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Macron’s foreign policy is likely to survive parliamentary upheaval

Posted By on July 9, 2024 @ 14:40

France’s foreign policy is likely to hold steady, at least in the short term, despite the surprising outcome of its elections finalised in a second round on Sunday, 7 July.

The failure of the National Rally, a far right party close to Russia and Hungary, to gain a majority in France’s lower house of parliament comes as a major relief for the country’s partners in the European Union and NATO. Founded in 1972 by nationalists and ex-members of the Waffen SS, the party, led by Marine Le Pen, has done its best to make itself presentable in the past decade, but many in France still see it for what it truly is: Vladimir Putin’s stooge.

The lower house, the National Assembly, will be fractured, and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition, Ensemble, will be unable alone to choose a new ministry. But the constitution gives Macron great influence over foreign policy, and, in any case, his approaches to some of the biggest international issues have widespread support among the various parties.

The National Rally seemed poised to win a majority in the National Assembly after the election’s first round on 30 June, but in the end it got only 143 seats out of 577, still a huge rise from its former tally of 89 in 2022 and yet more from its mere seven in 2017. Many French voters could not stomach a party that had repeatedly received as much as $17 million in loans from Russian banks, had found redeeming qualities in Bachar El-Assad, the Butcher of Damascus, and until February 2022 had openly supported Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.

Ensemble surprisingly resisted National Rally’s populist wave, coming second with 168 members of parliament in the lower house, far from its 2022 result of 250 but much better than anyone had expected. With 182 representatives, the unlikely winner of Macron’s gamble in calling the election was the New Popular Front. Formed in less than three weeks, this alliance of four left-wing parties is a diverse yet very dissonant coalition, including the France Unbowed (LFI) party, which alone has 70 MPs.

So the National Assembly is now divided into three major political blocks. This configuration is unprecedented in a nation that since 1958 has been used to governments dominated by one or the other of two very large, moderate parties: the centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialist Party.

The 7 July results were the latest in a series of tectonic political shifts triggered by Macron’s surprise 2017 presidential victory. Since no party has an absolute majority in the lower house, France is headed for a very bumpy ride until the next presidential election is held in 2027.

Under the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth French Republic, the country has a semi-presidential system of government in which the president and the parliament share power. Every five years, the president is elected by popular vote and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. The president appoints a prime minister and, on the PM’s recommendation, cabinet ministers. The resulting government must also secure the support of most MPs in the National Assembly to stay in office and pass bills.

So the new make-up of the National Assembly revives memories of the Fourth French Republic, of 1946 to 1958, a period of constant crisis amid minority rule and the rise and fall of 22 governments. No French politician wants to see that again.

Two key points now seem clear after the election. First, the French are expressing a profound dissatisfaction towards their political class that they have felt for 20 years. The result is the dramatic rise of the National Rally. France’s very generous social model is in open crisis, unable to answer the demands of many people for better healthcare, education and salaries.

These deep-running structural issues are unlikely to find a political resolution soon and will keep alive the possibility of a National Rally victory in 2027. They may also produce an outburst of street violence like the Yellow Jackets unrest of 2018 and 2019.

The conclusion from the election is that French foreign policy will probably remain unchanged. The constitution gives the president de jure broad powers in defence (he is chief of the armed forces) and strong influence in foreign affairs, a portfolio that has in fact been seen as the sole prerogative of the presidency since Charles de Gaulle occupied the position from 1958 to 1969.

Macron’s support to Ukraine, his commitment to EU strategic autonomy and his relatively moderate stance on Gaza are more or less shared by other political parties, with the notable exception of France Unbowed , which has been hostile to NATO and Israel and has called for immediate peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.

Although Macron seems set to maintain his great influence over French foreign policy, his MPs will need to work collaboratively in a divided National Assembly. Unlike other mature democracies, such as Germany, Belgium and Italy, history has shown that French governments do not work well in coalitions. The country is better known for its political volatility.

On 18 July, MPs will secretly elect the president of the National Assembly (the third highest office of the state), its managerial bureau and the presidents of the nine legislative committees. This occasion will test whether French parties can work together or whether they revert to sectarism and status quo.

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