PARIS – The Elysee Palace has sent out messages of disappointment following the narrow defeat of the liberal coalition at the hands of the French far-right in the European Parliament elections but, behind closed doors, there will perhaps be a sigh of relief that the results were not as catastrophic as pollsters had suggested.
President Emmanuel Macron, who backed a liberal alliance that included his Republic on the Move party (LREM), headed into the elections in bad shape, dogged by slumping public opinion polls and the continuing fallout from the massive yellow vest protests against his presidency.
Firebrand nationalist Marine Le Pen’s victory was tempered, however, by the fact her National Front (FN) had already arrived on the European stage back in 2014.
Fully aware he was facing a political headwind, Macron on Sunday was either staring into catastrophic defeat or a lighter one that, although damaging, would not necessarily put an end to his time in office.
Le Pen’s National Rally (NR) – as she rebranded the FN in a bid to soften its public image – pipped the Macron-backed coalition by just nine decimal points in the vote, which translates to the same number of seats in the European Parliament once the United Kingdom leaves the bloc, which is ostensibly penciled in for Oct. 31.
During the campaign, Le Pen, whose family name is synonymous with the French far-right thanks to her father and FN founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, said that defeat for Macron in the EU vote would predicate his duty to step down.
By the time results were coming in, however, she had already changed her tune, saying France’s parliament should be dissolved for new elections, although she fell short of asking for France’s youngest ever head of state to leave office.
Macron’s strategy to claim the progressive ground and Le Pen’s dominate the nationalist ground served to further diminish the power of France’s establishment as the traditional center-left and center-right parties sunk further into the mire.
The center-right, led by the Republicans, took just eight seats in the Brussels chamber, while the coalition that included the former governing Socialist Party (PS), secured a paltry six.
Macron’s success straddling the center ground in France depends on the collapse of the former megaliths of French politics, as does Le Pen’s.
The surprise success of the French Greens, which landed 12 seats, allows Macron to ponder the possibility of fishing for support among the country’s environmentally-minded voters, which he presents as compatible with his own politics.
So, those are the positive bits of news for Macron. But the truth is, he was defeated. Defeated in the first set of elections he personally focused a lot of attention on winning.
“He set a trap for himself, he wanted to intervene in the debate directly and he personalized it,” Marc Lazar, a researcher at the Sciences Po university, told French newspaper Liberation. “He has lost and appears defeated because he set himself that challenge.”
For Lazar, the anger that prevails in much of France made itself heard in the European elections.
Macron also suffered from the side-effect of trying to dominate one side of the political spectrum.
By creating a dual choice between progressivism and nationalism and by cutting back the power of the traditional political parties in France, he has inadvertently given Le Pen a stage as the only viable opposition option in a bitterly divided political landscape.