Now that Macron has won, it’s time to fix French politics – POLITICO

Paul Taylor, Associate Editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column.

PARIS – Despite President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election on Sunday, the forces of Eurosceptic nationalism that have spooked Europe this month are still rattling on the gates of the Elysee Palace. A far-right populist won an unprecedented percentage of the vote. There’s no reason to think it couldn’t be higher next time.

Before the European Union establishment takes a sigh of relief and carries on as usual, it’s worth considering how France – co-founder and indispensable pillar of the union – can avoid playing Russian roulette with Europe’s future every five years.

With the collapse of the two parties that have dominated France’s Fifth Republic politics since 1958 – the centre-right Gaullists and the centre-left Socialists – the country is effectively left with a single, loose pro-European centrist bloc on one side and that diffuse but eruptive forces of anti-globalization, anti-EU, anti-immigration nationalism and protectionism on the other side.

In a democracy, power naturally shifts between two major political camps. But French democracy was being eroded. This is partly due to an overwhelmingly elected presidency that reduces parliament to a rubber stamp as long as the president holds a majority in the National Assembly.

Former President Jacques Chirac’s decision in 2001 to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years and to synchronize the electoral cycle so that the legislature would be elected during the honeymoon of the newly crowned president also solidified the president’s rule and the fueled voter apathy.

“Why vote?” is a growing refrain, especially among young people who prefer political action through clubs, single-issue protest groups or – on the radical fringes – violence.

“The order of the elections was absolutely crucial to this decomposition of the political landscape,” said political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right, in an interview.

The two-round electoral system for constituencies for the National Assembly means that large sections of the population are grossly underrepresented by opinion polls. To reach the second ballot, candidates must reach 12.5 percent of all registered voters — a high hurdle when turnout is low. As a result, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally had just eight seats in the outgoing 577-seat National Assembly and leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed had 17, while the Ecologist Greens had 16.

Such a distorted legislature invites extra-parliamentary opposition, with regular confrontations in the streets, rather than the search for consensus between democratic forces and bargaining between social partners, which characterizes politics in many countries with full or partial proportional representation electoral systems. In Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium or Denmark, no party can form a government without compromise.

Add to that the fact that Macron is widely regarded as an arrogant technocrat who condescends to ordinary people – an image reinforced by his body language during his only televised debate with Le Pen – and you have the ingredients for another potential social explosion like that Yellow vest movement, sparked in 2018 by an increase in fuel prices.

Le Pen therefore formulated the runoff as “Macron against the people”. In the age of social media, the gulf between France’s elected leaders and ordinary citizens is becoming ever clearer, and Macron’s attachment to the trappings of the imperial presidency – with endless commemorations and summits at the Palace of Versailles – represents his episodic attempts to connect in shadowed youngsters via video clips featuring popular vloggers.

The new phenomenon to emerge during this year’s campaign, however, was an even more virulent form of anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, anti-EU and anti-NATO nationalism, personified by far-right essayist Eric Zemmour. Although he ended up with just 7.1 percent, he had at times garnered as much as 18 percent support, level with Le Pen in opinion polls.

Zemmour served as Le Pen’s heat shield, making her look temperate and cuddly, though her program was to give French citizens a “national preference” in housing, welfare, and employment; banning Muslim women from wearing the headscarf in public; and enshrining the primacy of the French constitution over EU law.

One way to channel France’s political passions into more constructive debate would be to change the parliamentary electoral system. In his first term, Macron promised to introduce a dose of proportional representation, but didn’t specify how much, and quickly gave up when the Senate blocked his proposed constitutional reform. However, he could revise voting rules with a simple parliamentary majority without changing the constitution.

Another option would be to hold the general election before the presidential election to encourage more diverse representation and greater power-sharing between the executive and legislature.

Another approach would be to create a sort of citizens’ assembly to deliberate on any societal or constitutional issue the government needs to respond to, as has existed in Ireland since 2016. There, unpaid members are randomly selected by a polling institute to represent the diversity of society. However, Macron was already using one similar chess game drafting proposals for France’s response to climate change and has implemented few of its recommendations, undermining the process.

So how great is the risk of a populist victory in 2027 if no such reforms are introduced and France remains a vertical centralized state with a technocratic president?

It’s difficult to say.

Harold Wilson reportedly said that a week is a long time in politics – five years is an eternity. And it’s unclear who will lead the extreme left or the extreme right. Mélenchon is 70 and Le Pen has now lost three elections.

It also depends in part on whether the Gaullists and Socialists manage to survive in the general elections in June and rebuild a left-right debate afterwards, or what grows in their place when they are decimated by losing their parliamentary seats – and likely to go bankrupt.

Next time, a better candidate than Le Pen — if he were able to capitalize on the far-left and far-right protest votes that totaled 57 percent in the first round on April 10 — could ride the wave of grassroots anger against the Riding elite to victory, plunging the EU into an existential crisis.

But Camus doubts any populist leader will be able to unite the disaffected left and right into a victorious majority. “They are too different sociologically, and there are some core issues that make it impossible to federate the radical left and right, particularly immigration.”

An eventual victory for the anti-European populists in France is not inevitable. But the country needs to find a better way to give its citizens more political choices.

It can not go on like this. Something must give. Now that Macron has won, it's time to fix French politics - POLITICO

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