President Macron’s Struggle to Unite the French Population
When Emmanuel Macron stepped onstage on April 24 following his victory in the 2022 French presidential elections, he seemed relieved and also humbled. “I know full well that many people voted for me not to support my ideals but to block the far-right,” he acknowledged. “This vote places a great responsibility on me.”
His words followed what had been a tight race for the presidency: Though Macron had a convincing win in the second round – garnering 58.5 percent of the nation’s vote and becoming the first French leader to win re-election for 20 years – support for his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, which came in at 41.5 percent, was also unprecedented.
This polarized result reflects a broader set of challenges that France has been grappling with in recent years. As the latest country report by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) highlights, a fragmented political left, rising frustration towards the political elite amongst large segments of the population, as well as the further radicalization of the extreme right have hampered consensus-building and sustainable policymaking in a period marked by growing globalization, Europeanization and the climate crisis.
Now, as the country heads towards its legislative elections – which will determine the distribution of parliamentary seats, and thus the degree of power the president will ultimately hold to push ahead with his political agenda – division and tension once again seem to be the dominant themes. While Macron’s renamed Renaissance party is currently slated to win a second parliamentary majority, polls suggest that Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) and the newly-minted left electoral alliance NUPES led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon will also increase their share of seats.
Against this backdrop, it is too early for Macron to breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, the success of his second term will hinge on how well he manages to reach the hearts and minds of those outside his centrist core voter camp.
Problems left over from his first term
From skyrocketing public debt, persistent youth unemployment, and costly necessary reforms in education and innovation, to trimming the unwieldy French public sector, improving the social integration of marginalized groups, and better and more swiftly addressing climate change – the major challenges facing France are well-known, varied and almost Herculean.
Although Macron has taken active steps to realize ambitious reforms across fronts as diverse as labor law, company law, school and university systems and anti-poverty law, these domestic successes have been unable to win over the increasingly skeptical French populace. As the SGI report reveals, in part this disenchantment is due the fact that his reform agenda – aimed at modernizing France’s administration, making the country more business-friendly and restructuring the expensive pension system for example – has thus far failed to sufficiently address voter concerns outside his centrist electorate. The French government has lagged behind in effectively reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, while the cost of living has continued to rise along with inflation rates. Young voters often feel excluded from Macron’s politics and struggle to find their priorities reflected in his agenda.
Expanding his policy portfolio to effectively address new social risks and climate and environmental concerns will therefore be key for the success of his second term, as will improving social dialogue with organized interest groups such as Unions who have blocked many of his proposed reforms in the past. Macron’s recent appointment of Elisabeth Borne – the former minister of transport, labor and ecological transition, with experience in negotiating with trade union representatives, as well as working for the center-left Socialist party – as prime minister is an important first step in this direction. It will be crucial for him to further expand his cabinet to include officials with well-tested, diverse expertise in these areas.
Reforming the rules of the game
While politicians fuel polarization among the French population, the institutional structure of the voting system also exacerbates this trend.
Members of the National Assembly are currently elected through a majority, two-ballot constituency voting system. Candidates must garner 12.5 percent of all registered votes to even reach the second round, a high barrier given generally low mobilization especially among younger and working-class voters. This means that large segments of the population go underrepresented. In 2017 for example, the RN was able to secure just 8 of 577 seats while Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise won 17.
When there is little overlap between a significant part of voters’ concerns and negotiations between democratically elected representatives however, opposition is often voiced through other channels – such as protests. This, coupled with Macron’s top-down governance approach, means that the current voting system sows the seeds for frustration and distrust towards the political elite, sparking confrontation and even violence on the streets.
So how to change the status quo? One option would be to introduce proportional representation into the voting system, thereby providing French citizens with more political choice and encouraging greater power-sharing between the executive and the legislative. Such an amendment is within reach of the president, who would require a mere parliamentary majority rather than a tweak of the constitution. In the past Macron even proposed introducing a dose of proportional representation but later shelved the plan.
Another reform could be to hold the parliamentary elections before the presidential vote instead of directly in its aftermath. The current arrangement fuels voter apathy and sparks bias in favor of the incumbent president’s party – switching the two could combat voter fatigue and thus encourage more diverse representation.
The president is well aware of the delicate balance he will have to strike to ensure a successful, sustainable second term. At the foot of the Eiffel Tower he declared his commitment to the country as a whole, not merely to a single camp. Now what he needs to do is heed his promises.
Antonia Pieper is a master’s student studying Social Policy and Social Innovation at Sciences Po in France. She has been part of the SGI team as an intern since May 2022.
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