Opinion | Emmanuel Macron's Problems Have Just Begun

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The outcome of Sunday's elections in France has left this major global power and a strong ally of India in turmoil. It has resulted in a hung Parliament, an unprecedented thing in France and one that comes just weeks before the country is due to host the Paris Olympics.

Against all expectations, the far-right National Rally (RN) was pushed from a clear first place in the first round a week ago to third place in the final and second round on Sunday, by the New Popular Front (NFT), a coalition of Socialists, Greens, and Communists. President Emmanuel Macron's centrist alliance came second. 

The voting and calls from all the other parties to block the far-right's ascent worked very effectively. In the first round a week ago, Marine Le Pen's RN came first with 30% of the vote, sending shock waves throughout France and beyond. That prompted the RN's political opponents to join hands to defeat the far-right party. More than 200 candidates withdrew to allow a one-to-one fight against the party in the second and decisive round.

The success of this pact has ensured that Le Pen's protege, the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, will now not be the next French Prime Minister. Had the results of the first round repeated through the second, Bardella would not only have become the youngest Prime Minister of France but also the first far-right leader of the country since its occupation by Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.

Nightmare for Macron

The results have thrown France into unchartered territory. The RN may have been pushed into the third place, but no group has a majority and no clear figure has emerged as a possible future Prime Minister. This is a nightmare for President Emmanuel Macron and his country, which is a major global power, a member of NATO, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Macron had called the snap elections a month ago to seek what he called "clarification" after the far-right gave his alliance a painful drubbing in the European Parliament.

His decision was criticised a lot because it was a huge gamble. Bardella, though, was delighted, because it was he who demanded fresh elections. Macron's gamble had ultimately failed as it brought the NR closer to power than ever.

'Unnatural Alliance'

With the final round now, Bardella has criticised the "unnatural" and "dishonourable alliance" that has "deprived the French people" of an RN victory. He said, "For months now, a wind of hope has picked up and it will never stop blowing". 

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Macron's problems have just begun. He will now have to live with what is known in France as 'cohabitation'. The President is the head of state, but the Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament, leads the government, and introduces bills. According to the French constitution, the President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but the Constitution also says that the Prime Minister is responsible for national defence.

Uncertainty Looms

Macron's Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, has already announced his resignation. There will be a period of haggling over building a coalition around a common minimum programme. This could take weeks.

Macron has said he would not work with the hard-left France Unbowed party, but he could offer a hand to the Socialists and the Greens. However, they may not agree with him. Even after the parties decide on the next government, Macron will be forced to appoint a Prime Minister from a party that is not from his own centrist coalition and has a different political agenda. That will lead to a confrontation between Macron and the new government.

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Although France has a history of cohabitation, its President has never worked with a hung Parliament and a minority government. The modern French Republic has had three cohabitations. The last one was under conservative President Jacques Chirac, with Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, from 1997 to 2002. 

But the fact that the NFT does not have a majority means it will have to work with Macron's coalition to govern the country, which could make things slightly easier for both. But on policies, the two groups are too far apart.

Contentious Issues

The NFT coalition parties are unlikely to back Macron's stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict and will press him to take a more critical line against Israel. They will also try to push him to overturn some of his domestic policies (such as pension reform), which have been deeply unpopular and provoked weeks of protests last year.

In its election campaign, the NFP promised to scrap the pension and immigration reforms passed by the outgoing French government and to set up a rescue agency for undocumented migrants. It also wants to put price caps on basic goods and raise the minimum wage. The French economy, the second biggest in the EU after Germany, is not in decent shape and Macron will be forced to accept some of the demands that he will not find fiscally prudent.

Even after a new governing coalition is formed, it is unlikely to be smooth sailing for France. The RN has greatly increased its representation in the newly elected Parliament, which will only embolden it and prompt them to work harder next time. Le Pen, who has unsuccessfully contested French presidential elections three times, will fight the 2027 election with greater enthusiasm. If the new French government does not fulfil people's expectations, she could end up becoming the President of France.

How Le Pen Strengthened The Far-Right

Marine Le Pen has been working towards this goal since 2012, when she took over the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was convicted of hate speech multiple times and was never popular in the country beyond a small group. His daughter changed the party's name to National Rally and started transforming it straight away to broaden its base. It attracted support from many unemployed youth and those who felt left behind amid globalisation and rising levels of immigration.

Le Pen based herself in the northern French town of Henin-Beaumont, which was once a base of socialists, though they were becoming increasingly unpopular because of corruption and unemployment. She picked up young Bardella and groomed him to be her deputy, which was part of a carefully crafted strategy. The party, which once only attracted older people unhappy with the growing immigration from North Africa, now attracted youths.

Bardella announced a new programme that promised to promote law and order, tighten the regulation for migration, and restrict some social benefits like housing to only French citizens. He said that dual citizens would be barred from some key jobs, such as state employees, in the defence and security field. He also promised to cut taxes.

Also Read | France's Allies Relieved By Le Pen Loss But Worry About Messy Coalition

These issues appealed to a larger section of the society, though they also alarmed many who said they conflicted with French values. That was one of the main reasons why the party found itself in third place after the final results, as many immigrants and voters from other European backgrounds decided to oppose the RN.

The resurgence of the far-right in France is only in line with what has been happening elsewhere in Europe. There are already six hard-right governments in Europe. Some of the European far-right parties have roots in fascism, like Italy's governing Brothers of Italy party. The country's Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, once used to praise fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. But for coming to power, she worked to broaden her appeal, like Le Pen in France. Meloni remains careful not to spoil the reformed image. Last week, she censured her party's youth wing when some of its members were captured on video giving fascist salutes.

Will The Results Affect India?

Political change in France is unlikely to make much difference to its India policy, except in terms of some potential critical statements by leftist members in the new government about India's human rights record.

France has emerged as India's strongest Western friend in recent years. It is now the second-biggest supplier of arms to India after Russia. Last year, both countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Franco-Indian strategic partnership.

Narendra Modi and Macron have developed a close relationship that has helped both New Delhi and Paris. France even used its veto at the UN in 2019 to block an attempt by China and Pakistan to convene a Security Council meeting on Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 by India. Macron has said he will not step down before the end of his term in 2027. But his remaining time in office is not going to be easy. He is due to attend a NATO summit this week in Washington, while his country is in the grip of political uncertainty.

(Naresh Kaushik is a senior journalist and commentator based in London.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author