relative to other citizens, and the second is about privilege relative to other nations. How much more does the marginalised getting uppity enrage the privileged than being kept down enrages the marginalised!

7

nastywoman 06.21.22 at 5:51 am

@
‘I find it rather odd that the loudest, most ‘alienated’ people are generally not those who are genuinely struggling, the poor barely able to make ends meet, but rather middle class suburbanites and well-off retirees, who for some reason want to have a demagogue smash the entire system despite not really having anything substantial to complain about’.

Yep –
as why would WE –
(who LOVE to use France as some kind of ‘Ratatouille-Amusement-Park’)
– complain
that WE –
(not those who are genuinely struggling, the poor barely able to make ends meet)…
are NOT interested in ‘politics’ -(or voting) anymore?
As –
if in the end –
France will be the FIRST country where nobody votes anymore –
(for ‘political stuff’)
and the French instead focus on voting for ‘European Stuff’ -(like the Eurovision Song Contest – wouldn’t that at least prevent France from Franceexiting too?

8

nastywoman 06.21.22 at 6:28 am

and about:
‘a resentful population is ripe for exploitation by whatever demagogue is most effective in the future in telling them that their perceived malaise is someone else’s fault’.

wasn’t that already… ‘tested’ in the last years and a contraire to my homeland the US –
the GREAT French didn’t go
ALL IN –
for ‘whatever (‘trump’) demagogue’ –
which could make one very… optimistic and full of HOPE for the (FRENCH) and thusly –
the European Future –
(as the Europeans have passed THE TEST – while my fellow Americans haven’t?)

9

TM 06.21.22 at 7:08 am

Alex SL: Amen.

10

Fake Dave 06.21.22 at 11:56 am

“[…]given that we can expect European populations to slip down the international scale of prosperity in relative terms over the coming decades.”

Is this a given? Aside from the obvious ideological question of why rich countries growing slower than poor countries should be treated as a problem, we should also ask if it’s accurate. I know the data broadly shows that the third/developing/postcolonial world is “catching up” to the old empires on many development indicators, but the power dynamics remain stark. China may be rising steadily through the ranks of Team Colonizer, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for their smaller clients and trading partners. France, in particular, has a vast former empire that is still largely impoverished and dependent and will likely continue to provide a source of cheap labor and raw materials for decades to come France also has very strong position within the EU, NATO, and UN hierarchies as well as considerable soft power as center of the Francophone. It has the resources and institutions to weather an era of overlapping crises, where many “developing” countries may not. That seems like a distinction that’s going to keep mattering.

11

Phil 06.21.22 at 2:31 pm

Replying to myself @3: in seats with a NUPES/RN runoff, so I read, 72% of Macron supporters abstained rather than vote for the Left

Apparently things were both not as bad as that and considerably worse. Certainly no voter bloc covered itself in glory, as far as holding the line against the far Right is concerned.

12

engels 06.21.22 at 3:25 pm

“Like Chris, I’d prefer a different figurehead…”

Evidently French liberals were even more disapproving of the actually existing French left than Crooked Timber:

https://mobile.twitter.com/Taniel/status/1538608328179326979#m

13

Felix 06.21.22 at 10:06 pm

Alex SL – I think your take is too simplistic. The correct question is more like “why is it that even if your financial needs are tolerably taken care of, you’re still losing the neoliberalism game?”. I have many objections and I suppose that, even if my presentation is unique, at least my experience is normal. But I suspect anyone who can talk about privilege can also develop a viable and inclusive critique of neoliberalism and I don’t want my critique to get caught up in any of my particularities. But I think asking a better question is the important thing.

nastywoman – “wasn’t that already… ‘tested’ in the last years and a contraire to my homeland the US – the GREAT French didn’t go ALL IN”

It hasn’t been definitively tested in recent years at all. Elections have been won and lost, that is all. So far the French haven’t elected Le Pen, and maybe they won’t elect her or one like her next time around either. But they certainly haven’t shown her the door. And it remains to be seen who the democratic opposition will be – she’s probably the single person most likely to be in the runoff next time around, and with the election results we’ve just seen, there’s no reason to be optimistic about the results of a hypothetical Le Pen/Melanchon runoff if that’s what we see.

14

J-D 06.22.22 at 1:35 am

First, be it France or other countries, I find it rather odd that the loudest, most ‘alienated’ people are generally not those who are genuinely struggling, the poor barely able to make ends meet, but rather middle class suburbanites and well-off retirees, who for some reason want to have a demagogue smash the entire system despite not really having anything substantial to complain about. That is, I will immediately admit, historically the nature of everything on the spectrum from right-wing populism to fascism, but I just don’t get it, personally.

Those who shout the loudest are, naturally, drawn from the ranks of those who have breath to spare. The struggling and the desperate generally have other uses for what breath remains in their bodies. Some of them may desire the smashing of the system as much as anybody does; one should not conclude otherwise solely because they are seldom heard from on the subject.

15

J-D 06.22.22 at 5:39 am

And it remains to be seen who the democratic opposition will be – she’s probably the single person most likely to be in the runoff next time around, and with the election results we’ve just seen, there’s no reason to be optimistic about the results of a hypothetical Le Pen/Melanchon runoff if that’s what we see.

Among the many possibilities for the next election, there’s one category of scenarios where there is a successor to Emmanuel Macron who is able to hold on to the support of a similar base, and another category of scenarios where there is no such successor and his base fragments. In the latter case, the possibilities depend on where his base goes. What’s the chance of much of it reverting to the formerly dominant Gaullist and Socialist parties? Neither 100% nor 0%, I would think.

16

Phil 06.22.22 at 8:59 am

engels @12 – same faulty info vectored by me @3, and corrected by me @11

17

nastywoman 06.22.22 at 9:14 am

@
‘It hasn’t been definitively tested in recent years at all’.

Well –
as you wrote yourself that the Right-Wing Racist Science Denying French idiot hasn’t been elected ONCE as President – ecven as she ‘tested’ it – how many times?
While ‘trump’ had to test it only once – how much more often do you want it to be tested in France before you understand that – thanks Sanity – France has just a minority of about 29 percent Racist and Nationalistic Right-Wingers – and if you will start to understand that in France there is a HUUUUGE difference between the Presidential Election and the election for the Parliament you will understand that there NEVER will be some –

‘hypothetical Le Pen/Melanchon runoff if that’s what YOU see’.

18

TM 06.22.22 at 9:57 am

To summarize, in direct left-right matchups, Macron voters voted 34% NUPES – 18% RN, which is quite shameful.
Mélenchon voters in center-right matchups voted 31% Macron’s party – 24% RN, which is quite shameful. I would caution to overestimate the accuracy of these exit polls but the tendency seems correct.

Can anybody point me to a nice tabular summary of all the runoffs? Would Macron for example have retained a majority if fewer NUPES voters had switched to RN? I understand that they were in an awful bind. The real issue methinks is that the left failed to mobilize enough support in the first round. 26% is really nothing to brag about, even if it’s better than 2017.

19

steven t johnson 06.22.22 at 2:23 pm

The image of desperately poor people eating the rich is a slander by rich people. The notion the really poor would be the ones shouting is a softened repetition of this.

On the other hand, the fury of rich people paying taxes or people with a little money afraid that it will not be enough if things go on…well, maybe it is a little more likely to get angry when what you think is yours seems to be slipping away, if not outright stolen. Petty bourgeois rage is a real thing, I believe, not a slander.

20

Alex SL 06.22.22 at 11:03 pm

Felix,

I too have objections to Neoliberalism, but that doesn’t mean I would vote for a right-wing populist who agitates against immigrants, LGBT+, higher education, etc. When discussing why people vote Le Pen, Trump, Brexit, we are not talking a high-brow critique of Neoliberal econonomic philosophy, we are talking “I want the country to return to how it (falsely) seemed to me when I was ten years old” and “I wish somebody would hurt the people I despise”.

21

J-D 06.22.22 at 11:22 pm

A brighter sign was that the left-wing alliance NUPES gained 142 seats, though the domination of the NUPES by its figurehead, the left-nationalist Eurosceptic Jean-Luc Mélenchon opens the probabilty that its constituent elements will fragment in all directions quite early on.

From what I’ve read, NUPES was from the beginning an alliance for electoral purposes, the components to remain separate post-election as parliamentary groupings; since the parliamentary groupings were never merged into one, there’s nothing now (in a strict structural sense) to be broken up.

There’s still the counterfactual contrast with a scenario of tighter structural links from the beginning; I imagine that would have had both negative and positive effects, but I don’t have a clear idea of either.

There’s also, not counterfactually but practically, the question of how much (or how little) the separate parliamentary groupings that ran under the NUPES banner will cooperate, although that’s a question that would have arisen in a similar way even if they hadn’t run together in the election. Obviously the role of Jean-Luc Mélenchon is important to that question.

PS and PCF leaders are going to participate in post-election talks with the President, but LFI will not take part.

22

J-D 06.22.22 at 11:27 pm

The real issue methinks is that the left failed to mobilize enough support in the first round.

Individual voters make choices which directly determine election results, but also party leaders, representatives, campaigners, and activists make choices which influence voter behaviour and therefore (indirectly) election results. Every individual voter who voted for an RN candidate (whether in the first round or the second, and whoever else they voted for) was individually making a bad choice; aggregate patterns of those individual votes also reflects–among other things–the choices (good or bad) made in the NUPES campaign. All these issues are real.

23

J-D 06.24.22 at 1:12 am

Since writing my earlier comments, I have read that LFI has called for NUPES to form a single parliamentary group, but that the other parties have responded ‘No, that was never the deal and still doesn’t make sense’.

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