Jockeying for Position in the Void

3 July 2024

The outcome of Sunday’s second round remains unpredictable. The désistements have made it even more improbable that the RN will win an absolute majority … unless, of course, voters decide not to act as the automata that the logic of “republican discipline” supposes. It may turn out that left-wing voters will find the prospect of voting for a centrist or rightist candidate so unappetizing that they stay home, or vice-versa. The various changes of tune that have filled the airways since last Sunday–les extrêmes ne se touchent plus, disent les uns; les désistements, c’est l’anti-démocratie, disent les autres–may demobilize more than they mobilize.

There is another great imponderable. As unruly as France often appears, at bottom the French detest disorder. A country with 350 cheeses may be ungovernable, but go to any cheese shop and you’ll find all the varieties neatly displayed in orderly array and a fromager with a firm set of opinions about which cheeses can and cannot be served with which wines and dishes. The only party with a chance of forming a majority is the Rassemblement National. How many voters will cast a ballot for the devil because Hell, after all, consists of nine well-ordered circles arrayed in strict hierarchy, to which the alternative is a cacophonous chaos from which who knows what might emerge?

This longing for a return to order is already visible in the declarations of independence issued by those erstwhile stalwarts of la Macronie, Édouard Philippe, Bruno Le Maire, and Gérald Darmanin. Before the dissolution, all three had been quietly contemplating their best route to the presidency in 2027. But it was still too early to make a move.

Dissolution forced their hands. Despite having rallied opportunistically to the “ni droite ni gauche” when Macronism was in the ascendancy, all three were clearly awaiting the chance to announce that the old watchword was now inoperative and the new one was simply “ni-ni.”  In other words the old left-right cleavage was back, the enemy was now “the two extremes,” placed on a footing of equality, and they represented the traditional, nay, the mainstream, nay, the reasonable, nay, the governmental right.

Well, peu importe the adjective, one could sort that out later. The important point was that these three represented, in their own eyes, at any rate, the respectable right, the frequentable right, not the … collabo right, the Nazi right, the fascist right. In hindsight, it was clear that they had erred in allowing that crucial distinction to slip away by allowing the very concept of “the right” to be absorbed into Macron’s shape-shifting notion of a “startup nation”–that is, a right that no longer stood for the party of order but rather for the party of rapid and disruptive economic change. To run on their own, these three perennial contenders must rebuild the idea of a conservative right from the ground up. And doing that begins with declaring independence from Macronism by forcefully embracing the ni-ni. As they have now done.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Attal has also been searching for a new identity, but it’s far from clear what new costume he can don after Sunday. He has been moving, tentatively but unmistakably, to distance himself from Macron. HIs position is now the following (as enunciated on France Inter this morning). Freely extrapolating from what he actually said, I would render his thought as follows: “You have nothing to fear from the left, because LFI cannot form a government on its own, nor can the New Popular Front. They will have to compromise with my friends and me, and you can trust us now, because we, too, are victims of Macron’s dissolution and machinations. Equating the extremes was his idea. We–my friends and I, the Young Center, as it were–are ready to work with the left, the reasonable left, and if there is to be a rebirth of politics in this country, it can only come from a restoration of what Macron purported to supplant: a contest between the center-left and the center-right. Exactly how far to the left the ‘reasonable’ center-left will lie is one of the stakes of this election. Make sure that the next National Assembly is not ungovernable by ensuring that a workable opposition to the RN, which will clearly hold the relative majority, can be assembled after the dust settles.”

And then, on the left, where confusion reigns, a new hope has arisen in the form of Marine Tondelier, the leader of the Greens, who had a good night on TV last Sunday, largely because she found the right words to dismiss the Macroniste Aurore Bergé, who tried to defend “the extremes are equivalent” position, not realizing that it had been rendered inoperative by the first-round vote. It’s not at all clear that Tondelier is ready to accept the mantle that was so abruptly thrust on her shoulders. But the left is desperate, because none of the alternatives to Mélenchon seems ready to step into the breach. Faure has his moments of eloquence and the requisite esprit de sérieux, but the charisma is just not there. Clémentine Autain remains perpetually in waiting. François Ruffin is on the verge of losing to the RN, and in any case his chief distinction is that his ambition, as burning as Mélenchon’s, led him to be among the first to break openly with the titular leader. And Raphaël Glucksmann is not a politician: this is his trump card, his moral advantage, if you will, but also his weakness, in that he is constantly outmaneuvered, as when it came to the allocation of candidacies in the first round: what did he represent other than a “sensibility,” while the party negotiators, who met behind his back, were in search of constituencies? And found them, giving the undeserved advantage to LFI.



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