France loses faith in Macron

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Welcome back. When he was elected in 2017 as France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte, Emmanuel Macron seemed like an invigorating gust of wind blowing through a stale political system. Now, three years before he is due to complete his second and final term of office, a heavy defeat awaits Macron’s centrist alliance in next month’s European parliament elections — potentially, the most devastating defeat of his career.

It is almost certainly too late to prevent that. But who, in Macron’s camp or outside it, will be capable of defeating the far right in France’s 2027 presidential election, as Macron himself did in 2017 and 2022? I’m at

Low growth, pessimistic consumers

I’ll start with a look at the French economy. An important battleground in its own right between now and 2027, the economy also intersects with Macron’s other political difficulties, as well as with the deep-seated discontents of French society.

In a commentary accompanying this Ipsos opinion poll, published in February, Pierre Latrille and Diane Lamotte explain that the cost of living is by some distance the main preoccupation of French voters. This is slightly less true for the 18-24 age group — a point I will address below in more detail.

Official data this week showed that French GDP expanded by a quarterly rate of 0.2 per cent between January and March, a little better than expected.

However, in this analysis for ING bank, Charlotte de Montpellier cautions that she expects no more than 0.8 per cent growth for the whole of 2024, and 1.3 per cent in 2025, compared with 0.9 per cent in 2023.

More significantly, she notes that consumer confidence fell in April to 10 percentage points below its historical average. She observes:

“The French seem to be more pessimistic about their future financial situation and are more likely to want to save.”

This low confidence is potentially fertile ground for the far right and other opponents of Macron and his centrist camp.

High deficit weighs on the 2027 election

For Macron and his government, which includes several possible contenders for the presidency in 2027, the chief economic problem — looked at from a political viewpoint — is France’s high budget deficit, which soared last year to 5.5 per cent of GDP.

Line chart of Public expenditure and revenues, as a % of GDP showing French public finances have not been in balance for decades

Here the issue isn’t that France may suffer a reprimand from the European Commission, which polices the EU’s fiscal rules.

Who can forget that, when France ran into similar trouble in 2016, the commission let it off the hook? When Jean-Claude Juncker, then commission president, was asked why, he replied insouciantly: “Because it is France.”

The real point is that Macron’s government has already had to announce emergency spending cuts, and more may be on their way in areas such as social benefits and local government budgets.

Such cuts may be necessary to reassure financial markets, as this Reuters analysis sets out. However, they are bound to be unpopular with large sections of French society. That in turn may affect the electoral prospects in 2027 of politicians associated with the government’s austerity measures.

Lack of parliamentary majority

A related point is that Macron’s alliance lost its legislative majority in 2022. This ensures that much political controversy will surround the government’s efforts to rein in spending and restore order to France’s public finances.

If next month’s EU elections result in a drubbing for Macron’s camp, the president may be tempted to call snap national parliamentary elections. Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group consultancy thinks there is a 60 per cent chance of early elections, and a 20 per cent chance that the far right would win a majority.

Could Macron transform his fortunes by winning snap elections?

It’s true that many French people tend to see EU elections as a chance to cast protest votes against incumbent presidents and governments. Many then vote differently in a national election. For instance, the far right won the EU elections of 2014 and, more narrowly, those of 2019, but not the subsequent presidential elections.

On the other hand, the far right did make advances in the legislative elections of 2022 that followed that year’s presidential contest. Any snap elections this year would run the risk of reproducing the divided legislature that has already, in effect, buried Macronism as a bold reformist project of the political centre.

Anger of provincial France

The three-way split in the legislature between Macronist forces, the far right and the left reflects France’s profound social, political and regional cleavages. While many voters in Paris and other prosperous metropolitan areas warm to Macron, others in less well-off provincial regions do not.

The anger of rural and deindustrialised France was laid out compellingly in a 2021 FT article by Brigitte Granville of Queen Mary University of London. She quoted the author Christian Bobin, who wrote in the newspaper La Croix (here in French) of the Parisian elites’ half-disdainful, half-terrified view of provincial France as a “dark pool of looming grievance and revolt”.

Perhaps the kind of place Bobin had in mind is the Aude department of south-western France, where on a visit last September I befriended a local retired mayor. He reminded me that, in the second round of the 2012 presidential election, the Socialist François Hollande won Aude with 56 per cent of the vote. In 2017, Macron won with 55 per cent. But in 2022, the winner was the far-right Marine Le Pen, also with 55 per cent.

Aude is only one of 96 departments in mainland France and Corsica, and one of the least populous at that. Still, the turn of the electoral tide there from socialism to Macron to the far right speaks volumes about the long-term decline of the French left, the decay of Macronism and the broadening appeal of the far right.

Priorities of young French voters

The particular strengths of the far-right Rassemblement National party are visible in a recent set of opinion surveys. In this Ipsos poll for Le Monde, published on Monday, we see that RN has a commanding lead in the run-up to the EU elections, with 32 per cent support against 17 per cent for Macron’s coalition.

Even more interesting is this survey, published in March, which suggests that support for Macron’s coalition has utterly collapsed among young French voters. Only 4 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds expressed an intention of voting for Macron’s coalition next month, compared with a much more respectable 29 per cent among the over-70s.

It seems that, like the UK’s ruling Conservative party (see this YouGov poll), though doubtless for somewhat different reasons, Macronism comforts the old and turns off the young.

In the survey I mentioned at the top of this newsletter, French voters aged 18 to 24 were asked to name their three biggest concerns. They picked the cost of living (45 per cent), climate change (32 per cent) and “insecurity” (27 per cent). Out of 12 categories, “European construction” — which means, in essence, the EU’s future — was, for these young voters, bottom at 5 per cent.

Climate protesters pour oil on themselves during an demonstration outside the French energy company TotalEnergies’ annual general meeting in Paris, May 2023. During the protests police fired tear gas at activists © AFP via Getty Images

Macron still has eye-catching things to say about the future of Europe, even though his latest speech on that subject at Sorbonne university left many questions unanswered, as Shahin Vallée contended in a column for the FT.

Meanwhile, Macron’s perceived drift to the right since 2022 is causing his coalition to shed support from leftwingers who voted for him in that year’s presidential election. But it isn’t helping his camp to pick up votes on the right, where many prefer RN and Jordan Bardella, the party’s youthful president.

Bardella, the right-hand man to Le Pen, heads the party’s EU election campaign. At the age of 28, he is already one of France’s most popular politicians. Last month, Le Pen and Bardella topped a list of politicians of whom pollster Ipsos asked respondents: “Would you be satisfied if this person became president in 2027?”

In third place was former premier Edouard Philippe, and in fourth place was Gabriel Attal, 35, who enjoyed a burst of popularity after Macron appointed him prime minister in January, but whose star is now fading a bit.

To sum up, I’m at a loss to figure out who will emerge to take on the far right in 2027. In his Tocqueville21 blog, Arthur Goldhammer puts it nicely:

I’m not convinced that the French political terroir, though strewn with the rubble of Macronism, has become utterly barren. Something may turn up, though I’m not sure where to look.

What do you think? Will a far-right candidate win the 2027 French presidential election, or not?

Vote by clicking here.

A poll saying will a far-right candidate win the 2027 French presidential election?

More on this topic

Macron’s European security order — an analysis by Rym Momtaz for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Russia Matters website

Tony’s picks of the week

  • The reliance of Europe’s agriculture and food sector on Russian fertiliser gives the Kremlin a potential tool for exerting political pressure, as it once used gas exports, says one of the world’s largest producers of crop nutrients. The FT’s Susannah Savage reports

  • The necessary acceleration in the global economy’s move to carbon neutrality could have significant consequences on economic growth levels and price stability, Stéphane Dees, head of climate economics at France’s central bank, writes for the OMFIF think-tank

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