Can France’s anti-Le Pen alliance survive?

Can France’s anti-Le Pen alliance survive?
Can France’s anti-Le Pen alliance survive?

Every election in France is now a referendum on the Rassemblement National (RN). On the one hand, this may be bad news for Marine Le Pen’s party. On 7 July, the RN had to face an informal but remarkably united front in the parliamentary elections, ranging from the far left to Emmanuel Macron’s centrists, and failed to build on the victory it had won in the first round a week earlier. But from another perspective, in this increasingly binary confrontation, everything depends on the strength of the “republican front” facing Le Pen, and the election result raises many doubts in this regard.

It was one thing for the RN to face a moderate and influential mainstream bloc led by politicians such as Jacques Chirac or Macron. That bloc is a thing of the past. Macron may have hoped to rebuild it after his surprise decision to dissolve the National Assembly in June. To do so, he would have had to split off the socialist and green elements of the left-wing New Popular Front (NFP) alliance that won the July 7 elections. He miscalculated, because it seems that the NFP will hold together, at least for now.

Instead, France will enter a period of political deadlock and chaos. Financial markets may be unsettled by the prospect of spending increases if, as is expected, the NFP has a significant influence on policy decisions under a new government. But the path to political balance is extremely uncertain. No political bloc has anything close to a parliamentary majority. A caretaker government may have to be appointed while negotiations start and end.

Le Pen and her young sidekick, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, were quick to deny that they were disappointed by the result. Of course, the whole thing was a bit of a ruse, but ultimately they can take comfort in the fact that RN and its allies won around 37 percent of the vote in the second round, compared to 17 percent in the election two years ago. If you add in the seats already decided in the first round, which RN came out on top, that number will be even higher. RN and its allies received around 10 million votes on July 7, significantly more than the NFP’s seven million. These are promising results for the presidential duel in 2027. Will the Republican Front still hold in three years?

Le Pen has always performed significantly better than her party. Moreover, in 2027 she could face an increasingly fragmented coalition of factions and groups, whose centre of gravity has shifted to the left and lacks a clear leader with Macron’s stature and charisma. History buffs will recognise the pattern of a far-right party only coming to power after the far left has spent some time in government. RN will benefit from being able to tell the French public that it now has a choice between Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Indomitable, the left-wing party with the most weight within the NFP. Has the centre held on? Yes, but only by morphing into something no longer worthy of the name centre. The centre is Macron, but Macron is now a mere concept; he is the definition of a lame duck.

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When the president made the strange decision to call new elections, one of the possible explanations was that he wanted to entrust the reins of the executive to Bardella so that the RN could finally experience the destructive effect of governing France. If that was the aim, it backfired. Bardella will not be at the head of the new government and the RN can now sit back and enjoy what will surely represent a new level of ungovernability.

As I watched the televised debates between Bardella and Gabriel Attal, the prime minister of Macron’s Renaissance party, one fact became very clear to me: the close link between France’s declining global role and influence and the rise of the RN. The RN benefits from France’s weakness. This is what distinguishes current populism from the far-right movements of a century ago.

Historically, European fascism was born out of a rush for power: colonial power over the world, technological power over nature, and ultimately human power over history. Le Pen’s populism is the exact opposite: it calls for a return to the state because France needs a strong hand to survive in a merciless global environment. The new European populism is very similar to the Third World nationalism that reigned on the fringes of the global system in the 20th century. This is understandable when you consider that Europe is itself moving to a periphery.

In the televised debates, Bardella relied on three main points. First, on what he calls economic patriotism: he wants France to use the tools of state power to be competitive in a global economy where other countries and other continents threaten its continued prosperity. Second, on migration. Here too, the problem is that the French and European populations are no longer in charge: migrants arrive on their shores and are unwilling to integrate, no longer feeling in a position of total subordination. It is not immigration, but immigration “not on our terms” that makes RN voters so angry.

The third issue is the climate crisis. This too is presented by RN as an indication of waning power. In fact, Bardella and other national conservatives in Europe and the US seem to see this as an intellectual defeat: the inability of the West to understand even its own interests. For Bardella, the call for an energy transition is a trick by developing countries that want to unilaterally dissuade Europe from fossil fuels in order to turn the global economic game in their favor.

It is not clear that these forces can be stopped. Macron has managed to understand them to some extent, but he has failed – perhaps through no fault of his own – to create a France so prosperous and wealthy that even the idea of ​​decline would no longer be present. Instead, the sense of decline may now be intensifying. Political chaos, confusion and incompetence are almost inevitable. This will not sit well with the French attachment to national greatness.

In this context, France Unbowed could help the RN maintain its position, because it harbors a strong illusion that France and its economy are strong enough to survive a confrontation with global markets and capital. This view will collide with reality. The result will reveal the limits of French power and swell the ranks of the RN. Does this mean that France is now barred from any progressive option? No, but it is becoming increasingly clear that only the countries that win the global competition have the kind of freedom of action that allows for progressive options. (Singapore’s housing policy and the Swiss pension reform are often cited as examples of this freedom.)

When Bardella reacted to the results on July 7, she sounded much more emotional than Le Pen, describing the tactical elimination of hundreds of candidates from the second round as a system of “unnatural” alliances between the left and Macron. How can something that actually happened be unnatural? But Bardella may be right, because repeating the same united front against RN will be far more difficult in the future. It could become unnatural.

If the leftists of the NFP are granted the power to form a government, they – and not the RN – could be defeated by the clash of promises and reality. If Macron denies them the keys to the Matignon, the prime minister’s residence, the left will rightly feel betrayed. They have defeated the RN, a joyous moment celebrated by the left and centrists around the world. Can Emmanuel Macron keep them in check? Should he? In the end, it could be true: the centre cannot hold.

(See also: What the rise of the Rassemblement National means for Labour)

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