Saturday, July 20

France Discovers a New Word: Ungovernable

France Discovers a New Word: Ungovernable
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Instead of waking up on Monday in a country governed by the far right, France found itself in a situation similar to Italy’s, where only patient parliamentary negotiation could lead to the formation of a viable coalition government.

France rejected Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration Rassemblement National in its legislative elections, once again demonstrating its deep-seated resistance to nationalist initiatives. The country voted for a resurgent left that, while it has not achieved absolute power, has shifted the political heart of the nation from an all-powerful presidency to Parliament.

With the Paris Olympics less than three weeks away and the August exodus to the beaches or mountains a sacred feature of French life, talks to form a government could drag on into the fall, when France will need a government to pass a budget. Elections that could have sparked riots have led to a stalemate.

The New Popular Front, a resurgent but fragmented left-wing alliance, has secured about 180 seats in the National Assembly and immediately called on President Emmanuel Macron to invite it to form a government, saying it would present its candidate for prime minister the following week.

This demand ignored several factors. According to the Constitution, Mr. Macron chooses the prime minister. In the 577-seat National Assembly, the New Popular Front is about 100 seats away from a functional majority. It was not the left-wing alliance’s program that won all the seats, but a combination of that and the centrists’ and left’s decision to form a “republican front” against the Rassemblement National in the second round of voting.

Despite this, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the combative leader of the left, declared that he would not negotiate with potential coalition partners nor change a single word of the left’s program.

None of this boded well for clearing the thick fog that has enveloped Paris since the rapid and “clarifying” election of Mr Macron.

France, with its presidential system, has no culture of compromise for coalition building. “We know nothing about it, we are a nation of wannabe Napoleons,” said Nicole Bacharan, a political scientist.

Now the Napoleons will have to face the details of a scrupulous negotiation over a program agreed upon by parties with very different visions of national priorities.

For example, the New Popular Front wants to lower the retirement age from 64 to 60, a year after Mr. Macron raised it from 62 to 64 following a tough fight. Mr. Macron wants to prioritize reducing the budget deficit; the New Popular Front wants to raise the minimum wage and freeze energy and gas prices. Mr. Macron’s government passed an immigration law earlier this year, tightening rules that allow foreigners to work, live and study in France. The left has promised to make the asylum process more generous.

The division of the National Assembly into three large blocs of left, center and right did not offer an immediate basis for a functional coalition.

Mr Macron’s centrist bloc has about 160 lawmakers, down from 250, and the Rassemblement National and its allies about 140, up from 89. France has kept the far right out of power once again, but it has not stopped its rise, fueled by anger over immigration and the rising cost of living.

Mr Macron, after a meeting on Monday with Gabriel Attal, the prime minister, said he had asked him to stay “for the moment” to “ensure the stability of the country.” Mr Attal, once Mr Macron’s favorite, had offered his resignation.

Mr Attal has distanced himself from Mr Macron, who is apparently intent on joining the race to succeed him in 2027. In a scathing speech on Sunday night, he said: “I did not choose this dissolution” of the National Assembly. He continued: “A new era begins tonight. From tomorrow, the center of gravity of power will be, by the will of the French people, more than ever in the hands of Parliament.”

It was hard to imagine a more direct rebuke to Mr Macron’s highly personalized, top-down governing style, generally contemptuous of the National Assembly, especially from one of his former protégés.

Mr Macron, who has a term-limited mandate and is due to leave office in 2027, has been largely silent in recent days, which is unusual. Although his party lost a third of its seats, the election was not the disaster widely predicted for him. He avoided humiliation; he showed that a big victory for the Rassemblement National in the European Parliament would not inevitably lead to the same result in a national election. That was no small feat.

He is now expected to take his time to consult the various parties of an enlarged center to explore coalition possibilities. “Calm” was the order of the day from the Elysée, seat of the presidency.

There are two red lines for the president: govern with the Rassemblement National, whose young party leader Jordan Bardella had hoped to become prime minister, and with Mr Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise party, which Mr Macron has accused of anti-Semitism. He will try to persuade the moderate left, including the Socialists and Greens, as well as traditional conservatives, to unite in a coalition.

On Wednesday, Mr. Macron will be in Washington for the NATO summit. It will be a way to demonstrate that his authority on the international stage, a traditional bastion of French presidents, remains intact and that France’s commitment to supporting Ukraine will not waver at a time of great political uncertainty in the United States.

If Mr Biden’s health is the talk in Washington, Mr Macron’s exercise of power is the talk in Paris. Will he now be forced to correct course toward Mr Attal’s “new era” centered on Parliament?

“Today,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a prominent socialist, “we are putting an end to the Jupiter phase of the Fifth Republic.”

Mr Macron used the term “Juvetan” in 2016, before he became president, to describe his approach to governance. A powerful wielder of divine authority was more attractive to the French, he mused, than the “normal” presidency of François Hollande. The French, he suggested, have a penchant for the mysteries of great authority.

To some extent, it would appear so, given the evidence gathered over Mr Macron’s seven years in office.

“We are in a divided assembly, and so we have to behave like adults,” said Mr. Glucksmann, who ran a successful Socialist campaign in last month’s European Parliament elections. “That means we will have to talk, engage in dialogue and accept that the National Assembly becomes the heart of power.”

He described it as “a fundamental shift in political culture.”

La France Insoumise is estimated to have 75 of the New Popular Front’s 180 seats, the Socialists around 65, the Greens around 33 and the Communists fewer than 10. Keeping the alliance together will be difficult, as Mr Glucksmann’s comments illustrated.

In theory, as a moderate accustomed to building coalitions in the European Parliament, Glucksmann could run for prime minister in a coalition that includes the Socialists, the Greens, the Communists, Macron’s centrist bloc and about 60 traditional conservative lawmakers from the Republicans.

But, of course, Mr Glucksmann’s approach and beliefs clash with those of Mr Mélenchon, who refuses to compromise with potential partners, and also with those of Mr Macron.

Compromise is not in the air, at least not yet.

There is no easy way out of France’s post-election fog, even if the Olympic flame arrives in the French capital on July 14, Bastille Day, when France commemorates the Revolution and the beheading of its monarch.

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