The Fate of French Populism

Macron's likely victory tomorrow doesn't mean he can ignore the energies driving both the far left and far right.

Emmanuel Macron at a rally on May 1, 2017
Emmanuel Macron at a rally on May 1, 2017 (Benoit Tessier / Reuters)

At first glance, the wunderkind seemed to have done it again.

June 11 marked an unambiguous triumph for Emmanuel Macron, France’s newly elected president. In the first round of the country’s legislative elections, the 39-year-old’s La République En Marche (LREM) coalition led all parties with a staggering 32 percent of the national vote. When voters cast ballots again for the second round tomorrow, they’ll choose between the two candidates in each district who received the most first-round votes. (Any candidate that receives at least 12.5 percent of all registered voters also qualifies for the run-off phase, but that rule applies to only one race this year.) Polls project a strong majority for Macron’s brand-new party: more than 415 of the National Assembly’s 577 seats, according to polling firm Elabe.

It’s a stunning outcome for an organization that’s only 14 months old. Perhaps even more surprising is the dismal performance of populists on both sides of the spectrum. The far-right National Front (FN)—which last month came closer than ever to winning the presidency—earned just 13 percent of the vote in round one. Meanwhile, the left-wing La France Insoumise, or Rebellious France, picked up a meager 11 percent. Against this backdrop, one could be forgiven for drawing a conclusion that the results so plainly seem to suggest: French populism is on the decline and there is a growing consensus around Macron and his brand of technocratic, pro-business liberalism.

But things are far more complicated. After an endless, unpredictable presidential race, electoral fatigue appears to be setting in. And rather than reaffirming people’s faith in politics as promised—the former economic minister campaigned heavily on the theme of political “renewal,” vowing to replace the country’s established political class with young and dynamic reformers—Macron’s success seems to be sapping it.

Looming over Macron’s triumph is a record-high level of abstention, or the share of registered voters who failed to show up at the polls. At 51 percent, it is the highest-ever such rate in the history of the Fifth Republic, which began in 1958. Its closest competitor—the first round of the 2012 legislative elections—still comes in 8 percentage points behind. This is all the more noteworthy in a country accustomed to widespread electoral participation; since 1988, the participation rate in presidential races has hovered around 80 percent, dropping off to 63 percent in legislative races. This year, 4 million more people cast ballots for the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential race last month than voted for Macron’s upstart formation on June 11.

The low turnout levels disproportionately hurt populist candidates while lifting those of Macron’s party. The young and working class people who propelled Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Le Pen to strong showings in April’s presidential race largely stayed home in the legislative election’s first round. According to an Ipsos poll, 63 percent of those aged 18 to 24 didn’t vote, more than 10 percent above the overall rate. Meanwhile, a whopping 66 percent of blue-collar workers and 61 percent of service-sector workers didn’t bother showing up.

Had these groups turned out en masse, the results would likely have looked very different.

According to a June 7 BVA-Salesforce poll, support for Mélenchon’s legislative candidates peaked among those aged 18 to 24. With nearly a quarter of the vote, the party tied with En Marche as the first choice for these voters, declining in popularity among older voters. Support for the president’s party, on the other hand, peaked at about a third among those aged 65 and older and declining among younger voters. By the same token, the National Front led among working-class voters but struggled mightily in the middle-to-high-income socioeconomic category used by French pollsters.

In other words, the disconnect between France’s residents and its brand-new political super-majority is rapidly growing. The populists may have performed poorly on Sunday, but the government’s feeble base of support all but ensures their future relevance.

Macron has already declared his intention to pursue contentious reforms like revamping the country’s collective-bargaining laws in favor of employers and enshrining parts of the ongoing state of emergency into common law. Initiatives like these will likely earn overwhelming parliamentary support—all the while lacking a broad popular mandate. These and any other similar aspects of Macron’s agenda could spark disruptive protest, reinforce the widespread sense of a democratic deficit, and, naturally, drive voters to rally behind forces that better represent them—or at least claim to do so—in the next election. It might not end well.

Of course, low turnout was not inevitable. Strong, coherent campaigns from both populist factions could have mobilized their bases. Instead, each side committed a string of strategic blunders.

Le Pen’s National Front has yet to truly recover from its presidential defeat. Ultimately, her disappointing campaign—she was long projected to win the first round and compete more closely in the second—escalated long-simmering tensions within the party’s inner circle. Since her loss in May, personal and political disagreements between party bigwigs have spilled out into the open. At the top of the list of disagreements is the question of whether to fully abandon the euro, a debate that remains embarrassingly unresolved and caused even Le Pen’s second-in-command, Florian Philippot, to launch his own organization within the FN, which would pursue a full break with the monetary union. These internal conflicts and machinations largely undercut the prospects of a unified national-level legislative campaign.

In addition, Le Pen’s abysmal performance in the one and only post first-round presidential debate likely turned off would-be National Front voters. In any case, she and her inner circle have acknowledged as much. On that fateful evening, she aggressively attacked Macron, made a string of factual errors, and appeared to lack the sort of basic confidence and clarity expected of political leaders. For example, she accused her opponent of “deference toward Islamic fundamentalism,” claimed the British economy had never done better since Brexit, and stumbled over her position on the euro—suggesting France could somehow return to the franc for domestic exchange but continue with the euro for international exchange.

Mélenchon, for his part, has also seen his support wane through his own errors. After failing to qualify for the second round of the presidential race, the left-wing firebrand declined to endorse Macron against Le Pen. This did not play well in the polls: In the aftermath of an unexpected surge to become France’s most popular politician on the eve of the presidential election, he dropped a whopping 17 percentage points in May, falling to third place. At the core of his party’s unwillingness to firmly oppose Le Pen at the ballot box was a desire to maintain its position as a broadly counter-hegemonic political force. This has proven to be a major miscalculation.

The bravado of Rebellious France translated into another strategic error: the inability to reach a national-level legislative accord with the French Communist Party (PCF), a minor organization that still carries weight in certain cities and working-class suburbs. Not only would such a deal have boosted France Insoumise’s overall vote share by nearly 3 percent, it could also have ensured the party’s presence in the second round of a handful of legislative contests. Instead, left-wing divisions paved the way for other parties to squeak into top two positions and qualify for upcoming run-off rounds in districts across the country.

For example, in one race in the western département of Vienne, the FN candidate qualified for the second round with less than 15 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the candidates of France Insoumise and the Communists combined for 15 percent. Another race in the northeastern suburbs of Paris saw a similar dynamic boost En Marche into the second round.

At any rate, projections of Macron’s super-majority remain just that. If his party’s first round success hinged on low turnout, and others’ missteps, then significant voter mobilization for the second round could minimize the scope of the tidal wave now anticipated by pundits. The National Front is likely fated to a few seats at best, doomed by the inevitable presence of voters who unite across party lines in order to deny victory to the far-right.

On the other hand, Rebellious France stands to gain from increased turnout in a number of matchups against En Marche. Calling on “youth” and “popular classes” to turn out and prevent Macron from assuming “full powers,” Mélenchon charged that low first-round turnout showed the lack of a majority for “destroying the labor code, reducing civil liberties, ecological irresponsibility, and sucking up to rich people.” He also called on his supporters to “never allow the election of FN candidates,” appearing to have learned at least one lesson from the presidential race.

Either way, Macron and company are still slated to win a hefty majority in the National Assembly. While the president’s electoral mandate will be beyond dispute, his broader democratic one remains far less certain. Under these circumstances, En Marche’s victory is unlikely to resolve France’s ongoing political upheaval and reconfiguration. It simply marks the arrival of a new phase. And with millions of people who still feel left out and left behind, this one could be just as dangerous as the one that preceded it.