L’Alternance Impossible

26 April 2022

There is no such thing as one-party democracy. Alternation in power must exist as a possibility. While Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory on Sunday was unequivocally a victory for French democracy, it nevertheless raises a problem. For the time being, the French electorate is divided into three major blocs. There is one bloc on the extreme left, another on the extreme right, and a third in the center. The farther one moves toward the left of the spectrum, the more intolerable a victory of the far right becomes, and vice versa. Hence by default the center will win every election, even if a substantial majority of voters are unenthusiastic about its policies or even hostile to them. A presidential system is more compatible with a bifurcated electorate than with a tripartite one, which tends to create an artificial dominance of the center. This is the perverse equilibrium with which France has been left by the convergence of the center-left and center-right in the “ni droite ni gauche, mi-figue mi-raisin” politics of Macronism.

The legislative elections are unlikely to disrupt this equilibrium entirely. We haven’t yet got much data, but what we have suggests two possible analyses. A Harris poll suggests that Macron’s LREM will hold on to its majority in the National Assembly because of the logic outlined in the first paragraph, with the repulsive force of the extremes pushing reluctant voters toward the center. But the same Harris poll also suggests a different logic if the parties of the left can reach agreement on a united approach: if LFI, EELV, PS, PCF, and NPA can unit, Harris intimates, the left bloc will command 36% of the vote, compared with 31% for the far right, 8% for the right (LR, UDI), and 24% for the center/right (LREM, MODEM, Horizons [Philippe’s fledgling party], and LR). If LR seems to you to be counted here twice, you’re right, but this is the way Harris has chosen to present its data. Given the “triangular” structure of the legislatives, where not just the two top candidates but also any other candidate receiving more than 12.5% of the vote proceeds to the second round, this bloc structure leaves room for some bargaining among all parties interested in reducing the Le Penist representation in the AN.

Of course this assumes that the left parties can come to an agreement among themselves. The idea that a united left can be conjured out of thin air by arithmetically combining the scores of the various left groupings has often led analysts of French politics into the most serious of errors. In the past, ideological differences have been the stumbling block. Today, personal differences may outweigh ideological ones: Mélenchon, whose ego can always be counted on to block out the sunlight, is insisting that he’s the suzerain to whom the others must bow. It was somewhat disconcerting to watch Ségolène Royal on LCI on Sunday insisting that Mélenchon had “earned” the right to dictate his terms to the broader left, while Manuel Valls equally adamantly tried to insist that the future of the left lies with Macron (no doubt eyeing a portfolio for himself if he can somehow deliver on that promise).

I’m not making any predictions, but I do think this would be an excellent time for Macron to remember the “ni droite” part of his self-description. He’s already given the right everything it wants except retirement reform, and as Laurent Berger of the CFDT reminded him today in a Le Monde op-ed, he’s going to need allies to govern effectively. Macron says he wants his second quinquennat to focus on youth, education, health, and the environment. His choice of prime minister will be crucial here, and he could signal his intention to honor his 2017 commitment to the left, so far observed only in the breach, by tipping his hand before the legislative elections. This could head off any flight to the extremes and alter the calculus in the triangular bargaining. The next few weeks should be revealing.


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  • It isn’t just Segolene. Jadot is increasingly at odds with his own party, the Greens, in his opposition to Melenchon. See the interview today in Libe with Julien Bayrou, a leading figure in the EELV. The closer Jadot moves towards Macron, the closer he comes to splitting the Greens. In which case a new faction would ally with the Insoumis. After Bruno Le Maire’s remarks threatening to put in the “reforms” on retirement by presidential ukase, I think there is some interesting political motion going on.

  • Massilian says:

    “His choice of prime minister will be crucial here, and he could signal his intention to honor his 2017 commitment to the left (…)”. I can’t imagine a left-wing prime minister at all. I can’t think of anyone credible, open-minded, non-dogmatic, non-opportunistic, experienced and reasonably popular. Only Manuel Vals can imagine himself as Macron’s prime minister. But what is left of the “left” in him? To be totally sincere, given the situation we are in, I would prefer une Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet de droite , but who is not just another banal and flunky technocrat, rather than a “left-wing” prime minister, but which left-wing?

    • Arthur Goldhammer says:

      I am not suggesting that he take a leftist retread. My hope is that he will look outside the political class for a person with a left-wing sensibility–a climate scientist, perhaps, or a scholar, or a physician, or an educator. He says he wants to emphasize the environment, education, health, youth. He can further those goals by choosing the right person. Valls is certainly not the the right person. NKM has undeniable qualities, but she would be seen as yet another bow to what used to be the right. He needs to send a strong signal of choosing a new direction.

  • Fabien says:

    Seems a bit of a contradiction to argue first that Macron has rendered any alternance impossible by being too centrist then to argue that he has gouverned too much to the right and should veer left. Doesn’t the result of the election confirm that it’s the first argument that is right ?

  • FrédéricLN says:

    Just my 2 cents regarding Matignon… We had a discussion in summer 2017, with a non-LREM Député, about “what will be Macron’s greatest problem”. According to me, his “too cold” blood, his poker face. According to him, Macron’s dependency on globalized finance — e.g. the French community of the City of London, or would we say now — McKinsey. If these two assumptions still hold, can the person of a Prime Minister close one, or both, of the gaps? Does someone exist with a heart that big, fully independent from “the finance”, who would feel in perfect agreement with Mr Macron (and conversely) so that they would work as a good pair? I can’t easily find the person. (I bet once, zero cent for sure, but a tweet, on my friend Christophe Béchu’s chances. But I ignored he was too near of Édouard Philippe. Success in managing a city remains the best test: in France, apart from Matignon, municipalities are the place where ‘les merdes volent en escadrille’).

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