Analysis

Macron in second term will avoid domestic troubles to score wins abroad

  • Europe
  • France
  • Political and Country Risk

Macron in second term will avoid domestic troubles to score wins abroad

Gabriel Castillo


Emmanuel Macron on 24 April became the first French president to win re-election since 2002. During his first five-year term, the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protest movement and the COVID-19 pandemic hampered his domestic policy agenda. We look ahead to the June parliamentary elections and the likely domestic and foreign policy agenda for Macron’s second term.

  • Macron won with the reluctant backing of left-wing voters, and his Republic on the Move (LREM) party will likely obtain a weaker majority in the June parliamentary elections than it did in in 2017.
  • In a less likely scenario, an LREM parliamentary minority will lead to a broader coalition government, or Macron will find himself in a “cohabitation” period with a prime minister from another party.
  • In the next five years, Macron will continue to challenge Germany’s leadership of the EU by becoming its leading political figure on the world stage.
  • By focusing on foreign rather than domestic policy, Macron will bet his legacy on diplomatic successes, while ambitious domestic reforms on pensions or healthcare look increasingly likely to be watered down.

Second term

Macron on 24 April won 58.5% of the vote, defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who obtained 41.5%. In his victorious 2017 campaign when he defeated Le Pen more convincingly (66.1%), Macron was able to present himself as a relative political outsider, who had never run for office and whose only government job was as Minister of Finance (2014-16). Conversely, Macron in 2022 struggled to escape his image as an incumbent, whose free-market policies and strong crackdown on the gilets jaunes protests reduced his popularity among low earners and younger voters. Many of these voters, who favoured far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round (22%) of the presidential election, grudgingly voted for Macron in the run-off to ensure a defeat for Le Pen.

Uncertain legislative elections

The reduced margin of victory in the presidential vote indicates that Macron will face difficulties in the parliamentary elections on 12 and 19 June. All 577 seats of France’s lower chamber will be contested, and Macron’s LREM looks all but certain to obtain a lower number of seats than the 308 that the party won in 2017. Defections and resignations over the last five years have reduced LREM’s parliamentary representation to 267 (or 46% of seats), meaning that LREM in practice has increasingly relied on its centrist ally the Democratic Movement (MODEM, 57 MPs), and centre-right MPs from The Republicans (LR) who cast themselves as “Macron-compatible”.

Even an LREM majority on 19 June therefore runs the risk of depriving Macron of legislative support in the following months and years as more MPs could break away from the party in the next parliamentary term. This will make it more difficult for Macron to implement parts of his domestic agenda, such as a reform to increase the minimum pension age to 65 from 60.

Macron celebrates his victory in Paris, 24 April 2022 (Photo credit: Michel Stoupak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

LREM minority still possible

The outlier scenario of a parliament that is led by a party other than LREM remains possible considering Macron’s unpopularity with many segments of the population. This could result in an LREM-led alliance, or a “cohabitation” where the prime minister is from another party. The last period of cohabitation in France was from 1997 to 2002, when centre-right President Jacques Chirac ruled with centre-left Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Mélenchon, seeing an opportunity after the presidential vote, said he wanted to “impose a co-habitation” on Macron in June, and he views the parliamentary vote as a “third round” of the presidential elections. While a Mélenchon-Macron cohabitation is unlikely, it would strongly limit Macron’s domestic agenda, as the two men hold opposing views on socioeconomic issues; Macron’s planned pension reform, as well as any significant budget cuts to the public sector, would be all but impossible to pass. While areas of compromise exist between the two, with Macron keen to get the support of Mélenchon for investments in renewable energies or education, their differences would likely trigger frequent policy gridlock.

By contrast, a centre-right or radical right prime minister would allow Macron to slightly widen his base, at the expense of the most progressive faction of LREM. LR, whose candidate only obtained 4.8% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, is unlikely to perform as poorly in June. Macron could therefore form a more right-wing government in an alliance with LR. Such a scenario would allow broad domestic continuity with Macron’s first term government, which has included former LR politicians, such as Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (2017-20) and Prime Minister Jean Castex (2020-).

Outward-looking

Having encountered domestic opposition to his reform agenda in the form of the gilets jaunes and facing pandemic-related disruption to domestic policies, Macron towards the end of his first term bet heavily on presidential diplomacy to drive his agenda and to increase his clout in Europe. In March 2021, Macron organised a presidential summit with Spain. In August 2021, he signed a friendship treaty with the Netherlands, and in November 2021 he did the same with Italy, leveraging a close relationship with Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

Macron also undertook internal reforms of the French diplomatic service and, from 2023, career diplomats will join a wider pool of public servants, instead of being part of a specific, diplomatic career path inherited from the Napoleonic era. This will make it easier for Macron to nominate close allies to key posts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is also the conclusion of Macron’s shift toward a US-style “spoils system”, in which an incoming administration places allies in key posts within the state bureaucracy. The ability of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during Macron’s second term to curtail presidential initiatives will be very diminished.

To carry out his presidential diplomacy agenda, Macron will instead rely on his cabinet. Specialised media in April also reported on Macron’s intent to establish a US-inspired National Security Council (NSC), further eroding the ministry’s grip on foreign policy.

Challenging Germany’s dominance in the EU

Macron’s bilateral efforts since 2021 with Spain, the Netherlands and Italy are the initial stages of a sustained push to challenge Germany for dominance of the EU. Germany’s new chancellor Olaf Scholz is presently embattled at home as he struggles to fully pivot away from his country’s relatively close ties with Russia. Scholz furthermore has less standing within the EU compared with his predecessor Angela Merkel (2005-21).

This situation will likely incentivise Macron to further present himself as the EU’s dominant figure in world affairs. Macron has already frequently engaged Russian President Vladimir Putin to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine. Similar diplomatic inroads are likely to be repeated in the coming years, independently of Scholz, but also of EU structures.

Symbolic successes

To cement his legacy, Macron will look for symbolic successes on the world stage. This means he is likely to pay diminished attention to domestic politics and expend more political capital on EU-level initiatives.

As President of the Council of the European Union from January to June this year, Macron has strongly pushed for headline-grabbing successes. The Digital Markets Act was agreed in March, and the Digital Services Act was agreed in April with significant support from France. Both acts seek to curtail the powers of large US technology companies and represent the first significant initiative in this area worldwide.

An even stronger push is likely over the coming year in support of the EU’s Fit for 55 environmental package, which includes French initiatives such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism – a carbon tax on imports from outside the EU.

Ensuring strong foreign policy legacy

With Macron wary of significant unrest that could result from domestic reforms to pensions or healthcare, this outward focus will likely take precedence over far-reaching domestic reforms. Macron looks intent on having a resolution of the war in Ukraine and landmark EU bills like Fit for 55 as the main components of his legacy.

A profound redesign of Europe’s security architecture also remains one of Macron’s goals, but such a project is unlikely to succeed in light of the continued preference of Central and Eastern European countries for NATO as principal guarantor of Europe’s security.

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