OPINION: France has voted itself into a prolonged and painful crisis

With the loss of his parliamentary majority, Emmanuel Macron already looks like a lame duck just weeks into his second term - John Lichfield examines what all this means for France and the painful process ahead.

OPINION: France has voted itself into a prolonged and painful crisis
Is Emmanuel Macron already a 'lame duck' president? Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

France has plunged itself into a prolonged political crisis. It is unclear how any lasting governing majority can be constructed from the perverse results of the parliamentary elections yesterday.

A country which complains that its politicians “never do anything for us” has elected a “do nothing” parliament at a time of international and economic crisis. A country which has contempt for parliament has, in effect, turned back the clock to the era of all-powerful but unstable parliaments of the 1950s.

A country which is fed up with elections and politics has awarded itself a summer of political manoeuvring and – quite possibly – another legislative election next year or maybe even sooner.

A country which has twice rejected Marine Le Pen as President has given her ramshackle and bankrupt party 89 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly – the biggest presence of the Far Right in French national politics since the summer of 1944.

The biggest heaping of blame must fall on President Emmanuel Macron.

He helped to throw away a comfortable lead in parliamentary seat projections by dithering for four weeks over his new government and prime minister. He allowed his centrist alliance to conduct a limp and leaderless campaign. Macron’s party are known as marcheurs (walkers). To win an election you need to run, not walk.

Some insiders suggest that this was a deliberate strategy to “de-dramatise” the election and preserve the momentum from Macron’s re-election.. Others hint that Macron has been uncharacteristically lacking in ideas and energy since his presidential triumph in April, as if two years of back-to-back crises had sapped him mentally and physically.

For whatever reason, Macron’s Ensemble! alliance failed to cope with the emergence of the Left-Green alliance, Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (Nupes). The poisonous rivalry between the two alliances was largely responsible for the unexpected breakthrough of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.

Looking at how the votes fell, it seems that both the Left and Macron’s Centre lost dozens of seats to Le Pen because they refused to go along with any clear voting pact against the Far Right. This collapse of the so-called Republican Front – for which both Left and Centre are equally to blame – explains why the Rassemblement National won so many seats where it has never been competitive in Round Two in the past.

In terms of ballots cast, the vote for the RN was not especially high but many Left or Centre voters abstained rather than vote against the Far Right. Their fear of electing a Macroniste or Mélenchoniste deputy was greater than their fear of Le Pen.

What happens now?

In the Fifth Republic, the President is supposed to have a majority in parliament. There are three precedents for the “opposition” winning a majority of seats and forcing the President to surrender domestic power to a hostile prime minister. There is one precedent – 1988-1993 – for the President having a handful of seats less than a majority and managing to muddle through issue-by-issue.

There is no precedent for the President and his Prime Minister being 44 seats short of a majority as Macron will be when the new assembly meets in eight days’ time. Macron has by far the biggest bloc of seats – 245 out of 577. No other bloc or party can hope to get near a majority. Can Macron?

The obvious way would be to form a coalition with the centre-right Les Républicains (LR), the much reduced “political family” of Charles De Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. They have 64 seats – enough with Macron’s bloc to give a comfortable majority of 309.

That may yet happen. I doubt it.

Les Républicains are violently divided between pro-European moderate and Macron-detesting nationalist wings. The party’s parliamentary and national leadership is about to change. The likelihood is that the anti-Macron wing will take over.

 As Eric Ciotti, the very hard right Républican deputy for Nice said on Sunday night: “We are not going to be a spare wheel for Macron.”

Before Sunday’s calamitous result, senior sources in Macronland were quite relaxed about the prospect of narrowly missing an overall majority. They were confident that up to 20 moderate, Républicains deputies would be willing to join the Macron camp permanently or on a vote-by-vote basis.

To win over all 64 Républicains deputies is another can of worms.

The most that I expect Macron can hope for is a temporary arrangement in which the Républicains – or just enough Républicains – agree to allow the government to limp along to avoid a constitutional crisis.  If all the LR members abstained, Macron could just get a majority when his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne submits her government to a first vote of confidence on or just after July 5th.

The Répubiclains may also vote, or abstain, to allow the passage of the government’s much awaited cost-of-living package early next month. Were all those who voted anti-Macron yesterday aware that they might be voting to add 18 cents a litre to the price of petrol or diesel by destroying a parliamentary majority to extend the existing subsidy?

Beyond that, I fear that France is heading into a dark and pathless few months – even years – at a time of war in Europe and deepening economic difficulties across the world. Even if Macron does cobble together a fragile majority, what kind of mandate does he have now have to push through his planned pension-age changes and other reforms?  None.

Macron is only two months into his second and final term. He is only 44 years old. He already looks like a lame duck.

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French energy firms urge ‘immediate’ cut in consumption to avoid shortages this winter

France's top three energy providers are imploring the public to reduce their energy consumption this summer in order to save resources and avoid shortages this winter as cuts to Russian gas and oil begin to bite.

French energy firms urge 'immediate' cut in consumption to avoid shortages this winter

In a rare joint statement, the leaders of the three top French energy companies came together to urge the French public to reduce their energy consumption.

The heads of TotalEnergies, EDF and Engie published an open letter in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday calling on the French to “immediately” reduce their consumption of petrol/gasoline, diesel, oil, electricity and gas in order to help stave off the shortages and soaring prices that could threaten “social cohesion” in France this winter.

The letter begs people to begin “acting this summer,” on cutting energy and fuel usage, adding that this “will allow us to be better prepared to face next winter and in particular to preserve our gas reserves.”

Why is there a risk of shortage this winter?

In light of the war in Ukraine, deliveries of Russian gas to France and other European nations via pipeline have been significantly decreased. Thus France, like the rest of Europe, is attempting to fill its gas reserves in preparation for this upcoming winter. The goal is to have French gas reserves at 100 percent by this fall

As Americans prepare for ‘driving season’ (when many families use their cars to go on vacation) and China begins to relax some of its lockdown measures, the world oil market is looking at high demand that may not be in line with current production capabilities. 

France is a relatively small consumer of Russian gas, but does depend heavily on domestic nuclear plants for energy – production of nuclear energy is however threatened by two things; droughts that mean shortages of water for cooling purposes at plants and maintenance issues that have lead to several plants being temporarily shut down for safety

Concern for adequate energy resources has been on the minds of energy providers for several years, according to the manager of France’s Electricity Transmission Network (RTE).

France has been anticipating that the winters of 2018 to 2024 would be “delicate” as this is a pivotal period for energy transition after several coal-powered plants were closed. France’s oldest nuclear plant, Fessenheim, was also shut down and disconnected from the French grid in 2020.

As of late May, almost half of France’s nuclear reactors were offline due to planned closures, as well as issues related to corrosion.  

What is the real risk of shortage this winter?

“There is no risk of shortage in the short term,” assured France’s Ministry of Environment in May, as there are up to “90 days worth of strategic stocks, as well as commercial stocks, which can both be distributed throughout the country as needed.” 

Experts like Professor Jan Horst Keppler, from Paris-Dauphine University, also do not anticipate a widespread shortage, though, “potential spot shortages are possible.”

Horst Keppler clarified that it is not possible in many cases to substitute one quality of oil for another, which could mean that some refineries may experience “spot shortages.” Therefore, he urged that consumers and providers will have to pay close attention to “the availability of gasoline, diesel and heating oil” even more so “than the availability of crude oil.”

Other European countries, however, are sounding the alarm. Germany, for example, will return to coal-powered energy in order to meet demands this winter. 

What are the energy companies doing to combat risk of shortage?

According to their statement, the heads of France’s top energy providers accept their “responsibility to act on the supply side” by implementing short term plans such as “diversifying gas supplies, proactively filling storage facilities, speeding up liquified natural gas (LNG) imports, and reactivating ‘mothballed’ facilities.”

Additionally, the leaders hope to launch a “major energy efficiency program” and a “national hunt for waste.”

In addition to ensuring adequate energy stocks for the winter, the three leaders also urge the French public to consider reducing consumption as a means for increasing household purchasing power in the fight against rising cost of living, as well as an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also said that reducing energy “immediately” will show solidarity with other European nations at greater risk, particularly those in Eastern and Central Europe.