Opinion
Subscriber Only

Macron broke French politics – now he must fix it

Centrist has promised to end France’s two-party system designed by de Gaulle

Both candidates for the “parties of government” that have alternated in power since 1981 failed to make it to the second round of the French presidential election on May 7th.

It’s an unprecedented event, though Gaullists and socialists have known dire moments before.

When Charles de Gaulle left office in 1969, the socialist candidate, Gaston Defferre, won only 5 per cent of the vote. In 1974, Gaullist candidate Jacques Chaban-Delmas was thrashed by a young centrist called Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Some are comparing Emmanuel Macron, the centrist who won the first round on April 23rd, and who is likely to become president on May 7th, to Giscard d'Estaing.

The two-party system that de Gaulle designed to preclude instability and extremism has exploded

Until Sunday night, the worst defeat the socialists had known was the elimination of their prime minister, Lionel Jospin, in the first round in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front National (FN), faced Gaullist Jacques Chirac in the runoff.

Despite multiple name changes, the Gaullists, now called Les Républicains (LR), always recouped and returned to power. So too did the socialists (PS). This time may be different. The two-party system that de Gaulle designed to preclude instability and extremism has exploded.

The first-round campaign targeted the hated “system” embodied by LR and the PS.

Each candidate has his or her own definition of "the system". For Marine Le Pen, "It's . . . a disconnected caste that functions for itself."

Knows ‘the system’

In his book Révolution, Macron attacks the "political and media class that form a people of sleepwalkers . . . the same faces . . . talk about the same things, the same proposals."

Macron has argued that as a former presidential adviser and former cabinet minister, he knows “the system” from the inside and is best able to reform it.

The disintegration of LR and the PS is partly an optical illusion. LR lost largely because of Francois Fillon's greed. The Gaullists still have a broad, if divided, following. Macron's movement, En Marche!, is to some extent a reconstitution of the social democratic wing of the PS.

Had Fillon withdrawn from the race six weeks before the first round, at the height of his financial scandals, to allow another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, to replace him, Juppé, not Macron would probably be facing Le Pen in the second round, with the near certainty of becoming France’s next president.

The official socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, won a humiliating 6.36 per cent in the first round. His elimination liberated socialist officials who rushed to support Macron.

The socialist president, prime minister, the ministers of foreign affairs, the environment, education and agriculture, all endorsed him. The PS officially called on party members to vote for Macron.

"The socialists had a brilliant idea," Jean-Marie Le Pen told France Inter radio this week. "They realised they couldn't re-elect Francois Hollande with his record, so they thought up this unknown, masked man, and created the legend of Emmanuel Macron."

Gaullists and socialists thought the primary system they imported from the United States would unify their parties

Over the past decade, both parties discredited themselves with poor leadership and poor results in office. But they were also victims of broader trends: the decline of social democracy, the rise of the extreme right, and the emergence of an alternative left in much of the western world.

The extremes who overthrew the old established parties will not disappear. If Macron defeats Le Pen on May 7th, she will wait in the wings, poised to take over in five years if he fails.

Nor will Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate of La France Insoumise, (France Unbowed), who won three times as many votes as the official candidate Hamon, go away.

Three challenges

Gen de Gaulle’s institutions have been dynamited. Both Macron and Le Pen promise to introduce a degree of proportional representation that will favour multiple parties. France will no longer be a two-party system.

In the twilight zone between the two rounds of the presidential election, LR and the PS are grappling with three challenges: who will they vote for in the runoff? How can they salvage the maximum number of seats in legislative elections in June? And how can they rebuild over the long term?

The PS have answered the first question. For LR, it was harder. Moderates wanted to endorse Macron, but hardliners obtained a compromise whereby LR voters were told to vote against Le Pen, which could mean voting blank.

Gaullists and socialists thought the primary system they imported from the United States would unify their parties. Instead, it exacerbated divisions between social democrats and more left-wing PS frondeurs or rebels. True to their cult for leadership, LR divided between Sarkozystes, Juppéistes, and Fillonistes.

Those divisions remain raw in defeat, as politicians fight over the crumbs of their long powerful parties.

Both parties contain factions that are compatible with Macron’s centrist ideology, and factions opposed to him. Macron’s ability to manipulate the broken pieces may be the first test of his presidency.

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent