The French election results have been interpreted through the lens of US and UK politics, but this framework ignores the political strategy that led Macron to victory. The diagnosis of a fracture between the educated, urban cosmopolitans and the rural, poorly educated, anti-globalists might be part of the story, as is the dissolution of France’s traditional centre-left and centre-right parties. But what this narrative ignores is that Macron is not the passive victim of this political landscape, somehow managing to navigate it, but its creator. Macron’s strategy was to dominate the political centre of French politics - the resulting polarization was the reason behind his victory, argues Stathis Kalyvas.
Emmanuel Macron just won a new presidential term in France by defeating his far-Right opponent Marine Le Pen by 58,54% to 41,46%. His election caused considerable relief, as a victory for the far right would have posed a major threat to both domestic and international institutions. At the same time, however, the dominant mood was more one of concern and apprehension than elation or joy. Although Marine Le Pen failed to win, she obtained an unprecedented share of the vote. But the main narratives and framing of this result misunderstand the reasons behind Macron’s victory, and the strategy that lead him to it.
French politics have been bitter and polarized reflecting the type of electoral demography that gave us Donald Trump and Brexit, namely a fracture between an urban, cosmopolitan, highly educated, financially well-off, optimistic, pro-globalization and pro-European integration segment of French society represented by Macron and a rural and exurban, parochial, poorly educated, lower middle class and working-class, pessimistic, anti-globalization and anti-European integration segment that went all the way for Marine Le Pen. What is more, Macron’s victory came at the cost of the total collapse of the party system that sustained the Fifth Republic and guaranteed the stability of its institutions, a system based on the political domination of Socialists on the left and Gaullists on the right. But this dissolution of the traditional parties wasn’t a bug, as they say, but a feature of Macron’s strategy.
Polarization is less the regrettable emanation of socio-economic discontent that risks engulfing Macron and the democratic institutions of France, and more the inevitable side-effect of his amazingly successful political strategy.
The above elements that have led many observers to dismiss Macron’s victory, bringing up the spectre of a crisis of legitimacy threatening France’s democratic foundations. “Macron May Keep the Presidency, but Le Pen Has Already Won” was the title of the New York Times main opinion piece on the eve of the second round. While these observers have a point, they are reversing the logic of Macron’s victorious enterprise. Polarization is less the regrettable emanation of socio-economic discontent that risks engulfing Macron and the democratic institutions of France, and more the inevitable side-effect of his amazingly successful political strategy. Likewise, the collapse of the French party system is less the result of polarization and more the outcome of Macron’s strategy. For he won not in spite of polarization, but because of it. To understand how, is to be alerted to something that most observers tend to disregard: Macron has self-consciously and single-handedly reengineered the French party system in a way that can only be compared to General Charles de Gaulle’s singular reorganization of French politics back in 1958.
Macron’s re-election for a second term is remarkable on several grounds. This is a man who built his own political movement from scratch, implemented unpopular political reforms against considerable opposition, and still managed to win a rare second term in a country that regularly discards presidential incumbents. He did so by fending challenges from both the radical left and, more significantly, the radical right, thus confounding those who saw in the French elections a replay of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory or a repeat of Brexit; and he did so by single-handedly destroying the political duopoly that Socialists and Gaullists had established over the French Fifth Republic. Indeed, these two “political families” had provided all the presidents of the French Fifth Republic until 2017 and controlled all the levers of power from the presidency and the French National Assembly all the way down to the tiniest commune. Macron’s impressive political rise was predicated upon the destruction of both the Socialists and the Gaullists.
Macron dominated French politics because he succeeded in conquering the centre in its entirety.
He did the socialists in first, in 2017. His political strategy at the time stressed his left-of-centre political credentials and benefited from two lucky breaks. The first one was the fateful decision of the Socialists to move to the left by picking as their leader Benoît Hamon over the moderate Manuel Valls; the second one was the self-immolation of the up to then front-runner candidate, the conservative François Fillon, who was felled by a personal scandal. Facing off Marine Le Pen, a fresh-looking Emmanuel Macron won handily in 2017. Once he won, however, he began to move to the right, in terms of discourse, policy, and political personnel. And so, in 2022, the conservatives met the fate of the Socialists. Macron dominated French politics because he succeeded in conquering the centre in its entirety. At the same time, the combination of ambition, vision, skill, and luck that ensured his success is unlikely to be repeated in most other countries. It is interesting to note here, that antisystem populism tends to seek its (democratic) way to power either through the internal takeover of existing parties (e.g. the Republican party in the USA) or via non-party processes, such as referenda (in the UK), rather than a total restructuring of the party system like the one we have witnessed in France.
The domination of the centre has a key consequence. It is none other than polarization.
The domination of the centre has a key consequence, one that was identified fifty years ago by an Italian political scientist, Giovanni Sartori. It is none other than polarization. To make sense of Italian politics at the time, Sartori coined the term “polarized pluralism” to describe party systems dominated by large centrist parties. Inevitably, the only space available for potential challengers lies in the extremes of the political spectrum, leading to the rise of radical, antisystem parties and the kind of conflictual, centrifugal, and polarized politics that correspond to them. From a systemic perspective, this might be regrettable: polarization can derail reforms; the possibility of a potential political accident that would bring radicals to power can never be excluded; on the flip side, centrist success can lead to the absence of political alternation and the kind of inertia associated with Italian politics during the 1970s.
But there is no question that from the point of view of a centrist political leader, this is an extremely advantageous situation to be in—a position of strength rather than weakness as most observers appear to believe. In the case of France, the fact that radical left and radical right loath each other all but guarantees the domination of the electoral process by the center. In short, there is no question that this has been a genius move from Macron’s perspective, one that helps make sense of his remarkable political success.
The French constitution limits French presidents to a maximum of two terms in office. Hence the crucial question is what to expect after Macron completes his second term. His Achille’s heal is the fact that his own political party, La Republique en Marche (LRM) is a weakly institutionalized personal vehicle with very limited grassroots presence. In his 1954 book Les droites en France, the French political scientist René Rémond distinguished between three rights: the Legitimist reactionary right, the Orleanist liberal one, and the Bonapartist populist one. Marine Le Pen’s far-right is a mix of the first and the third: reactionary in its impulse, but also populist and plebiscitary in its practice. In terms of ideas, Macron best embodies the liberal Orleanist tradition. But, he also exhibits an imperial, Bonapartist streak that risks short-circuiting his political project. Either he will seek to preserve his legacy through the institutionalization of his party or, after he is gone, his movement will likely split. If that happens, then we are likely to witness the re-emergence of the traditional centripetal party system, the duopoly of center-left and center-right.