Emmanuel Macron’s second term was meant to kick off with a triumphant confirmation that he was the only reasonable choice for France. The first president to be re-elected in two decades, he seemed to have eradicated, conjurer-like, both traditional parties on the centre-Left and centre-Right, leaving only a political wasteland and two untouchable Blacks beasts. Having first killed off Marine Le Pen, this month he expected to finish off the Marxist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, against whom he directed his troops to run a low-intensity Project Fear campaign for the legislative elections.
In these, voters usually ratify their earlier choice, to give the president they just thing a free hand to govern. What few expected was the extent of the French body politic’s overall resentment at having been forced into an impossible choice. Mélenchon, 70, the France Unbowed leader, a former Trotskyite turned Socialist senator before creating his own party, who started his career 36 years ago, proved experience still counts for something. Significantly, over a third of the youngest voters (18-34) voted for him. (By contrast, Emmanuel Macron’s voters are pensioners: he gains 30% of only one age cohort, the 60-69 year olds.)
Mélenchon had come a narrow third behind Le Pen in the April first presidential round, winning votes from assorted Socialists who felt little in common with his stated goals, but shrank from a race without any representative of the Left in it. That was undreamt-of momentum, and he grabbed at it, bullying France’s splintered Left into NUPES, a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Greens in which he established himself as the Lider Maximo. (He is a great admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, at whose death he cried openly.)
Missing no occasion to miss an occasion, the Republicans still found themselves unable to stomach a Le Pen alliance, while the National Rally leader dismissed contemptuously offers from newcomer Eric Zemmour to join forces. Each party ran separately, and did badly in the French version of first past the post. The old quip, “The French right is the dumbest in the world” has been variously attributed to luminaries from Karl Marx to the Fourth Republic Socialist Premier Guy Mollet, but whoever said it first, it still applies.
Macron may well be facing a hung Parliament next week, commanding the largest group but losing his absolute majority. He will not only have to rely on Horizons, the party created by the PM he fired, the popular Le Havre Mayor Édouard Philippe, but will also need to forge new alliances on the Center Right (and with a handful of “compatible” Socialist wets ). The new post-politics order he decreed five years ago, proud of his Blitz-like victory, has blown up in his face.
The main opposition will be spearheaded, at least for a time, by Mélenchon, whose style borrows from John Bercow in style, Neil Kinnock in drive and Tony Benn in ideology. He and his associates believe, inter alia, that inflation can be fixed with price controls; that the pension age must be lowered to 60; that the minimum wage must be raised by a third and that all pensions must at least match it; that rents must be frozen; that utilities, public transport, and a number of large corporations must be nationalized — and that all of this can be achieved by raising taxes, with a maximum band at 65% of income, a strengthened wealth tax, punitive estate duties and heavier company and corporate taxes.
The likelihood of the National Assembly voting these through is remote; as the centrists, the hard right, and many among Mélenchon’s alliance won’t go for it. (Some of the more articulate points against his economic platform were made by Terra Nova, a moderate Socialist think tank.) But French politics in recent years has been made more in the streets than in the House or the Élysée — and Mélenchon’s success may shape popular demands for a foreseeable time to come.