European elections: an uphill battle for Macron

Acumen is publishing a special blog series in the run-up to the European elections in May 2019. We start our tour of Europe with a closer look at the French political landscape.

#EUWhatsNext

Back in 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign had a very strong pro-European message. Macron turned up the volume on this in the final two-week run-off against Marine Le Pen (leader of the Rassemblement National, then called Front National). Macron’s win was greeted enthusiastically by European leaders. The German Chancellery spokesperson tweeted: “Your victory is a victory for a strong and united Europe, and for Franco-German friendship”. Meanwhile,  Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, declared he was “happy that the French chose a European future”.

Almost two years on, France's European future no longer looks so bright. 

Electoral problems for its key German partner meant that the ambitious EU reforms the French President wanted to set in train were stillborn. The rise of populism, demonstrated by the newly elected Italian government as well as government policies in Poland and Hungary, has served to blunt his European ambition.

At home, the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) demonstrations have turned into a broad social movement seeking tax equality, greater purchasing power and labour law changes. The French government has responded by launching a three-month public consultation on future reforms in environment and fiscal policies as well as public service and democracy – le Grand Débat National. It leaves little time or space for French politicians and citizens alike to think about Europe.

Reading the runes

The latest polls – from late January 2019 – show that the far-right Rassemblement National  (RN) would get 22% of the votes; Macron's La République En Marche (LREM) would poll 20%;  and 21% of the voters are undecided/may not vote. LREM might then under-perform in May compared with the second round of the 2017 legislative elections (49%). It will only announce its lead candidate after the Grand Débat National ends. Although Macron seems to have agreed to join the ALDE (Liberal) group in the European Parliament (EP), the term “liberal” does not play well in France so it might need rebranding. We’re now waiting to see how Guy Verhofstadt (BE, ALDE, current head of the ALDE group will deal with this.

Meanwhile, the RN has already nominated its lead candidate, albeit a 23-year-old who is almost unknown to the public at large.

The centre-right “Les Républicains” are estimated to get 12% of the votes, i.e. roughly 10 seats, compared to the current 20 MEPs within the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group, the biggest in the EP. On the left, the Parti Socialiste (PS) could be one of the biggest losers of this election, barely managing to get 1 or 2 seats compared to the current 12 Socialist & Democratic (S&D) MEPs. The Green Party should manage to maintain its current 6 seats, if it gets the projected 8% in May.

At a human level, it will also be interesting to see whether the French political system sees a generation shift in the MEPs elected in May. Although the official lists will only be published between April 21st and May 2nd, the initial announcements are a good indicator.

Arrivals & Departures

Interestingly, France has recently changed its electoral rules to adopt a national list per party: this means that candidates need to be favoured by the party hierarchy to obtain a good (aka electable position) on the party lists. This strongly favours politicians who are well known in Paris, rather than MEPs who are working well in Brussels.

Important figures will not run for re-election this year. Among these are: Pervenche Berès (S&D, member/ex-chair of the Economic Affairs Committee) who was first elected back in 1994  and largely worked on European economic policies; Alain Lamassoure (EPP/ex-LR, substitute member of the Budget Committee) who was first elected 30 years ago and is a former Europe minister ; but also Françoise Grossetête (EPP, long-standing member of the ENVI committee) who was a major player on the health scene and Eva Joly (Greens) who sprang to prominence in the fight against corruption and tax evasion (most recently as vice-chair of the TAX3 committee).

Civil society figures (as opposed to professional politicians) may well take their place in the EP hemicycle, with a Yellow Vest list being drafted as we speak. LREM has also promised to include grassroot activists in its list of candidates. 

All of this serves to underline that the French political landscape remains very fluid and may only become clearer in April-May. However, that might lead to low voter turn-out on May 26th. In 2014, a mere 42.5% of the electorate voted.  

What about the next French Berlaymont tenant?

The current French Socialist Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, oversees “Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs”. Before heading to Brussels, he was Economy and Finance Minister in President François Hollande's socialist government. However, Moscovici announced in October 2018 that he would not lead the French socialist party list (PS). He was thus clearly signalling to Emmanuel Macron that he would be keen to stay on in the Berlaymont. No reaction from the Elysée has been spotted – yet.

Although a few other names have been floating around, no one really stands out as a front-runner just yet. Some still support Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier as head of the next Commission should the Spitzenkandidat process get blocked. We might need to wait for the French to really get into campaign mode before any front-runner(s) emerge(s).

Quo Vadis Europa?

The upcoming European elections may not weaken the Macron government as much as some forecast, but they will almost certainly fulfil their traditional function and allow protest votes to make their mark. France should remain a strong voice in the Council post-Brexit but it is likely to find it more difficult to “punch its weight” in the EP due to the likely fragmentation in voting in May, thereby weakening its position in the major pan-European political groups.

 

 

 

 

Agnès Leroux is an Account Director at acumen public affairs.

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