French president Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party lost the country’s recent municipal elections and thus, commentators said, he’s more vulnerable in the 2022 election even though there is no visible candidate with a chance to beat him.
But logic isn’t necessarily how politics works, not least in France. Nothing is ever permanently won or lost in political life and the trend of events is not necessarily a straight line. As social scientists say, “trend is not destiny.”
A victory too great can create the conditions of a subsequent defeat. Or, in this case, Macron’s stark defeat at the local level could actually increase his chances for re-election in two years. The commentariat may be right that he’s in greater trouble now, but it’s worthwhile to imagine how the coming French presidential election could be decided by paradox rather than rounding up the usual suspects.
There’s no obvious candidate of Macron’s quality. What about Marine Le Pen, whom Macron defeated in the runoff last time? The national-populist right’s old war horse hangs on, but barely. She’s still seen as Macron’s likeliest runoff opponent but this just shows a lack of political imagination among the commentators.
Le Pen has worn out her welcome even on the Far Right. Her campaign performance in 2017 was particularly disastrous. In her single television debate with Macron a few weeks before the vote, she disgusted even long-time supporters, people who for decades had supported her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front party.
She appeared remarkably ignorant in economic matters, mean if not vicious politically, and totally out of her class intellectually. Her struggling party, renamed the National Rally, may in fact abandon her, or she it. A new populist party might be thrown together, perhaps with her own niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, as a candidate. In any case, Macron is unlikely to be beaten by a hard right national-populist candidate. As in 2017, even hardened left-wing voters would support him against any far-right candidate.
Nevertheless, Macron’s position is weaker in the sense that in the past few years he’s lost a certain number of voters and deputies on his left. Being in government naturally uses up political capital.
But he continues to hold the center/center-right. The traditional conservative right parties haven’t yet recovered from Macron’s surge in 2017. (François Fillon, candidate of Les Républicains in 2017, was just last week sentenced to prison for corruption.)
On Macron’s other side, the once-formidable French left made up of Socialists and Communists is moribund. Except for the Greens (see below), the old French left is a rudderless group of has-beens and wannabes, including the “France Unbowed” surge movement led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, a political anti-capitalist buffoon who won nineteen percent in the 2017 first round. (Understanding die-hard French left voters takes special skill.) With a few more votes, the equally unprepared Melenchon rather than Marine Le Pen could have been Macron’s runoff opponent.
But there is indeed something new in France’s historical dance with political precariousness. The very large Green/Ecology social-cultural movement, which ran as a coalition, Europe Ecologie Les Verts, had a completely unexpected triumph. It took several big cities in the elections, including the second largest, Marseille, where a long-time right-wing coalition was ousted.
Looked at from Macron’s re-election calculation, the Greens are not yet a looming disaster because there’s no single outstanding Green leader at the presidential level, although one may emerge. There’s not much time for this to occur but remember that Macron himself leapfrogged everyone in 2016-2017.
An imposing Green candidate would score higher than Le Pen or any other far right candidate in the first round and go into the runoff against Macron. Let’s be even more imaginative: it’s conceivable, given Macron’s decline in the polls, that a convincing Green candidate could beat Macron himself on the first ballot. But which one would win the runoff? Don’t bet against Macron.
Macron has made mistakes but he’s a serious, surprisingly courageous political leader. He’s put through difficult reforms, for example changes in worker protection rules and pension plans, moves with an eye on the long term at the expense of short-term difficulties.
This hasn’t increased his popularity—instead he got the usual corporatist trade union opposition and then the Yellow Jacket movement, which was the culmination of years of problems not of Macron’s doing. And now he’s been hit politically by the pandemic as well.
Macron has also lost appeal because of his sometimes arrogant, impatient temperament. But compare him to others: among the major European leaders only Germany’s Angela Merkel makes him look unusually difficult. French voters have a long history of spiteful attitudes toward politicians.
And Macron hasn’t been able to shake off the sobriquet, “the president of the rich,” when he originally had a brilliant retort. “I don’t want to be the president of the rich”, he would say, “I want to be the president of those who want to get rich,” meaning motivating entrepreneurs and the start-up sector.
In sum, it’s possible that the Macron/LREM defeat in local elections is less than meets the eye. Politics is paradoxes and zig-zags, the one who defeats you today may be doing you a favor for tomorrow.
If France were to elect a genuinely capable Green president, that would be good for everybody. It would be as well or better if Mr. Macron, who is green in all but name, pulls through, has a successful second term and ultimately gets credit for a job well done.
This article was originally published on Real Clear World.