This year’s presidential campaign has thus far generated little excitement, but behind the scenes a remarkable party realignment seems to be well under way. This was underscored by three events this week: Eric Woerth abandoned Valérie Pécresse, the chosen candidate of his Republican party to announce his support for Emmanuel Macron; Rachida Dati denounced Pécresse’s candidacy as “nonexistent”; and Pécresse herself, recognizing her growing difficulties, finally decided to bend the knee and kiss the ring of Nicolas Sarkozy, who has thus far refused to endorse her and who has been widely quoted in the press expressing doubts about her personality (he called her a “Queen Bee”) and her skills as a campaigner.
Interestingly, Woerth criticized Pécresse’s campaign as trop droitière for its emphasis on immigration and insecurity–the themes favored not only by her rival Éric Zemmour but also by primary runner-up Éric Ciotti. In placating Ciotti for the sake of party unity, Pécresse has evidently alienated the Sarkozystes, including Sarkozy himself. Yet when they were in power, they were hardly bashful about emphasizing the same issues in order to ward off the challenge of Le Pen. Perhaps they feel that this year the split in the far right makes shoring up this side of the coalition unnecessary. Or perhaps it’s simply ambition talking: Woerth and/or Dati could be in line for ministries in a new Macron administration, and Sarkozy may well be looking for a presidential pardon before too long. They know where the real power is likely to lie after the April elections.
Fundamentally, though, what is happening is the party realignment that many expected after the 2017 election. It has taken a while, but this election and the legislatives that follow may mark the next steps. Macron has shown that the way to consolidate power in the center of the French political spectrum was not to create a centrist faction within the formerly dominant parties of the left or right but to split from them and reorganize around a charismatic but unclassifiable personality. Hollande couldn’t do it: he lacked the charisma; Valls couldn’t do it: he had made too many enemies; Juppé couldn’t do it: the right wing of LR was too powerful.
LREM is not yet a fully-fledged party; it lacks deep local roots and an effective organization, and the ideological allegiances of its elected officials tend in many different and incompatible directions. But, despite these shortcomings, it’s clearly going to remain a powerful force for the foreseeable future, as the actions of Woerth, Dati, and Sarkozy make clear. It’s not at all clear that the same can be said of LR. The demise of LR and the continuing dissolution of the once impermeable membrane separating the mainstream right from the far right mean that there will be a coming party realignment around two poles, a center-right and a far right.
Meanwhile, on the left, the Communist candidate, Fabien Roussel, has surpassed the Socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, in the most recent polls. That hasn’t happened in more than half a century. So the two parties that had dominated French politics during that long period may not be with us much longer. That is an important change, which bears further reflection.