France fragmented

  • Themes: France

Oppositional forces in French society have intensified. What were once cracks are now gaping holes.

French flag at Lichtenberg Castle in Alsace.
French flag at Lichtenberg Castle in Alsace. Credit: Jürgen Wackenhut / Alamy Stock Photo

On the first round, you vent your anger, on the second, you come to your senses. And, if there is any risk of the far right reaching power, the French reach for the handbrake and pull, fort, all at once. Something must be said about the benefits of France’s two-round voting system.

This is the fourth time my generation (born in the 1970s) has had to block the Le Pen clique’s path to power. In 2002 we barred the road of the Élysée Palace to the National Front headed by papa Jean-Marie Le Pen. Then, against Marine, Le Pen fille, in the presidential elections of 2017 and 2022. And last Sunday, we resolved to squash any hopes the National Rally might have to form France’s new government and achieve a majority, absolute or relative, at the National Assembly. We weren’t so sure the Republican Front could hold once again, but, in shock results, the National Rally came third (with 143 seats) behind the left & hard-left alliance (with 182 seats) and behind the presidential majority (with 168 seats).

If the Republican Front has proved less easy to construct each time, it is down to Marine Le Pen’s talent at ‘detoxifying’ the family brand. Since taking over from her father in 2011, she borrowed many ideas from the left in a kind of Gallic synthesis for postmodern times; she has made the party look almost respectable. In the last ten years, the rise of histrionic Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his hard-left ,with its violent rhetoric and antics in the streets of France, has made Le Pen’s task all the easier. Why do I talk of a Le Pen clique? Sisters, daughters, nieces and former husbands and partners, each plays a role in the party. In Scotland, they call it a clan; in Italy, they would probably call it a political mafia.

At 8pm sharp on Sunday 7 July, a wave of profound relief sprang from the French capital towards all corners of Europe. At 9.03pm, Prime Minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, tweeted: ‘In Paris enthusiasm, in Moscow disappointment, in Kyiv relief. Enough to be happy in Warsaw.’ Four minutes earlier, British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, who has two million more followers than the Polish PM, had tweeted ‘Vive la France!’ At the same time, in Budapest, Viktor Orbán was looking at his plane ticket, wondering if he’d get a refund for his flight to Paris. We now know that Hungary’s strongman had secretly planned to come to the French capital this week to visit Marine Le Pen and congratulate the young man who already saw himself as France’s next PM, Jordan Bardella. Orbán will have to wait.

After the joyful improvised marches in the streets of France on Sunday evening, after the last drop of wine had been drunk and euphoria had evaporated, our huge collective sigh of relief vanished. With a new dawn, came weariness and anxiety, on top of other uncomfortable feelings. The Jaurès think tank published an interesting poll. Since 9 June and President Macron’s decision to dissolve parliament, the French have felt four overwhelming sentiments: fear, sadness, anger and fatigue.

Fatigue at having to fight not just one political extreme, but two. Far-left supremo Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his inflammable ego is the elephant in the room. Part of the big problem France is facing is that the nation feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. Like the Roman tribune of the plebs he thinks he is, Mélenchon was the first to speak after the results. Flanked by his cohort of faithful caporals, who never tell him off for fear of being purged, Mélenchon declared that a new PM would necessarily come from his ranks and that the country had given him carte blanche to implement his (ruinous and fantastical) economic manifesto. As former French PM Jean-Pierre Raffarin reminded him immediately: ‘We voted to keep the hard right out not to vote the hard left in.’ A majority in his eclectic if not downright divided left alliance would agree.

Today, we are left with one big question: will the French political class play the game of a big coalition, ranging from the Republican right to the Socialists, with president Macron as the referee? This seems the only way forward now that no party holds a majority in parliament. I know, we are not Germans, we are not Italians, we don’t do coalition, but will we now when we don’t seem to have any other alternative? As the journalist Anne Rosencher put it: ‘Now that we all hate each other, there is only way out.’ Indeed.

President Macron decided to dissolve Parliament and asked his compatriots to take responsibility. Did they really want to have the country governed by the far right? He demanded clarification and his gamble paid off, in a way. No, after careful consideration, the French don’t want the far right, at least not yet, to take up the reins. What they want is for their politicians to stop working against each other but start working together. Is this even possible in such a polarised country? France has become increasingly fragmented and divided. The cracks appeared decades before Macron came to power. They first appeared when I was a teenager in the early 1990s under François Mitterrand. Only a few years after Le Pen’s National Front emerged on the national scene. No coincidence there.

Globalisation was not an issue then, but geography already explained a lot. Antagonisms began running deeper: rurality vs. cities, suburbs and the periphery vs. the rest of the country, integration vs. discrimination of new generations of immigrants, the rise of the religious vs. secularism. Oppositional forces in French society have intensified. What were once cracks are now gaping holes.

Unity, pragmatism, humility, competence, and team effort are the only way forward. That is, if we don’t want Le Pen & Co. to get closer still to the Élysée Palace in 2027.


Agnès Poirier