by Thierry Vissol, Economist and historian, director of the Libex Center at the Giuseppe Di Vagno Foundation
With great relief for the French Republicans of the Right or Left and for the Western and European allies of France, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected president with a large majority of the votes cast: 58.54%. This is beautiful victory that far exceeds the latest forecasts of the pre-election polls.
It is a victory that—due to the very high level of abstentions and white and invalid votes (34.2% of those registered on the electoral lists)—some would like to minimize, or even insinuate that it does not give them the necessary legitimacy to govern. Thus, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, commenting on the result, affirmed that Macron is “the most poorly-elected president of the Fifth Republic.” In fact, according to him, “Madame Le Pen and Monsieur Macron have just over a third of the registered voters.” This is a statement far from reality, according to the results both in terms of votes cast and in proportion of registered voters, that is, 48.7 million people.
Comparative analysis of the results since the first election of the president by universal suffrage in 1965 shows not only that Emmanuel Macron has achieved an excellent result, but that his challenger’s score is certainly not the best obtained by a defeated candidate. The following two tables show this.
In terms of votes cast, Macron-2022’s score is only lower than that obtained by himself in 2017 and the exceptional result obtained by Chirac, in 2002, against Marine Le Pen’s father. It is much higher than that received by all other presidents, including the result achieved by De Gaulle in 1965. Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, in 1974, won by a very narrow margin (50.8%) over his feared rival Mitterrand, like the latter against the VGE in 1981 (51.8%). However, no one questioned their legitimacy.
Taking into account the abstentions, blank ballots and invalid votes, it is true that Macron’s result (38.5%) only surpassed that of Georges Pompidou in 1969 (37.6%). However, it is very close to those of Chirac in 1995 (39.4%) and Hollande in 2012 (39.1%). On the other hand, the result of his rival, although very high (27.3%), is only higher than that obtained by his father, Jean-Marie Le Pen (17.8%), in 2002 and his own in 2017 (22.4%). Finally, unlike her father or the 2017 election, like Macron, the president of the Rassemblement National benefited from votes from the barrage républicain (the “republican barrage”). After the first round, she had a potential of 11.3 million votes. You got 13.7 million, or 2.4 million more, representing 4.7% of registered voters. Most of them voted for her not to agree with her ideas, but to block Macron. This relativizes her score, even if it doesn’t bode well for the future. More than a relative victory of the far right, these barrage votes in favor of Marine Le Pen, combined with abstentions and white and invalid votes, i.e. 38.9% of the electorate, constitute a serious warning to the young president, whose personality, considered arrogant, and his politics at the origin of the yellow vest movement, arouse the antipathy or even hatred of many Frenchmen.
The French constitutional order: attention to the confusion of roles
As in previous presidential elections, the candidates’ campaigns were based on proposals for political programs, as if their implementation were the exclusive responsibility of the President of the Republic. However, according to the 1958 Constitution, to which both candidates said they were viscerally attached, this is not the case. It is true that the president has many powers: he chooses and appoints the prime minister, chairs the Council of Ministers and can dissolve the National Assembly, moreover, he is head of the armed forces (Article 15) and responsible for foreign policy (Articles 14 and 52). However, France is a parliamentary republic: it is the government, not the president, “who determines and conducts the policy of the nation” (Articles 20 and 21), and the Parliament (National Assembly and Senate) which votes the laws (Article 39). The government, but not the president, must be accountable to parliament, which can censor it. Thus, in domestic politics, the power of the president is limited, even almost non-existent if he does not have an absolute political majority in the National Assembly. This is illustrated by the three periods of cohabitation between a president and a prime minister of different political orientation: Mitterrand with Jacques Chirac (1986-1988), then with Edouard Balladur (1993-1995) and Chirac with Lionel Jospin (1997-2002). Even when there is a presidential majority, the prime minister has room for maneuver. He can oppose the president as was the case with Jacques Chirac, prime minister of Valéry Giscard D’Estaing (1974-1976) or Michel Rocard, prime minister under Mitterrand (1988-1991). Finally, the Senate, co-legislator, can obstruct the proposed laws desired by the president and his government if his majority differs from that of the Assembly.
Emmanuel Macron (like Marine Le Pen had she been elected) is by no means certain that he will have an absolute majority in the National Assembly, as he had from 2017 to 2022, given the fragmentation and radicalization of the political landscape into three mutually hostile blocs ( table 3) highlighted during the first round of elections and the importance of abstentionists.
The uncertainties of future parliamentary and senatorial elections
The president’s ability to advance his domestic, foreign and European political agenda will therefore depend on the outcome of the parliamentary elections scheduled for 12 and 19 June 2022 and the Senate elections to be held in 2023.
The Senate, currently with a moderate right-wing majority, will be renewed on the basis of an indirect election. The constituency is composed, in addition to the members of the two chambers, of the elected regional and departmental politicians and of delegates of the local elected representatives. The latter were elected in 2021 and will only be renewed in 2028. Despite a very high abstention rate (around 66%), the political composition of regional, departmental and local institutions is rather traditional with a moderate right-wing majority (around 44%), a strong presence of the moderate left (about 36%), a weak center (about 17%) and radical left or right marginal parties. It is therefore likely that the composition of the Senate will not be very different from the current one and will not give the president a majority. This will represent a first obstacle. Indeed, the laws must be adopted by consensus between the two chambers.
Legislative elections are held on the basis of a single-member system with two rounds. Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM), and its centrist allies (the Democratic Movement and the Union of Democrats and Independents) currently have an absolute majority. Those of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise) and Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) are marginal, with 17 and 8 deputies respectively (out of a total of 577). It is clear that, given the results of the presidential elections, the composition of the Assembly will be very different, even if the voting system always tends to disadvantage extremes and small parties. In the event of a ballot between a representative of a moderate party and one of a radical party, the “republican barrier,” even if limited, will come into play again. Given the large local and regional presence of traditional parties, extremist parties are likely to be downsized and their number of deputies will be much lower than with a proportional system.
The uncertainties are unlikely to be resolved, even if the different parties supporting President Macron manage to win an absolute majority. He will have to make concessions to the parties in his coalition. Moreover, whatever the result, he will have to face a wall of mistrust and radicalism among the citizens: the protest vote represented more than 60% in the first round. The level of anger is such that many are ready to take to the streets again to press their demands. As already highlighted by the “yellow vests” movement, the sociological analysis of the votes shows the existence of a large number of fractures in French society: generational, territorial and social, and the standard of living between what is today called the “France above” and the “France below.”
Another rift will limit its action on European issues: a large majority of French people voted for explicitly Eurosceptic parties (42.3% of members, 59% of voters). More radical, the voters of the Rassemblement National and de La France Insoumise (45.1% of voters) voted for candidates who explicitly promised in their program that the French Constitution would become superior to European law, following the example of Hungarian illiberal leaders and Poles currently in power.
“Je vous ai compris!” (I understand you!) …
On 1 June 1958, following the military uprisings in Algeria and Corsica in favor of French Algeria (the “putsch of Algiers”) De Gaulle was appointed Prime Minister by the National Assembly, under the terms of the Fourth Republic. He went to Algeria the next day. On June 4th, he gives a speech in front of a large crowd. He began with this phrase that will go down in history: “Je vous ai compris!” (I understand you!). He continued: “From now on, France considers that, in all of Algeria, there is only one category of inhabitants: there are only full-fledged French, full-fledged French, with the same rights and the same duties.”
Although it would be anachronistic to compare Macron to De Gaulle and the situation of France in 2022 with that of 1958, the impression given by his victory speech on Sunday evening 24 April, at the Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower, can only recall the “Je vous ai compris!” by De Gaulle. He claimed to have understood the anger that was echoing, and acknowledged that it was well founded. He promises to find effective answers that would leave no one on the sidelines. He assures that his politics of him will be inspired by the benevolence and respect of his opponents, and he demonstrates this by silencing the boos of the public against those who had voted for his rival.
Contrary to 2017, and while he is president of the Council of the European Union for the first half of 2022, this EU theme during the campaign was much less developed and, when it was, it was to associate it as a guarantor of “greatness, of sovereignty, and the values of France.” In his speech about him, the theme was only touched upon, demonstrating that he understood the reticence of his compatriots and that their concerns were mainly linked to purchasing power and to territorial and generational fractures. It reflects a return to the centrality of the problems of the nation and its citizens and explains the symbolic choice of the Field of Mars to celebrate its victory. On the one hand, Mars symbolizes the god of war, so this choice seems to justify the strengthening of the military apparatus wanted by Macron in this period that he defines as that of the “return of the tragic.” On the other hand, it was on this square, around an “Altar of the Fatherland,” that the “Fête de la Fédération” took place on 14 July 1790, a great revolutionary feast to celebrate the united body of the “one and indivisible” nation. In 1794, the painter Jacques-Louis David organized the “Feast of the Supreme Being” around an artificial rock on top of which was the tree of freedom, symbol of the unity of the nation. It is this tree of freedom that is reproduced on the national side of the 1 and 2 euro coins, inserted in a hexagon (symbolizing France) accompanied by the motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the democratic values of France that the president claims to represent and defend.
However, this “Je vous ai compris!” will be felt as such only to the extent that it will materialize—from the beginning of the five-year period and the new legislature—with “effective” actions in terms of purchasing power, inclusion and development of rural areas and ecology. Indeed, the unquestionable successes of his policy during his first term, particularly in economic and job creation or foreign and European policy matters, do not seem to have had the expected success of esteem, even if they have largely contributed to his victory and should not be downplayed.
Concluding his speech, Macron acknowledged that the next few years will be anything but peaceful, citing in passing the war in Ukraine. They will not really be, given the geopolitical, climatic, economic and social context—neither for him, nor for France, nor for the European Union. Let’s just hope that President Macron has enough influence and power within France and within the EU to prevent these coming years from becoming tragic.
- The Constitution of the Fifth Republic, currently in force, was commissioned by De Gaulle, in agreement with the Parliament to ensure the stability of the government. It was adopted, via referendum, on September 28 with 79.25% of the votes in favor, and promulgated on October 4, 1958. De Gaulle will later be elected President of the Republic by an electoral college including the African and Madagascar Community, that is including the French colonies.