May 07, 2019
… while Macron’s European troubles have already begun, and might get even worse
We have already noted how a patently absurd debate has taken hold in France, whereby Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list of MEP candidates in the forthcoming European elections would be deemed the winner if it is even a percentage point or two ahead of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, and the loser if it is even a percentage point behind. The main reason for this grotesque state of affairs is that French commentators are used to viewing every election through the distorting prism of the French way to elect the president. In an open field of candidates, the best-placed two make it to the run-off. This can easily lead to a candidate enjoying only limited original core support, such as Macron, making it to one of the most powerful offices in any Western democracy. And this in turn creates a need to re-legitimise constantly the comparatively exorbitant presidential powers through good enough opinion polls and a good enough showing of the president's political allies in intermediate elections.
This uniquely French model now threatens to turn the upcoming EU elections into a political juggernaut further debilitating Macron’s presidency, already much shaken by the gilets jaunes protests. A number of current polls put the RN candidates ahead of Macron’s Renaissance list, with each credited with about a fifth of the vote. The problem is compounded by the fact that the lead candidate of the RN, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella, has emerged as the wunderkind of French politics. Bardella seems perfectly at ease both in interviews and larger meetings, deftly mixing political attack lines with a reassuring manner. Meanwhile, Macron’s hand-picked candidate Nathalie Loiseau has stumbled from self-inflicted mishap to mishap, triggering a series of negative headlines and a debate about the need for Macron to remove her in extremis. She extended an official invitation to journalists to join her for Palm Sunday mass, before withdrawing it after a public outcry with even government ministers expressing their consternation. She prevaricated and then mismanaged the communication about her student candidacy on a right-wing electoral list with several members of the extreme right. She used the unfortunate expression of having been "received like a gypsy" to describe the way she was treated when she joined the elite school Ena. All of this has entirely obscured the Renaissance list's political messaging. The problem is compounded by the fact that the list, hand-picked by Macron, is a politically little more than a motley crew even by En Marche standards.
Add to this fact that Macron has placed European policy, and an ambition to reform Europe, at the heart of his presidency; and that the third-placed list in the polls, from Les Républicains under the other political newcomer François-Xavier Bellamy, is also doing unexpectedly well; and the extent of Macron’s potential trouble becomes fully apparent. Bellamy might entice part of Macron’s electorate back to the traditional conservatives, while Loiseau’s serial mis-steps might demobilise other Macron voters. French media have widely reported that Macron gave his government ministers what amounted to a vigorous dressing down, warning them of a major reshuffle if they did not help turn things around. Less than three weeks ahead of the European elections, Édouard Philippe’s position as prime minister no longer looks assured. Whether a major reshuffle under a new PM would suffice to revitalise Macron’s presidency enough to sustain his reform effort in France is another matter. Macron is the only glue holding his En Marche movement together, and the further his political fortunes sink as the time for his re-election approaches, the greater the danger that things come unstuck.