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How the fall of Macron’s centrists has changed France’s political landscape

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron Copyright Dylan Martinez/Pool via AP
Copyright Dylan Martinez/Pool via AP
By Lauren Chadwick
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The French president has sold his party as a centrist force against extremism, but now he faces an uncertain election, and his strategy of pitting his presidential coalition against two extremes may no longer work with voters.

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When Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France for a second time in 2022, he acknowledged that some only voted for him in the second round to counter far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Many French people voted “not to support my (political) ideas, but rather to block those of the far right,” Macron said, adding that the vote indebted him to them.

Two years on, this so-called “Republican front” to prevent the far right from gaining power has lost momentum, with the National Rally (RN) coming first in the European elections and expected to top the snap legislative elections on 30 June and 7 July.

Macron’s movement, meanwhile, has seen its support fall from losing a majority in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, in 2022 to coming a distant second to the far right in the European elections this past month.

The president has described his coalition as an alternative to two extremes, but it’s also trailing both the far-right RN and a left-wing coalition called the New Popular Front (NFP) in the polls, with some saying the results could lead to a hung parliament.

So how did this political firebrand who blasted onto the scene in 2017 reconstruct the political landscape at home and contribute to the rise of the far right?

Personalised power

Macron has sold himself as neither left nor right, launching a centrist movement that took from both the country's traditional moderate parties. However, experts say that he has not been able to create a movement that fills the void he left.

“He deregulated the French political system that was traditionally marked by a right-left divide,” said Stéphane Cadiou, a professor of political science at the University of Lyon 2.

“To make his personal (political) business profitable, he had to convince people of the outdated nature of the right-left divide by undermining all the familiar benchmarks of the political space,” said Cadiou.

Macron has now failed to “build anything,” leaving only a political space that is “under construction,” Cadiou said, as he cannot bring together the two disparate camps.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in a café after a military ceremony in Brittany, 18 June 2024.
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in a café after a military ceremony in Brittany, 18 June 2024.AP Photo/Christophe Ena, Pool

The French president went from relying primarily on left-wing voters in 2017 to more right-wing voters in the 2022 elections. The Socialist Party (PS) saw a huge drop in support in both presidential elections of 2017 and 2022, while the right-wing Républicains (LR) plummeted in 2022.

His movement has been based on selling his candidacy and brand, intrinsically linking his image to his coalition.

“He bet on his experience, that his time in the senior civil service and the private sector could be used to guarantee his legitimacy to overcome the left-right divide,” Cadiou said.

Since he was first elected, his approval rating has fallen from above 50% to below 30%, and some voters considering the far right say they’re put off by the president.

Christian, a 67-year-old voter in the countryside near Lyon, who spoke to Euronews at a public meeting of the far right, had previously voted for Macron but said the French president has a "way of making people angry".

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“We cannot say that nothing has been done because it is true that we quickly forget what has been done, and we mainly look at what remains to be done but his method is not working. He has a way of presenting the subject that makes you angry,” the former automobile factory worker said.

Predictable fall

The fall of Macron’s approval rating was largely predictable in France.

“The French people always get fed up with their leaders,” said Tara Varma, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and expert on French politics.

“I think there's just a general sense of lassitude that the French population has in their leader,” she added.

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But part of the problem for the French president is his lack of “local anchorage” after centralising power in Paris.

In the Senate, the traditional parties remain the right-wing LR and left-wing PS, and Macron’s party was also unable to secure any of metropolitan France’s 13 regions in the 2021 regional elections.

“I don't think his party spent enough time building local anchorage because yes, they lost the European election, but they lost all of the local elections in the past seven years,” said Varma.

Cadiou added that Macron has worked to further centralise power under the Fifth Republic, which already gives the president an unprecedented amount of power.

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This was particularly amplified during crises such as the Yellow Vests protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.

Between two extremes

Macron has always sold his movement as one that is against the far right, facing the RN’s Marine Le Pen twice in the presidential election and relying on voters to back him to prevent the far right from coming to power.

Attempts to now portray the presidential coalition as between “two extremes” are “quite dangerous,” according to Varma, who explains that it’s not a fair portrayal of the left-wing NFP coalition.

She says there’s less of a public mobilisation against the far-right National Rally, which has been able to grow locally to become France’s top political force.

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Marine Le Pen (left) and Emmanuel Macron (right) prior to a 2017 debate between the two presidential candidates.
Marine Le Pen (left) and Emmanuel Macron (right) prior to a 2017 debate between the two presidential candidates.Eric Feferberg/Pool Photo via AP

Varma says next week, it may be difficult for Macron to create a block against the far right in the second round of the legislative elections after pitting the party against the left-wing coalition.

Mathias Bernard, president of the University of Clermont Auvergne in the French city of Clermont-Ferrand, told Euronews that Macron’s strategy of being the “wall against extremism” may now be a weakness.

In 2017 and 2022, it was Macron as a block against one right-wing extreme, but now this central movement is in third place.

“The (left-wing) New Popular Front is seen as the more efficient block against the far right, while the National Rally is seen as the most effective block against the far left and la France Insoumise (leftist party),” Bernard said.

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“This centre is stuck between these two blocs that are each able to (pit votes) against the other,” he added, with Macron’s strategy of stopping extremism now a “weakness”.

“Because Macron was supposed to be the moderate and reasonable and intellectual one, it was really hard, I think, for the moderate right and the moderate left to find a space in this landscape that Macron had totally blown up,” Varma said.

But now, looking at the results of the European elections, there may be “momentum for the moderate left to rebuild itself little by little and to feature once again a bit more prominently, in the French political landscape,” she said.

But as France heads towards what may be a hung parliament, the country may have to find a more “European way of doing politics” and see if it can adapt to make compromises in a context where the far-right is ahead, she added.

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