At Waterloo, so it was sung, Napoleon did surrender. Well, the history book on the shelf may be repeating itself, but it is doing so in a slightly different way. On one side of the Channel, Boris Johnson faces a potential fine for allegedly attending an ‘Abba party’ in Number 10, taking one step closer to resignation and exile (although one imagines the Opinion section of The Daily Telegraph will prove a little more hospitable than St. Helena). Yet, on the other, Emmanuel Macron finds himself at his moment of Wellingtonian triumph – vanquishing Marine Le Pen by a 17 per cent margin and securing re-election as the President of France.
Knowing me, and knowing you, my fellow ConHomers, I’m sure we are all quietly relieved that Macron secured re-election. Although Manu may possess all the worst excesses of Gallic hauteur and arrogance, his support for both various measures of economic liberalisation domestically and for France’s place in the Western Alliance makes him more attractive than Le Pen. She has the virtues of terrifying all the right people and disliking the EU. But her party’s agenda resembles that of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (if a little less anti-Semitic, following Le Pen’s efforts at detoxification) and one wouldn’t want NATO further undermined by her hostility.
Nevertheless, that she managed to poll over 40 percent of the vote in the second round is still something of an S.O.S from the Fifth Republic. Two decades ago, when her father Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly reached the run-off of the 2002 election, he managed only 17.8 per cent. Socialists trekked to the polling station with clothes pegs on their noses to show their disgust at having to back Jacques Chirac. And yet they did so, to protect their precious Republic against a man with a long history of Holocaust denial.
Two decades on, and the political system is utterly transformed. Not only has Le Pen attracted record levels of support for a candidate of the far-right, but the great centre-right and centre-left blocs which have long dominated French politics appear to be no more. In the first round, the traditional parties of left and right achieved only a paltry 6.52 percent of the vote between them. Instead, politics is straddled between Macron’s shape-shifting liberalism, Le Pen’s economic and social nationalism, and the Gallic Corbynism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. That suggests an electorate characterised by disillusion – and where the name of the game is political chaos.
In the French system, the winner very much does not take it all. In order to retain his majority in the National Assembly, Macron will have to repeat his success in the two rounds of legislative elections in June. Since his party En Marche only managed 5.4 percent of the vote in last year’s regional elections, that seems something of an uphill task. As John Lichfield and John Keiger highlighted yesterday, Macron, Mélenchon, and Le Pen’s far-right rival Eric Zemmour will all be battling it out to transform the thirds of the vote going to the centre, left, and right respectively into as many seats as possible. It is a recipe for parliamentary disorder, and co-habitation: a President forced to work, as Mitterrand and Chirac were, with a National Assembly of a different political persuasion.
For all his current travails, Johnson does still have a majority of over 70. He does not have to win the agreement of Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage to pass legislation. Were Macron to face a hostile legislature, his plans for reforming France would be under attack, and likely dead. That’s before they even face the forms of street opposition of which the French are so fond, and which sent his efforts at raising fuel taxes the way of the Dodo via the Gilet Jaunes. Fortunately, De Gaulle ensured the French President had sweeping powers over foreign policy. And yet that is where Macron has faced humiliation with both French post-colonial interventions in the Sahel, and over his attempts to reason with Putin.
So Macron’s current triumph will not prevent his authority from slipping through his fingers. De Gaulle, Louis XIV, Napoleons I and III – great statesman and heroes of France, who all possessed a grandeur that Macron will never match (despite his apparent aspirations towards God-hood). But it could be said that la petite Emmanuel is the first President since De Gaulle to have “a certain idea of France”. In Macron’s case, that is of a France at the heart of Europe, pushing forward integration, leading on defence, and proving how unnecessary ties to the Anglo-Saxon world are. He may disagree with the General over the merits of integration, but they possess the same goal of France as Europe’s greatest power.
With Angela Merkel replaced by a non-entity in Olaf Scholz, and with Germany preoccupied by its simultaneous dependency on Russia and aversion to military assistance to Ukraine, the moment is certainly ripe for French leadership. As Macmillan said of de Gaulle: “He speaks “Europe”, but means “France”.” But Macron is hampered by an electorate whose views on the bloc are opposed to his. It is a fascinating aspect of these elections that Le Pen outpolled Macron amongst the young, whereas Macron was re-elected on the backs of the over 65s. With National Rally most popular amongst the 25-34s, and Mélenchon most popular amongst 18-24s, young voters are going head over heels for Euroscepticism.
Since Macron cannot run again for the Presidency in 2027, the speculation begins now as to whether his successor will be another centrist pilfered from the old left or right, or a populist of right or left hue. Will Marine Le Pen run for a fourth time? Perhaps unlikely, as is a return for Mélenchon. There is a lot of talk about Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece, who backed Zemmour. I have met her, and certainly considered her to be more like one of us when it comes to Euroscepticism and market liberalism than her Aunt. But with 58 percent of French voters backing a proposal last year to have army officers intervene to take over the country’s government, one must ask a more existential question. How much further has the Fifth Republic got to run?
It was born, in 1958, out of the crisis over the Algerian War and the threat of a military coup. It was designed by and around De Gaulle, with a powerful Presidency and weak legislature. Yet all French Presidents since the General have sat within a depressing continuum of bumbling technocrats, repellent politicos, ludicrous fantasists, and shameless philanderers. Our Prime Ministers, with all their faults, don’t tend to amount to all of those at once. Plus, for longer than the Fifth Republic has lasted, we have been blessed by a head of state who could no be described as any.
When all is said and done, it perhaps would have been better for France had Anthony Eden accepted the offer of Guy Mollet, his French equivalent, during the Suez Crisis for a Franco-British Union under the Queen. Mollet may be more famous for a different European union, but that would undoubtedly be the superior alliance. We would never have lost a World Cup again, and the steak and chips would be magnificent. And our neighbours across the Channel might have been spared another President dashed upon the rocks of both his own arrogance, and the wonderfully French refusal to be reasonable.