French President Emmanuel Macron can claim to have just about scraped through the closest thing France has to a mid-term election. After months of street protests against his economic reforms and his perceived detachment from the problems of regular French people, Macron’s progressive pro-European party came in second place in Sunday’s European Parliament elections, with an okay-ish 22% of the vote. His anti-EU nemesis Marine Le Pen came first, but only by a hair, winning more or less what she got in 2014. The big surprise of the night came from the Greens, who came in third.
What’s remarkable here is how badly the establishment center-left and center-right parties did – their combined score of around 15% was only slightly higher than the Greens’ – and how much identity politics has replaced traditional economic fault-lines in the French electorate. This doesn’t mean a big political earthquake short-term: There isn’t much pressure on Macron to reshuffle his government or scrap his reform agenda, and the lawmakers he sends to the European Parliament will end up cogs in a broader coalition-building machine. But divisions are becoming entrenched for the longer term.
The top three parties offered completely different visions of Europe and France’s place within it. Le Pen’s party no longer wants to dump the euro, but it dreams of gutting EU institutions and empowering national governments to pick and choose what they want out of Brussels; it is virulently anti-immigrant and also promotes a kind of France First economic “patriotism.” Macron’s party advocates “more Europe” but is also anti-Le Pen, progressive and pro-environment, wooing urban professionals rather than the working class. The Greens are the standard bearer for non-material idealism once owned by the French left, with a lot of pull among young voters.
These scores suggest the French electorate weren’t just voting on economic issues, or on Macron’s track record as a reformer. The Gilets Jaunes and Brexit were lower down on the list of voter preoccupations than issues like climate change and immigration, according to a pre-election poll by Kantar. The dismal performance of far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose open support for the Yellow Vest protesters and contempt for Macron’s economic reforms netted his party less than 7% of the vote, shows the limits of bashing the rich. Le Pen has eclipsed him in the identity wars.
The strategy of the center-right Republicans had been to reinvent themselves as a “values” party, sailing deeper into Le Pen-style waters with talk of Europe’s roots and identity. “Since adopting my ideas as [their] own, they’ve effectively given me double the speaking time,” Le Pen said of her rivals. They came in behind the Greens. It’s ironic that at a time when the French public debt is close to 100% of GDP, the Republicans are more known for their conservative stance on social issues than for any fiscal policy stance.
Macron’s movement, which drove a wrecking ball through establishment parties by explicitly picking from both right and left, has narrowly avoided disappointment and is clearly still a viable political force. Le Pen, pitching herself as the alternative to everything Macron stands for, has cemented her opposition role. And the Greens have attracted a new generation of voters. The economy didn’t loom large in these elections; perhaps that is a victory of sorts in itself for Macron. But when the next downturn hits, or if Macron’s reforms fail to bear fruit, it will be a more polarized electorate that responds.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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