Macron’s rightward shift is not without its risks

Macron’s rightward shift is not without its risks

French President Emmanuel Macron. (AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron. (AFP)
Short Url

Having chosen to focus on foreign policy since the beginning of his beleaguered second term, French President Emmanuel Macron has become increasingly beholden to right-wing sentiment due to his failure to win a parliamentary majority. The centrism and pan-Europeanism of his initial term has been sidelined, with his government now pandering ever more to the right-wing sentiment that made itself so evident during the 2022 election. Following a Cabinet reshuffle this month, this trend has now reflected itself in the makeup of the government itself.

Ahead of the 2022 presidential election, Macron rebranded his La Republique en Marche party as Renaissance in an effort to reclaim the political center. This was also in the hope of diverting voters away from the right-wing momentum of Marine Le Pen’s Nationally Rally and Eric Zemmour’s Reconquest, as well as the emerging threat of France Unbowed, the left-wing coalition led by Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Though Macron won the presidential election, the electoral challenges were sufficient that his party did not gain a majority in parliament and therefore Renaissance formed the “Together” coalition with other liberal and centrist parties, such as the Democratic Movement and Horizons, in order to form a government. Though Renaissance is a centrist, liberal and pro-European party, recent months have indicated a shift toward right-wing policies in a bid to court younger and more euroskeptic voters.

Recent months have indicated a shift toward right-wing policies in a bid to court younger and more euroskeptic voters

Zaid M. Belbagi

The new French Cabinet has eight male and seven female members, with nearly half of them having connections with right-wing political parties. This is an unprecedented level of right-wing influence, marking a clear shift. Those with links to the right include Labor Minister Catherine Vautrin, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu and Equality Minister Aurore Berge. The strong representation of rightist and center-right candidates in Macron’s reshuffled Cabinet has drawn attention from critics and supporters alike.

However, the appointment of Gabriel Attal as France’s youngest prime minister has been met with the most hesitation and criticism. Though ostensibly belonging to the centrist Renaissance party, a large part of Attal’s popularity as a public official is tied to several controversial decisions he made as education minister last year, including banning the abaya in public schools. Despite, or perhaps owing to, his Tunisian heritage, Attal has been keen to pursue xenophobic policies.

At the age of just 34, critics have pointed at his relative lack of experience, noting that his selection as prime minister was likely due to his popularity among right-wing voters. With polls consistently having shown young French voters to be more euroskeptic and nationalistic than their older counterparts, Attal’s appointment has been perceived as an effort to appease the younger electorate and limit the support for the far-right. Having selected a populist for the post of PM, as opposed to the more typical French selection of a technocrat, the trajectory of Macron’s remaining time in office is clear.

The reshuffle was followed by protests this week against a highly controversial immigration control bill that was passed by parliament last month but has not yet been signed into law by the president. Seeking to counter and control immigration to France, as well as reduce the benefits and protections available to existing immigrants, the bill has caused huge political divisions.

By calling for ‘civic rearmament,’ Macron is appealing to the right and risks alienating vast swaths of the country

Zaid M. Belbagi

In restricting immigrants’ ability to bring their families to France, limiting the access of non-EU nationals and unemployed foreigners to state welfare and removing automatic French citizenship for children born on French soil to non-French parents, the revised bill was only eventually passed with the support of National Rally. It caused great tension within the coalition, with Health Minister Aurelien Rousseau resigning in protest.

This sentiment indicates that right-wing and far-right parties will do well in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Taking place in June, the elections come amid a rightward political shift in the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Germany and Italy. Given France’s role within the union, the increased euroskepticism of the French electorate and the right-wing nature of the new Cabinet is of concern.

There is no doubt that Macron’s adoption of right-wing rhetoric and policies is an effort to court the right, while simultaneously empowering the center-right, so as to split Le Pen’s vote. Macron has defeated the National Rally leader twice, in the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections, but he cannot run again. Nevertheless, recent polling data shows that National Rally is ahead of Renaissance by 8 points. So, it may be that Macron is seeking to attract her voters, which will have the overall effect of moving the French political system further to the right.

Macron’s shift is therefore an appeal to the supporters of traditionally right-wing parties to lend support to Renaissance, a party that he is attempting to portray as the most appropriate reflection of the country and the politics of its coalition partners. By calling for “civic rearmament,” stronger law and order mechanisms and for “France to stay France,” Macron is appealing to the right and risks alienating vast swaths of the country.

By playing on traditionally right-wing narratives concerning the dilution of French culture due to the growing multiculturalism of society, Macron may limit Le Pen’s gains in the European Parliament elections and prevent a National Rally-led government in 2027. However, he is also highly likely to alienate his centrist and center-left supporters, who have contributed to the president’s two electoral victories, while also making France an altogether more intolerant place.

Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. X: @Moulay_Zaid

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view