Before the Parliamentary Elections: France’s Shifting Political Landscape

Frankreich Nationalversammlung

Am 12. und 19. Juni entscheidet Frankreich bei der Parlamentswahl über die Zusammensetzung der Nationalversammlung

© picture alliance/dpa/MAXPPP | Sébastien Muylaert

In the final stages of the election campaign, Emmanuel Macron had already announced a “new method” as the re-elected, and therefore “new”, French President. Looking at the political developments in the last few weeks since his re-election on 24 April, two decisions in particular are crucial to providing information on the continuity and change in the French political landscape and specifically on the centrist movements in France: the renaming of La République en Marche party as Renaissance and also the appointment of the new French government.

Tribute to Europe: En Marche Becomes Renaissance

“Today we are initiating a move to reform La République en Marche so that we can continue to expand this political movement, created by the President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron a little over six years ago, into a political party that will be called Renaissance”, explained Stanislas Guerini, the former Executive Officer of En Marche, who has since risen up the ranks to become a Minister, at a press conference on 5 May in Paris.

With Guerini’s entry into the new team of Ministers, the question of the leadership of En Marche, and respectively the future Renaissance movement, has finally arisen. Guerini cannot wear both hats and no longer has any particular desire to lead the movement anyway, indicated a spokesperson of En Marche. Until the leadership question is clarified, so until the parliamentary elections due to take place on 12 and 19 June, Marie Guévenoux, number 2 in the party, and Richard Ferrand, President of the National Assembly and Executive Board, are steering the movement on a transitional basis. Behind the scenes, hard work is already underway to find a successor, who henceforth will not only preside over En Marche, but also Renaissance. The initial outline of the new movement – which uncoincidentally bears a the same name as the centrist delegation in the liberal Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament – is already known: it will be a coalition between En Marche and smaller groups - Agir, En Commun and Territoires de Progrès.

However, it is unclear when the inaugural conference for Renaissance will take place, what its statutes will look like and who will lead it. One person is always mentioned in this regard: the incumbent Chair of the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament, Stéphane Séjourné. This close confidant of Emmanuel Macron and former political adviser in the Elysée Palace, belonged to Macron’s close circle of advisors during both presidential campaigns in 2017 and 2022. Now Macron has personally tasked him with restructuring En Marche into Renaissance - a task which, as the former campaign manager for the European elections, he will most certainly manage with success. If he really does find his way back to Paris, this would certainly not be greeted with very much enthusiasm in Brussels, given that in January 2022, Séjourné became the new Chairperson of the even younger liberal-centrist Renew Europe Group. Contrary to initial fears, the consensus-oriented Frenchman has settled well into the role of group leader and has built bridges between the different camps within the group.

New Liberal Party in Europe? Turmoil at the ALDE Congress

During the ALDE Congress which was hold in Dublin on June 2-4 after a hiatus of 3 years, uniting Europe's liberal parties, En Marche announced its intention to form a new pan-European centrist alliance.

The initiative would link Macron's Renaissance Alliance and other parties with the long-established ALDE party. The proposal was made in a letter signed by Stéphane Séjourné as well as Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and new Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob. The letter was addressed to Timmy Dooley and Ilhan Kyuchyuk, the ALDE co-presidents. However, Séjourné, who was present at the ALDE congress, declined to comment on details of the proposal. He thus made clear that Renaissance was interested in becoming a larger political force with ALDE. In any case, the surprise coup caused a lot of mixed feelings among those present at the congress, who saw the initiative (once again) as a French attack, similar to what happened in 2018, as the new study by the European Dialogue Programme of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Brussels on French European policy-making under Emmanuel Macron points out. Others see the proposal as a necessary step to overcome the internal divisions between the European Democratic Party (EDP), ALDE, and the other forces not yet affiliated to any political party within the liberal-centrist camp. Negotiations  generating trust are therefore necessary to ensure that the liberal forces are well positioned for the 2024 European elections.

New Government, New Method?

It took a whole month after the presidential elections before Emmanuel Macron first appointed his new Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and then set up the new French government. The French people, to whom Macron has promised not to simply continue as before but rather that he’ll start a “new” five-year term of office as a “new President”, are not used this level of caution at all. Accordingly, Macron and his political movement have received a lot of criticism that he had fallen into a state of lethargy, during which time other political groups, specifically the left camp, were hard at work forging new strategies. But how much renewal is there in the carefully assembled new government team? What is clear is that many top politicians have stayed in office, such as the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, Éric Dupond-Moretti as Justice Minister and Bruno Le Marie as Minister of the Economy, while others, starting with Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, have only changed portfolio. Nevertheless, a positive that should be stressed is that, with Borne, a woman is leading the business of the Executive and a few new interesting faces have also arrived, in particular the new Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who was the former French Ambassador in London and Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, who is responsible for Francophonie and International Partnerships. The Greek MEP had lived in France since 2007 before her move to Brussels and was previously better known in European expert circles, where she belonged to the French delegation of the liberal Renew Europe Group. In addition, Clément Beaune, who has traded various other ministerial posts in the meantime, was promoted from Secretary of State for European Affairs to Minister of State for European Affairs. With these two figures, the new team is steeped in European politics.

On the other hand, it is doubtful whether it is worthwhile carefully learning these new names when a portion of the government team could be replaced again: no fewer than fifteen of the twenty-eight members of government are up for re-election in the forthcoming parliamentary elections! In the event of defeat, they will have to step down, even though they are given quite good odds overall.

Priorities for the Second Term of Office: Purchasing Power, Pension Reform and Energy Transition

Emmanuel Macron has identified several priorities that he wants to tackle starting this summer and in the course of the coming years. Above all, this includes the topic of purchasing power. This was one of the main themes of the presidential election campaigns, specifically in the duel between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. As early as back in mid-April, Macron promised to pass a law this summer to support purchasing power. Furthermore, the law should oblige companies with substantial revenue to pay employees a bonus in one of two ways: either through profit-sharing or by paying them a purchasing power bonus. This bonus - also called the “Macron bonus” - was introduced in 2019 in response to the demands of the yellow vest movement. It enables employers to pay those employees who earn less than three times the minimum wage a bonus that is tax-free for employees and exempt from social security contributions for employers. Up until now, it was limited to €1,000, but Macron now wants to raise it to €6,000.

A further central intention under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Borne, which is due to be addressed after the parliamentary elections, is raising the legal retirement age from 62 to 65 years old. This is a polarising proposal for a large part of the French population, but social partners will be consulted in the decision-making. Several Macronistes would have liked the consultation, and the promised cross-party institutional reform committee, to begin straight after the presidential elections and, therefore, before the parliamentary elections. However, Emmanuel Macron appears to prefer to play for time.

Another long-running topic that has caused some explosions in French society, at least since the yellow vests protests, is energy transition, which was identified from then on as a top priority for the new government. Macron's aim of “ecological planning”, which is hopefully not the same thing as a state-led ecologically-planned economy, is henceforth in the hands of a trio of women. Two former ministers have been promoted to take on the two green portfolios, which will now be directly attached to Prime Minister Borne, to enable France to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Amélie de Montchalin will implement energy transition at national level, where the topics of housing, traffic and waste management are particularly important. Her Ministry also combines town planning, conservation and biodiversity. Agnès Pannier-Runacher will be responsible for future energy policy. This means that in France too, renewable energy has to be massively expanded by continuing to use nuclear power in parallel. With their rather technocratic backgrounds, it seems very probable that all three women will be committed to the goal of implementing ecological transition in a myriad of policy areas. Meanwhile, the non-governmental organisation Greenpeace has criticised the fact that the two Ministers Montchalin and Pannier-Runacher in particular do not have “any specific experience in their portfolio”. In addition, in 2018 Montchalin voted against the ban on glyphosate. However, as in many other regulatory areas, her justification is particularly significant here: she stressed the need of a European regulation on the matter. France should not go it alone. This goes hand in hand with the French government’s will to get fully involved in European climate and environment policy. The EU’s “Farm-to-Fork” strategy, which appeared in 2020 as part of the EU Green Deal, for example, provides for a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides and risks by 2030, although the update to the new Pesticide Strategy has been postponed for the time being, due to the imminent food crisis in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

The French Parliamentary Elections and their Role for Europe

Whereas Europe links the current governing majority of centrist parties and movements, which have grouped themselves together into the alliance “Ensemble” (“together”) for the upcoming general elections, attitudes towards Europe divide the “New People’s Ecological and Social Union” (“NUPES” for short), under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Before the coalition between the far-left La France Insoumise, the Communists, the Greens and the Socialist Party, the presidential candidate Yannick Jadot said that Mélenchon’s ‘Project for Europe’ resembles that of Marine Le Pen. Since his defeat in the first round of the presidential elections, Mélenchon has recommended himself as Prime Minister and he repeats this offer mantra-like with every media appearance. However, this coalition of different parties has by no means resolved the European question – on the contrary, it is openly admitted that attitudes vary on this, particularly on the question of the extent to which EU law should be breached.

In any case, the NUPES coalition has already succeeded in fading out the far-right voices of Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. The presidential formation En Marche is increasingly trembling: while a few weeks ago it had safely counted on an absolute majority, it is now likely to be a neck-and-neck race between En Marche and NUPES. The results of the first round of the parliamentary elections among French living abroad, which were published on Sunday 6 June, are casting their shadow. While En Marche is ahead by a majority, the Left Alliance made a breakthrough by qualifying for the second round in a full ten out of eleven constituencies - twice as many as in 2017, arousing suspicion to concern in the Macronist ranks.

As in the presidential elections in April, three blocs can be identified for the parliamentary elections: Macron's presidential majority is 28%, just ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Nupes (27%), followed by Marine Le Pen's "Rassemblement national" (21%), according to the latest Ipsos/Cevipof poll for Le Monde on 23 May. However, it remains unclear whether the electoral alliance Ensemble will have an absolute majority with 289 MPs.

To avoid a potential cohabitation, meaning the interplay between a French president from one political family fails to secure a governing majority in the National Assembly appoints a Prime Minister from the opposition, “Ensemble” will send joint candidates with François Bayrou’s MoDem and Édouard Philippe’s Horizons into the race with the aim of achieving a majority in the National Assembly.

It is expected that NUPES will establish itself as a strong opposition in the French political landscape; how sustainable this coalition will be, however, is still unclear. Looking at some of the left-wing group’s European policy ideas, cohabitation will hopefully be prevented.

Even if Macron’s concept of Europe – analysed in the new study by the Brussels office of the Naumann Foundation - is shaped by continuity rather than further disruption, there is enough to do in the coming months and years, and there are already plenty of ideas as to how the European Union can develop further in terms of its democratic structure and legal capacity to act. For example, the 325 ideas collected together on Europe Day on 9 May in the Conference on the Future of Europe’s report on the final outcome of a year-long citizens’ dialogue , include the creation of transnational lists (which are in the planning stage already anyway), a possible right of legislative initiative for the European Parliament, subsidies for organic farming, setting the voting age at 16 years old, better digital education and training, and the issue of unanimity in the Common Foreign and Security Policy. More than enough ideas that now need to be translated into concrete political measures and initiatives, which the French President will work on together with Germany and his European partners, without shying away from treaty changes that might be necessary.

Jeanette Süß is the European Affairs Manager in the regional office of the “European Dialogue“ of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels, where she heads the France section.