This news is concerning for President Emmanuel Macron, who will run for a second term in spring 2022 and who is likely to face off against the far-right Marine Le Pen. Any number of outside challengers could emerge between now and then; Macron himself was barely a dark horse at this stage in the previous election. Yet, at this pivotal moment, when his party remains — at least for now — the only viable alternative to the far-right, it does not seem capable of inspiring any confidence. That, too, is a failure.
For weeks, as there is before nearly every French election, there had been talk of Le Pen’s recently re-christened Rassemblement National (“National Rally”) gaining a foothold at the local level in advance of the presidential election next year. But this didn’t happen. Le Pen’s party did not win power in any region and was humiliated even in the regions traditionally sympathetic to its anti-immigrant, xenophobic hard-line stance. In the most closely followed race, in the typically right-wing Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in the south of France, Le Pen’s candidate, Thierry Mariani, lost to the more mainstream right-winger Renaud Muselier, of the traditional Les Républicains party.
True to form, Le Pen blamed everyone but herself. “This evening we won’t win in any region because incumbents entered into unnatural alliances and did all they could to keep us out and prevent us from showing the French our capacity to lead a regional administration,” she told her supporters Sunday night, as the results became clear.
But the results also suggested a tough road ahead for the sitting president.
When he was elected in 2017, Macron promised a “revolution” in French politics. This was indeed the title of his campaign book that year, and the upheaval he vowed was based on transcending the traditional political cleavage of “right” vs. “left.” The new divide, both Macron and Le Pen believed, was “globalist” vs. “nationalist.”
Macron’s new party — first called “En Marche,” which carried his own initials, and later renamed “La République En Marche” (Republic on the Move) — won a supermajority in the French parliament in 2017. Each of its legislators had been handpicked by Macron, then not even 40 years old.
For a while, it looked as if there was some truth to this “revolution.” But soon, “En Marche” began to seem like less of a political force and more of an intractable blob, an incoherent mix of members who never had much in common and who were all too willing to engage in petty infighting. Eventually, public disillusionment came for Macron, as it comes for nearly every French president — even those who appear on the cover of Time magazine.
The Macron years have not been an inspiring period in France. To nearly universal applause overseas, the young president vowed numerous reforms, such as pensions and unemployment basics. Most of these have not materialized, but nearly all have triggered crippling protests and strikes, most notably the “gilets jaunes,” or “yellow vests,” in 2018 and 2019 — an increasingly violent, anti-elite movement sparked by a proposed hike in carbon taxes that Macron was forced to walk back.
Moreover, a string of Islamist terrorist attacks and constant culture wars have pushed Macron’s government to the right, but this seems an uncertain gamble. The leftists who supported Macron in 2017 feel betrayed. Meanwhile, those on the traditional right, who may be pleased with some of Macron’s policies, appear confused as to why his party would be a better bet than the traditional conservative party they’ve been with all along. Some candidates from those parties fared especially well in the regional elections; one of them, Xavier Bertrand, a conservative from the Hauts-de-Seine region in northern France, may run for president himself.
Macron, the incumbent, may still very well win reelection in 2022 against Le Pen, who, despite her poor showing in these regional elections, is likely to make a strong run for the Élysée Palace. But now the field is much more open than it might have been, and Macron’s grip on power feels less pronounced than before.
At the very least, Sunday’s results are a glimpse into the slightly longer-term future. They show two things: first, that the old divide of right vs. left may not be as obsolete as once thought. The second is that Macron’s “revolution” may not outlast the man himself.