What Do the Shocking Results of the French Election Mean?

Few who have been watching the French national football team pursue another Euro Cup—France defeated Belgium and awaits Spain—could be unaware of the contradiction lodged in the country’s fanatic affection for its team. Les Bleus, as they have been since their period of dominance began in the nineteen-nineties (two World Cups!), are a beautifully multicultural, multiethnic squad, which over the years has brought players of Congolese and Algerian and Spanish and many another origin into a stylish, cosmopolitan whole. Many possess dual nationalities, making them the kind of people that the extreme-right political party Rassemblement National (R.N.), which seemed poised to win a parliamentary majority and form a government just this past Sunday, has pledged to remove from at least some public-service roles. There it was, on the football pitch: the worldly and multiracial face of France as it is, playing for the country, while the insular and xenophobic face of another France appeared to be about to govern it. (Kylian Mbappé, the French captain, who is of Algerian and Cameroonian origin, urged a vote “against the extremes,” much to the disapproval of Marine Le Pen, the effective leader of the R.N.)

Remarkably—to some, astonishingly—the election produced a better outcome than one might have hoped for. Sunday’s result put the R.N. in a poor third place, behind the New Popular Front (N.F.P.) coalition of the left and the surprisingly scrappy centrist party of President Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s gamble in fighting the R.N. by dissolving the National Assembly, after the far right’s triumph in the meaningless but highly visible European Parliament elections, has to be declared, if not a success, at least not an absolute failure. (The Popular Front was called “New” in honor of the O.G. Popular Front, that of Léon Blum, the great Socialist—and Jewish—leader of the nineteen-thirties, and it united the left until the Nazi invasion put the far-right parties into power. That was, not insignificantly, the last time that they were.)

The key pivot of the election was, all agreed, the compact made by the “republican” parties of the left and the right to bow out in constituencies in which, despite having a legal place on the ballot, they chose to consolidate around an anti-R.N. candidate. Very much the equivalent of if Liz Cheney were to join hands with Bernie Sanders, the compact envisioned “voters of the left voting for the right, and voters of the right voting left,” as Raphaël Glucksmann, the leader of the social-democratic Place Publique, urged throughout the short campaign. It seemed unlikely to work, but it did.

Monday-morning quarterbacks—or, rather, center backs, in honor of their game—still have a hard time understanding Macron’s seemingly mysterious motives for dissolving the legislature, which was almost guaranteed to leave him, as has happened, with a much-reduced parliamentary presence. Yet perhaps it is not so mysterious after all. It may be that Macron believes he must always be on his front foot. The previous three Presidents of France—Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande—were all failures of various, and sometimes fairly absurd and undignified, degrees. (Only a few weeks ago, Hollande’s famous motor scooter, on which he had gone on midnight expeditions from the Presidential palace to visit the actress Julie Gayet—now his wife—was auctioned off for more than twenty thousand euros.) Chirac essentially lost his mandate after six months in office, and Sarkozy was overwhelmed in the public eye by the intricacies of his own domestic existence, which left him divorced and then remarried, to the chanteuse Carla Bruni. Whatever one’s appreciation of the unapologetic normalcy of French politicians’ love lives, it was hardly the kind of “Jupiter”-like show of royal loft that had been envisioned by President Charles de Gaulle at the start of the Fifth Republic. Macron’s weakness for pursuing politically unpopular projects is an expression—understandable on its own terms, if at times impetuous and often misplaced—of the kingly imperative of never being passive, never seeming weak.

Throughout the weeks leading up to the election, Glucksmann was a particularly poignant figure, pleading for his followers, in television and radio appearances, to embrace the idea of voting for people they don’t like in order to keep the real danger out of power. Those, including myself, who knew and loved his father, the philosopher André Glucksmann (and his passionately political mother, Fanfan), recognized that the son was trying to translate a significant piece of parental philosophy into practical politics: the idea that we can never know, or be able to define, what “good” is—that even asking the question is an epistemological error—but that we can always know what “evil” is, and fighting that is a sufficient task for any philosopher or politician. This notion, though, is not particularly seductive; “Vote for someone you don’t like to keep the worst away” is never going to be as appealing as “Vote for me to make the best happen.” The N.F.P. was burdened by its dependence on the extreme-left party La France Insoumise, led by the demagogic Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose campaign had been flecked with credible accusations of antisemitism. (Le Monde referred to “a slow poison, distilled drop by drop.”) It was further disfigured by his intolerant and narcissistic manner, so much so that his popular deputy, François Ruffin, had separated himself from the party, declaring Mélenchon an obstacle to progress and a burden to the left before Sunday’s election.

The final result, which has no one with an absolute majority to rule and a fiendishly complicated set of compacts and compromises to pursue, leaves formidable challenges. The N.F.P. insisted that its victory on Election Night is an endorsement of its program—a rather insulting thought to those who had been convinced that a vote for the N.F.P. was, above all, a vote against the R.N. Many commentators on French television, accustomed to more authoritarian and clear-cut arrangements, deplored the new reality of multiparty rule, calling it “impossible.” But, as Glucksmann pointed out, nothing could be more normal: fishing for votes for particular projects and forming improbable coalitions among unlike kinds are how parliamentary politics work in Spain, Germany, and the European Parliament itself. Instead of suffering in an unusual arrangement, Glucksmann noted, perhaps France had entered into a period of “normal” politics, without either a Jupiter (meaning Macron) or, as he added winkingly, a Robespierre (meaning Mélenchon). It may be that, just as all art aspires to the condition of music, as Walter Pater once famously stated, all politics now aspire to the condition of Italy, which has, in the postwar era, weathered tycoon authoritarians and far-right leadership without, for now, ever quite losing its way or its aplomb, finding improbable coalitions of common sense even in extremis.

No one in France—left, right, or center—has a good word to say about Macron right now. But no one in France ever has a good word to say about the current President, the sole exception being François Mitterrand for a few weeks after he won in 1981, and that was more from amazement that he’d pulled it off than admiration for a character already known to be dubious. Yet there’s a perverse sense, one maybe more visible to an outsider, that Macron—at too great a risk, perhaps, and with insufficient certainty that it would work—has won his gamble. Had he stayed in place and not dissolved the legislature, all the talk and fear and noise for the next three years would have been about the extreme right—ascendant, ominous, approaching power. A fatalistic note, already present, would have overwhelmed any other. For so long, the R.N. had been, as in a favorite Grand Guignol performance at the Luxembourg Gardens, the grand méchant loup who terrorized the trois petits cochons. But suddenly, for the first time in a long time, the extreme right looked weak and demoralized. (One could see, on the distraught face and in the mumbled defiance of Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s twenty-eight-year-old protégé, who currently leads the R.N., just how unprepared the Party was for defeat.) It had struggled to de-diabolise itself, and now it is, instead, demystified. As is the way with wolves, they (with the approaching Presidential run of Le Pen) may well return, but the grand méchant loup is, for the moment, defeated. This one is, anyway. ♦

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