In his first public remarks since parliamentary elections deprived his governing coalition of a majority, French President Emmanuel Macron called on France’s reinvigorated opposition blocs to come up with solutions to the political impasse in a televised address on Wednesday. But opposition forces on both the left and right have their own predicaments, and it remains unclear how willing – or able – they will be to work with Macron.
The political setback marks the first time in more than 20 years that a French president has lost an absolute majority in parliament. Although Macron’s Ensemble (Together) alliance remains the largest, with 245 MPs of 577 in total, the loss of his majority has forced the president to turn to coalition-building as he hopes to pursue his ambitious domestic reform agenda.
Macron on Wednesday implored the opposition parties to make “compromises” for the “sake of national unity”. But he also called for allies to emerge, saying Ensemble will have to “expand” its reach in parliament, either by “building a coalition deal or by creating majorities, bill-by-bill”.
However, the spirit of compromise is proving elusive: no party has taken up Macron’s offer. The president held two days of talks with opposition leaders at the Élysée Palace, including with far-right National Rally party head Marine Le Pen, to find a way out of the crisis. And while one of the most viable solutions would be an alliance between Macron’s centrists and the traditionally conservative Les Républicains, party leader Christian Jacob ruled out any deal and said his party prefers to remain in the opposition after talks with Macron on Tuesday.
Compromise as a guiding principle may also not sit well with Macron. With the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, Charles de Gaulle made the presidency into what many call an “elected monarchy”, placing at the heart of the Republic the old regime’s focus on a strong head of state who would have little cause to compromise. Macron – who took on the Gaullist mantle – was the Fifth Republic’s archetypically powerful head of state in his first term.
FRANCE 24 looks at the positions of the three big opposition blocs. To a varying degree, they all face obstacles in coming to a deal with Macron.
The republican front – the tendency of French voters to turn up in droves to vote against the far right in second round runoffs – did not make a strong showing in the parliamentary poll runoff: Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally, or RN) made a historic breakthrough, winning more seats than ever before. RN will be the National Assembly’s single largest opposition party with 89 MPs. Although the newly formed leftist coalition – the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (New People’s Environmental and Social Union, or NUPES) – has more seats at 131 – it remains an alliance of various leftist parties, not a party that will vote as a single bloc.
Le Pen will be one of the few big names sitting in this term’s National Assembly – and she is keen to make the most of parliament as her party’s foremost platform, handing over the RN leadership to her young protégé Jordan Bardella to focus on heading her bloc of MPs.
“Le Pen is intent on projecting an image of respectability and using her unexpected parliamentary strength to burnish her credentials as a serious national stateswoman with, already, the presidential race of 2027 in view,” said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University.
“To retreat into systematic opposition would not serve that purpose, so we can expect her to be open to working with the government on issues that align with her party’s agenda.”
But forming a governing pact with the far right remains taboo. “Let me be absolutely clear, there cannot be any alliance, even a circumstantial one, with the National Rally,” Macron’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune told Europe 1 radio on Wednesday. “We have no ideas in common with National Rally.”
“If Macron’s government were to look for support from RN, that would really be the end of it from the point of view of that government’s members,” noted Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University.
It would still look bad to pass legislation thanks to RN support even without soliciting it, Smith continued.
“The idea reminds me of one moment during the Fourth Republic when Pierre Mendès France was in office [as prime minister from 1954 to 1955]. Mendès France wouldn’t have anything to do with the Communists, and there was one vote his government only won thanks to them – but he refused to consider Communist votes as valid.”
The NUPES coalition – which formed in May to challenge Macron, uniting La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), the Socialist Party, the Greens (Europe Ecologie-Les Verts) and the Communist Party under the leadership of far-left figurehead Jean-Luc Mélenchon – more than doubled the score its various parties garnered in the 2017 round of legislative elections.
While ruling out any agreement with the far right, Beaune did not exclude the possibility of any deals with the far left, emphasising that Macron’s government is closer to “a pro-European Socialist Party MP than to RN”. Nevertheless, Beaune suggested the ideal coalition partner on the left would be nothing like the Euro-skeptical Mélenchon, who came third in the presidential elections and now heads the NUPES coalition.
Mélenchon declined Macron’s invitation to opposition leaders and instead sent one of his lieutenants to the Élysée Palace for Macron’s coalition talks this week, which was seen as a dismissive gesture. He then derided Macron’s TV address on Wednesday as a “ratatouille” – a southern French stew of various vegetables that offers something for everyone.
Macron has “few illusions” about the possibility of working with Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI), Shields said.
And fellow NUPES members the Socialist Party and the Greens could still not give Macron the all-important 289-seat threshold for a majority – they have 26 and 16 MPs, respectively, and are much weaker than LFI at 72 seats.
Socialist leader Olivier Faure lambasted Macron on Wednesday, saying he “decided things on his own” and “was accountable to no one” during his first term. But unlike Mélenchon, Faure implied the Socialists could work with Macron on some issues, saying it would be “quite healthy” if Macron could “negotiate” and “try to find points of agreement”.
Mélenchon’s desire to unite the left in parliament provoked resistance from more moderate parts of NUPES. This dispute would play in Macron’s favour if he tried to peel off some of the centre-left, Shields suggested. They even rowed over sitting together or separately in parliament, which “exposes the real nature of NUPES as a purely electoral arrangement lacking the ideological, strategic or policy coherence for a durable coalition”, so Macron can expect NUPES to “come apart now that it has served its electoral purpose”.
However, Macron has a vexed history with the Socialists – he was economy minister under their last president, François Hollande, before turning on his boss and seizing the Élysée Palace in 2017.
“There’s a residual feeling amongst the Socialists that Macron is the man who killed their party,” Smith put it. “So they’re kind of allergic to Macron.”
Many Greens also see Macron as a turncoat, Smith continued, but over policy issues instead: “They’re extremely cautious about Macron because he made big promises about the environment that didn’t really amount to much.”
The overarching trajectory of Macron’s first term presents perhaps the biggest obstacle to a deal with anyone on the left. Upon entering the Élysée, Macron picked his first prime minister, Édouard Philippe, and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire from France’s traditional conservative party, Les Républicains (LR). Then the centrist president moved rightwards, along with the centre ground of French politics, on issues like immigration and security.
Given that LR is the closest party to Macron ideologically, it has long been speculated that he would reach some sort of deal with them – rumours that intensified before the parliamentary elections, thanks to LR ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy heartily backing Macron in the presidential second round and meeting him at the Élysée Palace after his re-election.
As former US president Lyndon B. Johnson once said, the most important skill in politics is to be “able to count”. LR have the numbers to give Macron his majority – they won 61 seats in the parliamentary polls. This is shoddy by historical standards for this descendant of the Gaullist parties, but it’s a far better showing than expected for a party whose candidate, Valérie Pécresse, got a woeful 4.8 percent of the vote in the presidential election. The party has spent the last five years in the constricted ideological space between Macron and the far right.
Former LR leader Jean-François Copé called for a “pact” with Macron as the second round results came in. Such an agreement would offer the “most coherent way out of the parliamentary impasse”, Shields noted.
But LR’s current (albeit outgoing) leader Christian Jacob ruled out such a deal following talks with Macron on Tuesday – after repeatedly doing so during the campaign.
Many Les Républicains MPs have a lot in common with Macron politically and see themselves as belonging to the natural party of government, much as the British Tories do. “Jacob is on his way out, he’s served his term, and his pronouncements are about preserving the best role possible for LR in alliance with Macron. LR’s kingmaker role gives them a considerable opportunity to press their priorities, and it’s likely Macron will lean rightwards to court those Macron-compatible LR MPs,” said Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester, in an interview on Sunday.
Yet challenges lie ahead for any attempt at a Macron-LR deal. Not all Républicain MPs see helping the president govern as the best way of acting like the natural party of government once more. For some of them, Shields observed, this would mean becoming a “vassal party”.