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A collapsed center?

So much is at stake in the upcoming French elections

French President Emmanuel Macron Associated Press/Photo by Ludovic Marin

A collapsed center?
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French President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling coalition suffered an embarrassing defeat in elections for the European parliament three weeks ago. Macron called snap legislative elections to try and salvage what political capital he can in order to stave off a challenge from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, a nationalist and populist party that has steadily increased its share of the French electorate over the last decade.

In the past, center-right groups partnered with center-left politicians like Macron to defeat parties seen as far right, but the elections of 2024 seem different. The scale of National Rally’s momentum is greater than it has been in the past, and French voters are angry enough at the political establishment to take a chance on Le Pen and National Rally. Voter weariness with centrist rule is coupled with Le Pen’s increased respectability. Le Pen has proven herself to be less radical and more serious as a policy thinker than her opponents had accused, and as of last week, National Rally was leading in the polls.

French elections work differently than American ones do, but important commonalities exist between politics in France and in the United States. Both countries are powerful Western liberal democracies with proud revolutionary traditions. Both countries defined themselves in the 20th century by their resistance against totalitarianism, and both countries are experiencing forms of political polarization downstream from elite ineptitude, the sexual revolution, and state-sponsored secularism.

Emmanuel Macron, perhaps more than any other major European leader, recognizes that undiluted secular liberalism is no longer acceptable to disaffected French, nor is it helpful in solving France’s current political ills. The French president, like his American counterpart, is head of state and serves his term without reference to who holds majorities in the French National Assembly, which is composed of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. If National Rally gains a plurality of seats, Macron’s sitting prime minister will likely include Le Pen and/or her associates in the government. If National Rally wins an outright majority, Macron will probably be forced to appoint a National Rally leader as the nation’s prime minister.

The prospects of a National Rally win terrify French and European elites, but the strong showing by Le Pen is hardly a surprise. France’s establishment center-right party, the Republicans, have been mired in a controversy over who is the party’s leader. France’s centrist politicians, notes Politico, appear to have little appetite for a political reality that ask them to fight for much of anything, and are fleeing Macron’s government instead of trying to campaign for the increasingly unpopular president.

The collapse of the French center and its potential replacement by an openly nationalist and populist party would send shockwaves through Europe.

Macron’s government has not helped its case with voters or with politicians. France’s debt is increasing, and the European Union recently warned Macron’s government that unless France started an “excessive deficit procedure” the 27-member political bloc would eventually be forced to act. It’s unlikely France will ever be sanctioned, but given Macron’s claims to be a serious policy thinker and a technocrat, not delivering financially or economically hurts his credibility, and the credibility of the French centrist parties. As France’s center collapses, the far left and National Rally gain.

France’s elections matter. The French republic maintains a sizable military presence in Africa, and France’s economy is the third largest in Western Europe after Germany and Great Britain. Paris is in many ways the cultural capital of Europe. French companies have sizable investments in the United States, and America is heavily invested in France. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the Chancellor of Austria Prince Metternich apocryphally said that when Paris sneezes, Europe catches a cold. French politics serve as a bellwether for Western Europe and the collapse of the French center and its potential replacement by an openly nationalist and populist party would send shockwaves through Europe. France’s robust welfare state would stay intact, as would its official commitment to secularism. Le Pen describes herself as Roman Catholic but admits to not attending Mass regularly. She also calls herself a feminist. Nonetheless, she had her children baptized by a traditionalist Catholic priest.

Le Pen increasingly has moved National Rally into the conservative mainstream and has been helped by the emergence of Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête (Reconquest) Party. Zemmour is even more right-wing than Le Pen. Le Pen’s policies are more consistent with the historic French right. Like Macron, Le Pen agrees with the idea that France should be a great power in its own right, and is committed to maintaining France’s political independence. Unlike Macron, she is not committed to the liberal order, and she has argued that Western leaders should not reflexively be involved in the Russia-Ukraine War or the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A Le Pen victory in France wouldn’t revolutionize the country, but it would certainly get the attention of the French establishment.

Miles Smith

Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. His area of interest is the intellectual and religious history of the 19th-century United States and the Atlantic World.


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