The week Jupiter fell to earth

PARIS

Jupiter has fallen out of orbit. For the first time perhaps, French President Emmanuel Macron was left speechless. Reeling from a stunning defeat in the parliamentary election, France’s golden boy, who prided himself on having an answer to every question, remained silent for days (as of press time, he hadn’t been heard from since Sunday).  

But the reverberations of his loss have echoed throughout the political system. Newly appointed ministers will have to resign, party big shots have been stripped of their power, and the weekly government meeting held on Tuesdays has been canceled following Macron’s failure to secure an outright majority in the runoff vote.

Though his coalition secured 245 seats and became the largest group in the National Assembly, he was deprived of a ruling majority — a rare occurrence in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. He also faces two forces in opposition: the far-left alliance NUPES with 131 seats and the far right with 89 seats. France’s parliament looks set to be paralyzed for the next five years, with Macron’s centrist troops likely to endure political sniper fire from both sides of the aisle.

For Macron, who theorized a “Jupiterian” approach to the French presidency — governing not through political horse-trading and arm-twisting, but through symbolic gestures setting the terms of the debate — the fall has been hard and sudden. The first sitting president to be reelected since Jacques Chirac in 2002, Macron was expected to have a free hand to do whatever he wanted in his second and final term. Instead, his ambitions for reform have been dashed.

Just weeks earlier, some wondered what Macron’s second term would be like — perhaps he would set aside reelection concerns and focus on a legacy-building second term. Turns out, Macron 2.0 will be defined by the end of Macronism. His vertical, top-down style of running the country has met with rejection at the polls. His party lost 103 seats in five years, and political extremes exploded under his watch — with the far right posting historic gains.

“It’s clear that he has lost momentum,” said Olivier Rozenberg, a professor of European studies at Paris’ Sciences Po university. “We now see the limits of ‘Macron, the clever centrist,’ who always manages to pull through. Left-wing voters in particular feel that he is no longer able to protect them.”

The sudden and spectacular upset in the French president’s fortunes has left many wondering whether the political novice who rose to power against all odds has at last lost both his flair and his luck. In recent weeks, Macron has accumulated mistakes and made miscalculations that led to Sunday’s disaster at the polling booth: a lackluster, defensive presidential campaign, an ill-timed visit to Ukraine just ahead of the runoff vote, the appointment of a technocratic and uninspiring government, and the running of a near non-campaign for the parliamentary election.

“At the beginning, there was a real vision,” said Philippe Zaouati, an early supporter of Macron and former party official. “[Macronism] was new, it offered a political renewal beyond the right and the left… But the vision collided with the real world, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and yes, recently we have lacked vision.”

The full scale of repercussions following the defeat has yet to fully unfold — both for Macron, and the country he is tasked to lead. The newly appointed Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has flopped before she has even started the job. The far-left alliance led by firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon plans to table a no-confidence vote as early as next month, which the government could very likely lose. And parliament is expected to be nothing short of pandemonium.

Not just a rough patch

The setbacks have not only exposed the weaknesses of Macron’s approach to politics, they also put into question its very survival.  

Like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Macron straddled the left-right divide, coming from the left, but embracing liberal economy. And for a time, the formula delivered on its promise. Macronism was all about efficiency — it offered a new political template, ditched outdated ideological divides in an effort to get things done.

Macron notched a couple of achievements in his first term. He liberalized France’s employment laws, brought the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rate down to a 14-year low and is seen as having competently managed the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But in doing so, Macron marginalized France’s political heavy-hitters, favoring loyalty over political heft, and found himself ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead. His current government is a roll call of technocrats who lack the political clout needed to protect them and him.

It was not always so. When he came to power in 2017, Macron included some heavyweights from across the spectrum in his government, such as the conservative Edouard Philippe, the former minister François Bayrou and the socialist Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Macron now needs new allies. But his vertical approach to power, best illustrated by his management of the COVID-19 crisis behind closed doors, has left him isolated and exposed. 

It’s a problem that’s hardly unique to Macron. He’s not the first president to adopt a top-down approach in France, where presidents are often referred to as “Republican monarchs.” Coalition building and compromise aren’t part of the DNA that made up France’s recent presidential regimes.

But there’s something about the current occupant of the Elysée Palace that makes the impression particularly acute. There are the accusations of arrogance, the sense he patronizes those less fortunate in life, which makes it difficult for him to morph into a team player or convince others he is ready to make concessions to unite the country.

“There’s a lot of hatred against Macron,” said former French Ambassador Gérard Araud, speaking before the election. “In some parts of the population, particularly among those who supported the Yellow Vests protest movement, there is a gut hatred against him.

“It’s a political failure for him. His party En Marche was a new political movement. And yet, his style of governing was completely solitary. The great debates he organized [after the Yellow Vest protests] were an example of pure political narcissism. He felt the crisis was coming, and didn’t know how to answer it,” Araud said.

The French president came to power without following the traditional playbook — he had never been elected to office — and so he doesn’t have all the infrastructure that comes with having a traditional party to fall back on to buffer the difficulties ahead.

“The image of the president has been tarnished,” said political analyst Jérôme Sainte-Marie. “The advantage of parties of the right and the left is that crises can ultimately be overcome. When the political power is concentrated in one person, who has failed to build a party in recent [local] elections, it leads to situations where the president can get elected but not the MPs behind him.” 

The lack of a strong party is not just an issue of manpower, it’s also about ideas and having an ideology that people can rally behind when the going gets tough. Macronism was loosely defined as progressive, pro-European and pro-business; hardly a political vision, more a pick-and-mix of positions.

“Why was Macronism useful?”  said Sainte-Marie. “It was a way of imposing solutions, backed by France’s elites, a way of building an efficient majority to push through reforms that were supported on the left and the right. It was a propelling force for reforms, and it’s that model that is in crisis.” 

Macron’s opponents in the National Assembly on the other hand have bucketfuls of ideology. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally touts a return to the nation state, while Mélenchon’s leftwing alliance wants a new brand of socialism that will bring equality and beat climate change.

“The situation now is that the reformers are totally isolated and have built a wall against them, and nothing can be agreed on,” said Sainte-Marie.

From revolution to reinvention

The president’s lieutenants have tried to strike a bullish note in the wake of Sunday’s defeat, vowing to reinvent themselves in light of the results.

“Today we open a new chapter,” wrote Europe Minister Clément Beaune, who barely scraped past to save his seat on Sunday, on Twitter. “The French have voted. They have delivered us a flat pack without instructions. It means we’ll have to negotiate, do differently, move forwards.”

The malleability of Macronism — it is often defined as simply what Macron wants — might be a trump card he can use to pull through his post-electoral crisis. On Tuesday, leaders of the opposition parties were called to the Elysée to discuss the creation of new groups in the National Assembly.

If Macron is willing to redefine his ambitions, could France ultimately become more like Germany and learn the art of compromise?

In sketching out his vision for the Jupiterian presidency in 2016, Macron said France could not operate like Germany because it lacked that country’s “constitutional patriotism.” Sciences Po politics lecturer Olivier Rozenberg also thinks it’s unlikely because of France’s winner-takes-all election system.

“If parties and government are incapable of testing coalitions, it’s not just because of the political culture in France, it’s also because the two-round voting system encourages politicians to become more polarized, to stand out,” he said, adding that Macron’s potential allies the conservatives from Les Républicains fear “being gobbled up” by the stronger party.

That doesn’t mean Macron doesn’t have room to maneuver. Macron may put a gun to the conservatives’ heads and threaten to call an early election if they fail to back bills that have the support of their voters, such as pensions reform.

If that fails, he can focus on foreign policy, a preserve of the presidency. But without the credibility that comes with popularity and real power at home, even that might be a herculean effort. There is little doubt that the weekend’s drubbing at the polls has left Macron a weakened figure in the EU sphere — as a leader, he lacks the bipartisan support Italy’s Mario Draghi enjoys or the relatively stable coalition that underpins German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s term. 

As a disruptor who swept into the Elysée in 2017 on the back of a nontraditional playbook, destroying his country’s political establishment along the way, this won’t be Macron’s first rodeo with fearsome beasts to tame. He could yet deliver a surprise yet. But first Jupiter will have to get used to his new life among mortals.

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