OPINION: Why Macron can blame himself if Le Pen triumphs in EU elections

President Emmanuel Macron is worried. Photo: AFP
As the crucial European elections approach, French president Emmanuel Macron is worried – and angry, writes John Lichfield.

He is counting on a good result in the European elections on 26 May to reboot his presidency. In the last week, the opinion polls for his La République en Marche (LREM) party and allies have taken a turn for the worse. Just after the Notre Dame fire and his marathon press conference to end his Great National Debate, the Macroniste “Renaissance” list of candidates was attracting 24 per cent of the vote, two to three points ahead of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN).

In recent days, some tracking polls have showed RN leading by 0.5 or 1.5 points. Others now show the two lists neck and neck at around 22.5 per cent.

In other words, with just over two weeks to go before the elections, Macron’s list is becalmed. There has been no Notre Dame boost and no electoral round of applause for Macron’s promised tax cuts and his other responses to the six months’ old Gilets Jaunes rebellion.


Former Europe Minister Natalie Louiseau heads up the list for Macron's party. Photo: AFP

Macron, we learn, blames everyone but himself. He blames the accident-prone Nathalie Loiseau, the former Europe Minister who is the head of his Renaissance list (combining LREM and two right and centre parties). He blames ministers in his government for failing to sell his new tax-cutting and spending plans enthusiastically enough.

Above all, he blames his own centrist, pro-EU, metropolitan electorate for being too complacent to grasp that this is not just another, “meaningless” European election. In his “letter” to the peoples of Europe in March, Macron declared the 26th May poll to be a vital battle in a struggle between resurgent nationalism and his plans for a more “protective” and coherent European Union.

Some of his ideas – a European “climate” bank, an EU tax on high tech companies – were recycled in the Macron’s Renaissance list manifesto this week.

On the complacency point, Macron may be right. The fall in LREM/Macronist support coincides with a dip in the number of voters who say that they will definitely cast a ballot on 26 May.

As things stand only 40 per cent of French voters plan to turn out, compared to 44 per cent in the last European elections in 2014 and 74.5 per cent in the presidential elections two years ago.  

Macron started banging the drum for this election as an important referendum on the future of Europe last November, just before the Gilets Jaunes protests exploded. This was always a hostage to fortune.

After 40 years of European elections, it remains impossible to convince large numbers of voters in most EU countries that a) The European Parliament has become an important force and b) the five yearly elections should be decided on European issues.

Bizarrely, the only EU country in which the EU will be the main focus of the European elections this month will be Britain.

The European Parliament building in Strasbourg. Photo: AFP

Macron’s failure to fire up pro-European, centrist voters is partly his own fault. He came to power two years ago promising to bring fresh ideas and renewed energy to the EU project.

He failed to persuade Germany to back his ideas for post-Brexit relaunch of the EU. He failed to create a coalition of other EU countries to back his plans for a Eurozone government or a more protective – some say protectionist – approach to trade, investment and strategic European industries.

In any case, Macron is guilty of sending out mixed messages. He says that the issues are European. Marine Le Pen says the election is a “referendum” on Macron Act II.  She is right. Macron has also “nationalised” the European vote. He desperately needs a good result after six months of Gilets Jaunes protests.

Macron has ordered his ministers to become more active on the campaign trail in the next couple of weeks. There is talk of the President himself addressing a campaign rally, defying the convention that a President of the Republic should be above mid-term electoral politics.

What would it mean if Marine Le Pen’s party topped the poll at the end of the month? Theoretically, not very much. She also “won” the 2014 European elections but was comprehensively rejected by the French electorate in the second round of the presidential elections three years later.

Given the anti-Macron mood of much of the country, her own party’s performance in this European campaign has been limp and unthreatening. She has failed to make electoral gains from the Gilets Jaunes movement.

The Rassemblement National has not surged in the polls. Macron’s LREM and its allies have fallen. All the other lists – 33 of them in all, centre-right, centre-left, hard-left, very hard left, hard-right, far-right, greens, yellow vests – are at various stages of nowhere.

But this year is not a normal year. A defeat for the President on 26 May, however narrow, would bolster claims by Gilets Jaunes and others that Macron is somehow an accidental and illegitimate president. It might reignite what appears to be a fading Yellow Vest rebellion.

Even a narrow victory on May 26th will be presented as a Macron triumph after six months of street protests.

Even a narrow defeat will turn the last three years of his mandate into un combat difficile (an uphill battle).

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