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The French Right: Still Alive! by Hélène de Lauzun

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The French Right: Still Alive!

In the aftermath of the French presidential election, which led to the seemingly triumphant re-election of President Emmanuel Macron, some miserable people had come to believe that politics was well and truly dead in France. But as we pointed out in these columns just a few weeks ago, the French have the dual characteristic of hating to have their destiny dictated to them by the media (which is a little too keen to write scenarios in advance), and of waiting until they have fallen to their lowest point before trying to climb back up from the abyss. The result of the legislative elections of Sunday, June 19th, is a clear proof of this duality.

Despite the re-election of the outgoing president with 58% of the votes, the French people, by choosing their deputies, sent a signal that they did not wish to be locked into Macronism: they thus denied Emmanuel Macron the absolute majority in the National Assembly that he had enjoyed until then. The performance is worth noting, since Sunday was a particularly hot day that could have discouraged voters, who surprisingly turned out in record numbers. This past weekend, French voting facilities experienced higher mobilisation for the second round of the legislative elections than in 2017.

The French National Assembly now has a configuration reminiscent of the Fourth Republic, from 1946 to 1958: three blocs are in conflict, without any of them empowered to impose their authority on the others. 

A left-wing bloc is organised around the heterogeneous coalition of the New Popular Ecological and Solidarity Union (NUPES), which brings together the communist, socialist, ecologist, and France Insoumise party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But from the day after the election, these anti-system activists showed their inability to get along. The parties that make up this shaky team are already taking their autonomy back, making improbable the prospect of a unified vote by these deputies, who are divided between different rival groups. 

In the centre, we find what remains of the Macronists, which can rely on a base of about 245 deputies—that ‘swamp’ that French politics has seen on several occasions in its history: characterised as ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive,’ all the while refuting socialism in economic terms; representing a France that is Europeanist, Atlanticist, carried by uprooted and technocratic personalities with fleeting loyalties. 

On the Right, for the first time, the game is dominated by the Rassemblement National (RN), which has made a sensational entry into the Assembly with 89 deputies, i.e., more than the 64 representatives of the party of the classic governmental Right, Les Républicains (LR). The dreamed-of union of the Rights—which does not exist for either LR or the RN—promises greater numbers than a leftist coalition. But there is presently no indication that an Italian-style alliance is about to take place. The RN won on its own—and is happy about it. 

The configuration resulting from the elections will make the government’s task particularly difficult. Emmanuel Macron had made the famous ‘at the same time’ his political credo: an attempt to hold everything together through verbal acrobatics, even the untenable. Now, the game will prove more difficult. The ‘at the same time’ will have to give way to genuine compromises, to in-depth negotiations, sometimes to the Right, sometimes to the Left, depending on the needs of the moment. His roadmap is fairly easy to guess. He will engage in questionable societal laws—surrogacy (GPA) or euthanasia—which he can hope to pass with the support of the NUPES; but he will also have to spar with Les Républicains, whom he sorely needs to implement the reforms of his economic programme, and in particular, pension reform, which has been promised over and over again and never achieved. He faces a game of balances at which he has never excelled.

In this new configuration, the small LR group will play an absolutely decisive role. They are the new arbiters of the Assembly. They face a drastic choice: to either serve as a back-up to the Macronist majority, or to assume a true right-wing opposition. Will they assume the conservatism that more and more of the party’s traditional voters are calling for, but that the leaders are reluctant to embody? A Cornelian dilemma, as we say in France. Fighting for which ideal? Which cause should be sacrificed? 

The first elements of an answer to these questions can be found in the profiles of the Les Républicains deputies who were elected and escaped the party debacle. In their majority, they are clearly on the Right—and this is good news (those who defended a Macronist line, at the invitation of Nicolas Sarkozy, a former president of the Republic who had gone over to the centrist camp, have been disavowed). The right-wing line supported by Laurent Wauquiez, the president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region—the largest region in France after Paris—triumphed. All the deputies who have been loyal to him have been re-elected. The president of the Les Républicains party Christian Jacob seems to have understood the signal. As soon as the results of the legislative elections were announced, he said he did not want to be a spare wheel for Renaissance-La République en Marche and wanted to play the role of the opposition to the full.

On the evening of the election, a similar speech was given by Rachida Dati, a prominent figure of Les Républicains and the main opponent of the disastrous mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. She reminded us forcefully that Les Républicains are not dead: they hold the Senate as well as many regions and are deeply rooted locally; they are going to make a name for themselves; their strategy for the next few months should be clear: to win back the Right, the real Right. Will they have the intelligence to follow through on this intuition? If so, a boulevard is opening up before them. The very high score obtained by Éric Ciotti in the party’s primary for the presidential elections, when he was defending the most right-wing positions of his party, was a first sign of encouragement in this direction. The choice of the real Right is the condition of their survival.

And what about Reconquête? The Zemmourist epic ends in a fiasco. After receiving 7% of the votes for the presidential elections, the party of the former polemicist did not manage to obtain a single deputy. The return to reality after the exaltation has been harsh. Some personalities who had slammed the door on the Rassemblement National are helplessly witnessing the unexpected triumph of the political formation they had despised and rejected. The results of the RN leave a bitter taste in their mouths. Several press articles echoed the tensions within Reconquête. A feeling of waste, of having been used, only to reap opprobrium and defeat. Among the supporters of Reconquête, some claimed that Marine Le Pen had thrown conservatism to the winds. The results of June 19th however have doled out a cruel upbraiding. Some RN elected representatives are openly conservative—a qualification that did not prevent their election. Laure Lavalette, elected in the Var, is fiercely anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, participated in La Manif Pour Tous, and triumphed in Toulon. 

And what about Hervé de Lépinau? Father of a large family, Catholic, authentically conservative; he was Marion Maréchal’s deputy in Vaucluse in 2012, and stayed in the RN when Marion Maréchal left. He has just been elected in Carpentras. Meanwhile, the Marion-Maréchal tandem with Stanislas Rigault, leader of the youth movement with Zemmour, did not even make it to the second round in the neighbouring constituency. For the patriarch Jean-Marie Le Pen, who congratulated himself in an interview with Le Point on the victory of his daughter Marine, the Marion case can be summed up in a few words: “Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum.” Rarely has a political choice (like choosing to stand with Zemmour) proved as unwise as that of his granddaughter. 

In spite of his loss, part of Zemmour’s diagnosis remains valid: a real union of the Rights would have improved results in the recent June elections, and would have increased the 64 LR and the 89 RN deputies. But Zemmour was not the man to achieve this union, and he made the major mistake of underestimating Marine Le Pen, while reserving for her his most murderous blows. 

In the aftermath of the election, the Rassemblement National can legitimately claim triumph. Its thankless work, so often scorned, has finally paid off. Never before has the national Right achieved such a result in France, to the point of surpassing the governmental Right. New perspectives are opening up for the party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen. 

It is interesting to see how the eyes of many French journalists have become clearer over the last few days. They are discovering new faces, they are getting used to seeing people from the RN in the corridors of the Palais-Bourbon, and that changes everything. The Rassemblement National MPs will regularly take the floor in the gallery; they will sometimes even chair sessions. 

This is a real revolution.

Its position as the first opposition party gives it the legitimacy to ask for the presidency of the Finance Committee, a decisive position. As a sign that times have changed, the president of the Senate, Gérard Larcher, has declared himself in favour of the RN for this position. He believes that these elected representatives of the Republic should be respected, just like the others—triggering the ire of the Left, which notes with horror that the cordon sanitaire supposed to protect the institutions from the ‘extreme’ Right is in the process of breaking down.

The Rassemblement National is facing a formidable political opportunity. They can take root, convincingly exercise unprecedented responsibilities, and become definitively unavoidable. It is to be hoped that the amateurism and infighting that this party is all too familiar with do not spoil everything. 

Emmanuel Macron may be tempted in the coming months to dissolve the National Assembly to reshuffle the cards. In the meantime, the RN must use every day it is given to build itself as a genuine governing party, obtain rallies from the LR or, better still, work on an Italian-style alliance. The benevolence shown by Gérard Larcher is certainly not disinterested. 

Les Républicains are of course on the lookout to recover the right-wing electorate—and will be watching for the slightest misstep by Marine Le Pen’s party.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).