Regional elections are never very exciting political events. Often however they are telling of what comes after. Perhaps this is a way of reading France’s regional elections in June 2021.
President Macron’s political party effectively lost. Marie Le Pen’s far-right party also lost. And so, the political movements of the two leading candidates in the Spring 2022 presidential election were told by the French voters that they need to change their policies or rhetoric or both. Some political forces did well in the regional elections, but their paths to the Elysee palace is long and the time remaining before the election is short. Yet, perhaps the most notable take-away from this election is the general lack of interest of French voters. Only 30 per cent bothered to cast their vote - in a country that’s one of the pillars of western democracy.
This is the telling part. France is undergoing a period of ennui, in which its energy is not directed; it is weary and often seems languid and lethargic. Many observers are tempted to shun French politics and to focus instead on the major change that will take place in its neighbour, Germany, when Angela Merkel leaves the chancellery in September 2021.
But France must not be ignored, for under the ennui there lie serious risks, not only to France.
The first risk is a political explosion a la Brexit. Here a slight majority in France decides to punish the political class by catapulting a leadership of the far-right - or close to the far-right - to the Elysee. This will mark the effective end of the current Republic and the beginning of a new phase of France’s political life. It will also have major impacts on the functioning, and future, of the European Union.
The second risk is that French voters reject all of the established political forces in the country, and opt to try an unknown. Here an adventurer without political backing, institutional gravitas, or a serious experience comes to the fore, and on a wave of public disillusionment arrives at the Elysee. Such an adventurer, like many throughout history, would see him (or her)-self as a hero representing public anger and endowed with the legitimacy to direct that anger towards channels he sees apt.
The danger here is that history has repeatedly taught us that such adventurers always lead their countries to perilous paths, returning from always proves costly to the entire society, in terms of resources, time, and the bitterness of the experience.
The third risk is political fragmentation. That is, the results of the regional elections convince the key political forces in the country that none has the reach and credibility in front of large enough constituents of voters to achieve a majority. In this scenario, we see unnatural alliances between forces that differ significantly in political positioning, economic policies, and in their views of the future of France and its society. The risk here is that these alliances end up backing presidential hopefuls who do not represent any of the constituents of the alliances. The result becomes an executive authority that effectively represents the hopeful who ends up at the presidential palace, because the alliances behind him (or her) lack anything in common. Such an executive authority is always weak, unable to push through difficult policies, particularly important reforms.
We have seen several of these risks manifest in Europe in the past decade. But France is different. Indeed France is no longer the economic power it was, relative to how others (in Central and Eastern Europe) have developed in the past two decades. France also is no longer the decisive force in European politics, whether inside the Union or externally when it comes to any collective European position in international relations. Yet, France remains the heart of the European project, and at its core the idea – and ideal – of European liberalism.
Some observers dismiss such intangibles as irrelevant, and focus instead on political influences on specific issues, on tangible economic metrics, and on aspects of hard power. But dismissing soft power is a grave mistake in political assessments.
France’s unique place in European culture gives its politics special importance. It is true that the unification and then integration of a united Germany, and later its slow but confident emergence to become the motor of European politics and economics, has been the most important story in Europe since the end of the Cold War and the true rise of the European Union in the past thirty years. It is also true that Anglo-American political economy ideas have shaped the thinking behind the most influential policies of the European Union in the same period. Yet, deep at the core of Europe’s view of itself, French ideas, views of the continent and of the world, ways of doing things, and crucially ideals about what is good and right, have resided, and have shaped the essence of what Europe, as a political collective, wants to be.
If France got seduced by the illusions of far-right ideology or by a Don Quixotic self-styled saviour, its return route from that experiment will be costly and lengthy, for itself and for the whole of Europe. Not only will Europe see a disruption to its political navigation compass, Europe will also slowly come to sense a dilution of all that is beautiful and refined and that inspired a resuscitation of its collective identity in peacetime. And as beauty and refinement retreat, ignorance and coarseness will come closer to the recesses of its collective psyche.