The French election

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By DANIEL AFONSO DA SILVA*

What was a simple defeat on June 9, when the French legislature was dissolved, is now beginning to emerge as a curious French tragedy

The clarification provided by President Emmanuel Macron when dissolving the French legislature on June 9th came to light with the results of the elections this Sunday, July 07th. The message that was predictable has now become unequivocal: French society is extraordinarily divided, fragmented and fractured and – if that were not enough – the political regime, enthroned and practiced by the French Fifth Republic since 1958, is on the edge of the cliff, on the eve of brain death and very close to the final fall.

A panoramic view of Sunday's result indicates that, of the 577 seats available in the French parliament, the New Popular Front (NFP), led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his party Insubmissive France (LFI), won 182. The Presidential Majority ( MP), grouped together in the group Juntos (Together), led by Emmanuel Macron and his Renaissance party, got 168. The National Rally (RN), by Marine Le Pen, together with parts of The Republicans (LR) by Éric Ciotti, got 143. The group of Republicans that remained Gaullist it took 46. While the independent variety on the right got 14, the one on the left, 13, the one in the center, 6. While the regionalist party took 4 and other small united associations, 1.

Lots of numbers. Beautiful numbers. But fragile conclusions.

The victory of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's group caused, of course, much astonishment. Nobody sincerely expected his arrival in first place. But, along with astonishment, this impressive score also generated relief. All predictions indicated an absolute or relative majority in Marine Le Pen's circle. And that was everything that the established powers and public opinion did not want. And, it was precisely for this reason that, after a consistent operation to dampen the rise and success of the RN, they recognized themselves as winners. It worked: there was no RN, the NFP won and the cards were mixed up.

The cards were mixed up because, when you look at the result in detail, everyone's enthusiasm needs to fade. It is clear to see that the groups that came in first and second place – Mélenchon's NFP and Macron's Presidential Majority – united in purpose simply to block the victory of Marine Le Pen's RN. But, intrinsically, they are nothing more than a pile of contradictory intentions, forged by disunited intentions, often upstarts and lacking the moral, programmatic and spiritual conditions to lead the country.

For all this, in the face of euphoria, a wise French minister said: “nobody won”.

Nobody won because the president's group, yes, no longer had a relative majority, but, at the same time, it showed that the French remain insecure about offering the country's destiny to the RN circle and made everything clear: neither Macron nor Le Pen. The French can't stand the current president, but they aren't sure they want Marine Le Pen right away.

It is important to remember that Marine Le Pen reached the second round of the 2017 and 2022 French presidential elections against Emmanuel Macron. It is also worth considering that, on the eve of the 2024 European elections, RN candidate Jordan Bardella emphasized that, in the event of a RN victory for Brussels, President Macron should dissolve the French legislature.

What came next everyone knows.

The RN achieved 32% of the vote to represent the French in Brussels. Thus, as soon as this result was published, President Macron decided to follow Jordan Bardella's reprimand and dissolve the French legislature.

In other words, under pressure from the rise of the RN abroad, President Macron wanted to clarify the situation within the country's walls.

Thus came the campaign for the legislature. The RN remained favorite. Its candidates positioned themselves in different constituencies. Marine Le Pen multiplied her movements and appearances. Jordan Bardella too. As a result, they repeated and guaranteed the superiority of the European elections in the first round of national legislative elections. As a result, Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella began to demand the dismissal of the Prime Minister and President Macron's government and campaigned for the second round of the legislature with the aim of taking over the government of France.

The days that separated June 30th and July 07th – dates, respectively, of the first and second rounds – were filled with torment and storms.

Practically all important French, European and global political figures launched statements in favor of and against President Macron's decision and the RN's adventures.

Restricting himself to just a few French tenors, President François Hollande himself became a candidate for the Socialist Party (PS) to help stop the rise of the RN. President Nicolas Sarkozy sent messages in many ways and in many places highlighting his complete dissatisfaction with the extemporaneity of President Macron's decision. Dominique de Villepin, Prime Minister, Chancellor and Chief of Staff to President Jacques Chirac, considered the dissolution a decision that bordered on “irresponsibility”. Lionel Jospin, also Prime Minister under President Jacques Chirac, said something similar, but with more discretion.

Anne Sinclair, an eminent observer of the French political scene, said it was a simply “unforgivable” decision. Alain Minc and Jacques Attali were perplexed, but recognized that the despair had been going on for many years. It was already chronic and now it seemed like a structural malaise.

The big day came: 07/07. The RN, in the end, did not achieve an absolute or relative majority. But the pressure on the Macron presidency gained strength from the side diametrically opposed to the RN. From the side of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon was blocked from the first round of the last two presidential elections. But, given the meager popular participation in both of them, in 2017 and 2022, he nominated himself as prime minister. And, since then, he has considered himself a natural prime minister for the upliftment of France. But now, as soon as he discovered the results of the elections on Sunday, putting his group in first place, he didn't stand by and demanded again, now with much more emphasis, a place in the Matignon palace. Many considered it a legitimate and consistent demand. Others also noted it as only natural for the leader of the grouping to bring together the most legislative seats.

But, looking at it more coldly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon's group did not obtain an absolute majority and, perhaps, not even a relative one. Its 182 seats won are technically tied with the 168 of the Presidential Majority and the 143 of the RN. You just need to look more calmly to see. And, when you see it, you will realize that this result throws the French political situation into the unknown.

This is because it is the first time that a President of the Republic is technically tied with two extreme opponents. In this case, the RN and NFP. And without a parliamentary majority or minority.

This technical draw has a positive side for President Macron. Before him, as president, he should not and should not accelerate the choice of a new prime minister, nor should he or she feel obliged to immediately summon the leader of the winning coalition – in this case, Jean-Luc Mélenchon – to the post of prime minister. minister.

So much so that, on Monday, July 08, after the scrutiny, he refused the resignation of his Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and suggested that he, Gabriel Attal, continue in office and keep the group of ministers in operation . After all, the Olympic Games in France are just around the corner.

But this technical tie thesis, although consequential and eloquent, looked at more carefully, is extraordinarily fragile. And everyone knows. Because, like it or not, if the analysis takes into account isolated parties and, therefore, dissociated from groupings, Marine Le Pen's RN was the unequivocally winning party in the election.

See, the RN alone won 125 seats while the second place, the group Together – and not simply the Renaissance party – of President Macron got 99.

All political leaders in France know that breaking down the result in this way makes everything even more complex. And, precisely for this reason, all the high-profile personalities there remain extremely discreet after the polls open on Sunday.

Following the breakdown by parties, it should be noted that, in fact, Jean-Luc Mélenchou's LFI managed only 78 seats, the French Communist Party (PCF), 8, the Ecologists (LE), 28, the PS, 69 , the various leftist parties, 10, the various centrist parties, 5, the Democratic Movement (Modem) of François Bayrou, 33, Together – bringing together Renaissance and other allies of President Macron – 99, Horizons of former Prime Minister Édouard Phillipe of the Macron presidency, 26, the Democratic and Independent Union, 3, LR of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, 39, various right-wing parties, 26 , the LR-RN union – alliance between Éric Ciotti and Marine Le Pen –, 17, Marine Le Pen's RN, 125, the extreme right party, to the right of the RN, 1, and the regionalist party, 9.

Everything, seen like this, becomes clearer. But if this clarity still doesn't convince, see that, in a historical series, the RN seems to be the only party with a constant, consistent and accelerated rise in the expansion of its parliamentary representation in the last twenty-five years.

As a demonstration, it is worth highlighting that while the National Front (FN), originally led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the now RN did not obtain any parliamentary seats in 2002 or 2007. However, it reached two in 2012, nine in 2017, 89 in 2022 and at 125 – or, in alliance, 143 – now. This is a simply impressive advance.

In terms of comparison, the set of parties anchored in the group Together it had 29 parliamentarians in 2002, three in 2007, four in 2012, 350 after President Macron's first election in 2017, 249 after the second in 2022, and is down to 156 – or 168 – seats now.

As for the grouping to the left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon – which also involves, against everyone's taste, fractions of the PS – parliamentary representation varied from 162 in 2002 to 205 in 2007, 307 after the election of President François Hollande in 2012 to 58 in 2017, 131 in 2022 and 178 – or 182 – now.

You don't need to memorize these numbers to realize the structural complexity of the situation.

The RN agenda seems to be the only one with constant support and no losses. This was clearly also why President Macron came to such a drastic decision to dissolve the French legislature. The RN victory in the European elections, in the meantime, only sweetened the decision through “clarification”. With this “clarification”, the French president wanted to know if this was what the French wanted: the RN in power. And now, looking coldly at the data, the answer was a maybe, very close to a yes.

The French are clearly still hesitant. But they hesitate less than in 2017 and 2022. So much so that they came to the polls en masse in Sunday's second round. But now, after the vote, confusion, desolation and apprehension remain.

I finished my article “The curious French defeat”, published on the website the earth is round, on June 26th, anticipating this desolation, apprehension and confusion and suggesting the need for deeper reflection on the place of the RN in the French political landscape. In this sense, my impressions at the time – after the dissolution and before the first round – suggested two initial considerations:

(a) Or perhaps the enforcers of the French Constitution have always been mistaken in allowing the naturalization of this clearly extremist party as a legitimate participant in the fauna and flora of French politics. (b) Or the entire French public opinion is frankly and strongly mistaken and feeding illusions by continuing to demonize a party that has only grown in popular taste in the last thirty or forty years.

I considered that this dilemma needed to be faced. And I also alluded that President Macron's decision was part of this confrontation. But now, after the results of the polls, secondary issues have become urgent and deserve new considerations.

To this end, at the outset, it must be recognized that, yes: President Macron dissolved the French legislature to contrast the rise of the RN. But, contrary to appearances, that is not what happened. The RN, as a party, became a majority in the French parliament.

On Sunday night and Monday morning, French and world public opinion, faced with the euphoria, still had difficulty recognizing it. But, since evening From the second, the perception began to change. The most acute observers began to recognize that, yes, “nobody won”. But, perhaps, everyone lost. And they lost in the moral dimension, since the results of the polls accelerated the entropy of the French Fifth Republic and tended to bring forward its end.

Otherwise, see.

The French Fifth Republic was inaugurated in 1958 to overcome the extraordinary political instability of the French Fourth Republic. The Fourth French Republic, which was in force from 1946 to 1958, was created under the trauma of the War, the occupation and Vichy. And, also for this reason, it had immense difficulties in gathering cohesive human resources to restore some political normality. For this reason, presidents Vicent Auriol and René Coty were forced to live with 24 governments made up of more than a dozen prime ministers, the majority of which were imposed under pressure from disconnected legislatures.

General De Gaulle was then summoned to resolve this noisy situation. The maintenance of French colonialism in Africa was, of course, a nuclear issue. But the moral complexion of political agents consisted of a handicap even bigger.

At the time and later, the general could be condemned for various sins. Except for the lack of stature and moral complexion.

Among the French – but not only –, two or three generations still sang the main topics of the notable Appeal of June 18, 1940. Practically everyone knew those nuclear questions by heart

"Mais le dernier mot est-il dit?” [Has the last word been said yet?].
"L'espérance doit-elle disparaître?” [Is hope doomed to disappear?].
"Is the failure definitive?” [is the defeat definitive?].

Many other generations – more than remember – felt and lived every emotion contained in that unforgettable

 "Paris outrage!” [Paris outraged!].
"Paris brisé!” [Broken Paris!].
"Paris martyrisé!” [Paris martyred!].
"More Paris free.” [But Paris liberated].

The general of Free France and the liberation general was recognized as a providential figure. A providence shaped by authority and moral complexion entangled with the people.

Aware of this, when called upon to return to power, the general designed the new Constitution – still in force today – based on this spirit of authority, morality and respect for the popular will. A spirit that, in the end, began to grant the President of the Republic – as long as he was legitimized by the people – almost absolute powers to maintain the regime.

Hence the extremely vertical character of the French semi-presidential/semi-parliamentary regime. A verticality that links, in order, the president, the prime minister and the National Assembly. The executive, in this model, then became prominent in relation to the legislature. So much so that it became a presidential prerogative to dissolve the legislature whenever necessary. And, in case of defeat after the popular consultation, the president should simply leave.

It was in this way that the general dissolved the French legislature in 1962 and in 1968 in search of a parliamentary majority to justify his executive action. As his group subsequently won, he stayed. But, in 1969, he consulted the people again, now, via referendum, and lost and left. This is the sense of authority and morality of the Fifth Republic. Lose and leave.

President George Pompidou nor President Valery Giscard d'Estaing – who immediately succeeded general – did not need to resort to dissolution or referendum confirmation.

But President François Mitterrand dissolved the legislature twice – once in 1981 and once in 1988 – to achieve a majority. On these two occasions, in 1981 and 1988, he had won the presidential elections and, at the same time, found a parliament composed of majority opposition forces. It was then up to him to confirm his popular work in the legislature.

In another vein, his party lost its parliamentary majority in the 1986 and 1993 elections. And he, instead of following the general's example, preferred to remain in power and create a curious arrangement called cohabitation, calling on the leader of the majority opposition in the legislature to the post of prime minister. With this maneuver – still little sincerely understood by the French –, as everyone knows, important parts of the moral dimension of the Fifth Republic began to collapse.

But to make matters worse came the disastrous dissolution of the legislature in 1997. On that occasion, President Jacques Chirac dissolved the Assembly with the intention of increasing its margins, but he ended up losing the little space he had and was forced to build a cohabitation with the PS led by Lionel Jospin for the long years from 1997 to 2022.

Even though controversial and tarnishing the spirit of the Fifth Republic, these three occasions of cohabitation resulted from a clear composition anchored in a party opposing the president with clear cohesion and a majority in parliament.

Going back in time, Jacques Chirac's Regroupment for the Republic (RPR) was remarkably cohesive and was in the majority in the 1986 and 1993 ballots. In the same way, Lionel Jospin's PS – even without François Mitterrand, who died in 1996 – continued relatively ideologically coherent in 1997 and took the most seats.

What happens now, in 2024, after the dissolution and the results of the elections has nothing to do with what was seen in the past. And in several aspects. The first concerns the truly clear majority portion. But the most embarrassing point is related to the conviviality and respectability between the actors.

In this plan, President Macron considers Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen as people who are rarely or not at all frequented. Secondly, its grouping Together understands that the RN and LFI should have been banned from participating in the French political landscape because they are, in theory, racist, Nazi, fascist, xenophobic, Islamist and so on. In other words, they do not recognize the legitimacy of these parties on the national scene. And, last but not least, French public opinion, which sends signals to the president, does not trust the people of RN or the LFI.

Nothing obliges President Macron to summon Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Marine Le Pen to form the government. But if he does not do so, the entirety of the presidential action will be clearly blocked or, at the very least, boycotted, making President Macron's life similar to that of his predecessors in the Fourth Republic.

But, on the other hand, if these RN and LFI leaders are invited to form a government together with President Macron, the president and his entire centrist bloc tend to lose the entirety of their moral authority before the people and public opinion.

Yes: sword of Damocles. Or, as a wise medieval Italian would say, which is not popular today: “small – and, even more so, very small – politics have limits”. No one can stand this opportunistic pettiness anymore. It's curious, very curious. What was a simple defeat on June 9, when the French legislature was dissolved, is now beginning to emerge as a curious French tragedy.

In any case and always, “Vive la France et vive la République française”. But not this perplexed France nor this confused Republic.

*Daniel Afonso da Silva Professor of History at the Federal University of Grande Dourados. author of Far beyond Blue Eyes and other writings on contemporary international relations (APGIQ). [https://amzn.to/3ZJcVdk]


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