When results started to come in on Sunday night, it was clear that French voters had delivered a humiliating rebuke to Emmanuel Macron’s political party in regional elections less than a year before presidential polls.
Rivals from the “old political world” Macron crushed in 2017 to win the presidency rejoiced. But in the president’s camp, the mood was downbeat.
“The movement is facing a huge challenge,” said Roland Lescure, a member of parliament for Macron’s centrist party. “We are five years old, and we don’t have many elected officials on the ground . . . It hasn’t gelled.”
The French president’s La République en Marche (LREM), which beat the established parties of left and right to win control of the National Assembly four years ago, secured about 7 per cent of total votes on Sunday — compared with an estimated 38 per cent for centre-right parties and 34 per cent for the Socialists and others on the left.
Regional governments have limited powers, mostly over transport and education policy, but the winners at the weekend sought to portray the vote as a rehearsal for next year’s elections and emphasised issues of nationwide concern such as law and order and the environment.
Xavier Bertrand, the centre-right winner in the northern region of Hauts-de-France, reiterated his desire to challenge Macron for the presidency next year. “This result gives me the strength to go and seek the support of all the French,” he said.
“La République en Marche doesn’t exist,” said an adviser to one of Macron’s rivals, who predicted Macronism would “turn out to be a parenthesis in French politics”.
Analysts cautioned that the defeat, although embarrassing, was unlikely to do lasting damage to Macron’s own campaign for re-election as president in 10 months’ time.
They underlined that the far-right Rassemblement National party of Marine Le Pen — until now seen as Macron’s main rival for the presidency, as she was in 2017 — had also underperformed, failing to win control of a single regional council with about 20 per cent of the national vote. They also highlighted the record low turnout — only a third of French voters cast a ballot.
“This [the poor LREM showing] will not necessarily be a problem in a national election, when there will be a very strong focus on the personalities in the campaign,” said Christèle Lagier, assistant politics professor at Avignon university.
“[Macron’s] LREM has really struggled to engage in elections other than the presidential one,” said Emile Leclerc, research director at polling group Odoxa. “But it’s a presidential system . . . and Macron today is more and more popular — almost 50 per cent in favourable opinions, which is high.”
Even Macron’s supporters, however, do not deny the significance of the regional election defeat or the need to rebuild LREM as an effective electoral machine.
Macron’s insurgent campaign in 2017 as a candidate of “neither right nor left” and his presidential election victory at the age of 39 took French politics into uncharted waters from which it has yet to emerge.
If Macron is re-elected next year, no one knows whether voters will follow the practice of the past 20 years of then choosing a National Assembly dominated by the president’s party to implement his agenda. If they do not, this would force Macron to nominate a prime minister from a different political group, in a system known as “cohabitation”.
Lescure was cautiously optimistic. “Hopefully by the time (the presidential election) comes around, people will become impassioned again,” he said. “The more likely scenario is that there will be a majority [for the president] but it will be more fragmented than the one we had in 2017.”
“It will be trickier than it was then,” he reckoned.
Whatever happens to Macron, the future of his LREM party is uncertain. It could disappear in case of defeat next year, or fade away a few years later after the two presidential terms allowed by the constitution.
It did not help that Macron weakened his newly formed party after winning his first election in 2017 to provide himself with advisers, ministers and MPs. Nor that key members of his government — including prime minister Jean Castex and foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian — were taken from the traditional parties of right and left, undermining the idea that his party offered a fresh start from the past.
“It was not really a political party that burst into French politics, but an individual — Emmanuel Macron,” said Odoxa’s Leclerc. “If there were no Emmanuel Macron, if he were to leave French politics, then the party would collapse completely.”