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Could a divided or minority government in France pose a risk to EU's stability?

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, speaks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Jun
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, speaks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Jun Copyright Olivier Hoslet/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Olivier Hoslet/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Sergio Cantone
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The next French government promises could scramble or slow down the country's commitments on urgent Europe-wide matters.

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The triumph of the far right, the failure of President Emmanuel Macron's bloc and the relative growth of the freshly formed New Popular Front in the snap election's first round last Sunday all raise serious questions about the composition of the next French government — and especially its ability to stick to a constructive EU policy.

Whether the second round yields a minority government or a forced "cohabitation" involving Macron and a prime minister from another political tendency, both outcomes would hardly reassure France's partners in the union, particularly Germany, its fellow European heavyweight.

But it wouldn't be the first time that France has seen a rival president and prime minister governing together.

History repeats itself

Between 1986 and 1988, Socialist President François Mitterand cohabited with a right-wing prime minister, the Neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac, who at that time was less than a Europhile.

Yet even though the two men's clashing views on international and European policies, France eventually managed to cooperated with its partners in what was then the European Community to create the single market.

Mitterand ultimately prevailed over his rival Chirac in the elections of 1988, but later had to preside over another cohabitation between 1993 and 1995, this time another Neo-Gaullist, Édouard Balladur.

Again, the president was a socialist, and the prime minister a conservative; nevertheless, they rarely got into conflict, especially on EU political issues. Mitterand was also in poor health, and this second cohabitation came at the twilight of his political career.

Between 1997 and 2002, it was President Chirac's turn to cohabit, when his conservative camp lost a round parliamentary elections after the tactical dissolution of parliament's lower chamber.

Chirac remained president, and socialist Lionel Jospin became prime minister after capturing a parliamentary majority with the Plural Left, a coalition that included the Communists and the Greens.

French President Jacques Chirac, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, left to right,
French President Jacques Chirac, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, left to right,JEROME DELAY/AP

The two men were often at odds. They attended EU Council summits together, creating a kind of exception à la française in which a president and prime minister from the same country sat together at the round table.

There were constitutional rows over how to divide competencies between the head of state and the head of government, particularly on foreign and EU policy issues, all complicated by what amounted to a constant electoral campaign between Chirac and Jospin.

Nevertheless, the 1997-2002 French cohabitation contributed to the launching of the Euro, the creation of two important EU treaties — Amsterdam in 1997 and Nice in 2000 — and the start of the negotiations for the biggest enlargement in EU history.

This time could be different

Yet today, France is confronted with a far deeper ideological divide. The role of radical parties is bigger than before, and the political arena is extremely polarised.

The question in any cohabitation situation is whether the president's goals will turn out to be in some way compatible with the priorities of their rival prime minister. And in France, the situation will be complicated even further when the political forces turn their focus to the presidential elections of 2027.

The liberal, pro-EU Macron may soon have to cohabit either with the far right or the more radical elements of the left-wing New Popular Front. Both political tendencies are far from mainstream, and room for unilateral presidential action in case of cohabitation is limited.

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"A peculiarity of this cohabitation, compared to the three previous ones, is that once the government is in place, it knows that Macron cannot provoke another second dissolution of the National Assembly before summer 2025," Sébastien Maillard, an analyst from the Paris-based Jacques Delors Foundation told Euronews.

"So, this really limits the power of the president over the prime minister because Macron won't be able to push the nuclear button of dissolving (the parliament) again to block the PM for at least one year."

Supporters of French far right leader Marine Le Pen react after the release of projections based on the actual vote count in select constituencies , Sunday, June 30, 2024 in H
Supporters of French far right leader Marine Le Pen react after the release of projections based on the actual vote count in select constituencies , Sunday, June 30, 2024 in HThibault Camus/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.

The EU, meanwhile, has already been the focus of several major controversies since Macron came to power in 2017.

The Green Deal, the asylum package, migration legislation and agricultural reforms are all EU policies that are still to be implemented in France.

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In the case of cohabitation with a far-right prime minister, adopting these policies could trigger major institutional and political conflicts within France's core political institutions, confronting the EU-wide process with a roadblock.

"There could be much more than simple divergences with the Commission," Maillard said. "It would be a bit of a (Hungarian PM Viktor) Orban-like attitude, especially If the government would not respect the primacy of EU law over the national law."

To complicate things further, Paris's relations with Brussels are already less than ideal.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron sit at a table in the garden of the German government guest house in Meseberg, north of Berlin, Germ
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron sit at a table in the garden of the German government guest house in Meseberg, north of Berlin, GermEbrahim Noroozi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

The fiscal third rail

Last week, the European Commission issued an excessive deficit procedure against France and six other countries, including Italy, Belgium and others. According to Eurostat, France's public deficit increased from 4.8% of GDP in 2022 to 5.5% in 2023.

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The EU executive body stated that while the government's efforts to curb the public debt have been appropriate so far, France still has some way to go.

This criticism from Brussels sounds like a warning against further governmental instability, directed at a country where public finances could well become a major point of tension between the weakened president and a leftist or far-right government.

If France's parties end up mired in parliamentary manoeuvring at the expense of getting policy passed and implemented, they could delay the EU's economic and monetary strategies in the years to come.

"A lot of investments will be needed in Europe in the next few years. And the question is, will the European leaders have the courage to make these investments and find mechanisms, and basically find the money to insure these investments," Wouters Wolf, a lecturer in EU Politics from the KU Leuven, told Euronews.

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"If you have leaders that are under pressure in their own countries, that are also under pressure in terms of budget, financial resources, especially in France, they will respond with a lot of political uncertainty, which will put pressure on French public finances."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron sit at a table in the garden of the German government guest house in Meseberg, north of Berlin, Germ
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron sit at a table in the garden of the German government guest house in Meseberg, north of Berlin, GermMATTHIAS RIETSCHEL/AP2009

Recalibrating the bloc's overall economy will require more public investment in many sectors, from the defence industry to high-tech manufacturing and environmental efforts. To finance such ambitious policies, the EU will have to change its public financing model — and that in turn means EU member states, especially France and Germany, will need to enhance their traditional cooperation within the EU further.

Are compromise and a common position still possible in a political environment where governments are struggling with domestic policymaking?

"A technocratic government could indeed depoliticise some of these issues, maybe take the blame also for some reforms that need to be done, and then I think would be the best case scenario," Wolf said. "The problem is, of course, that France does not necessarily have such a tradition. And the question is to what extent that is possible."

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"That will only be possible after a couple of months of instability, I think, and inability to come to a specific political solution. But at the end of the day, that might be the best-case scenario for France and Europe as a whole."

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