The results of the French parliamentary elections will make governing more difficult for Emmanuel Macron but have little impact on his foreign and European policy. And with Europe’s geopolitical order in flux, Germany and France aren’t the only ones shaping the continent’s future.
A conversation with Sylvie Kauffmann.
Henry Alt-Haaker: This year’s elections in France are not only crucial for Franco-German relations but also – in light of the war in Ukraine – for the future of the European Union. How do you interpret President Macron recent loss of an absolute majority in the national assembly? The Rassemblement National is surprisingly strong and the voting turnout was quite low.
Sylvie Kauffmann: The results are shocking and there are two major points. First, it’s a personal defeat for Emmanuel Macron. During the six weeks between the presidential and the legislative elections, he chose not to campaign. That left the field open to the radical left and its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who negotiated the alliance with the Greens, the Communist Party and what was left of the Socialist Party. Meanwhile, the far right conducted a very effective campaign under the radar of the national media. I think Macron just assumed that the legislative election would be a kind of natural sequel to the presidential election, as it was in 2017. Also, he didn't build structurally on his victory in 2017. His movement La République en Marche was not a political party, and he failed to transform it into one.
And the second point is that we are going through a democratic crisis – and not only France. We will have to invent new ways of involving citizens because the turnout was extremely low: around 47 percent. Half of our voters are thus not represented in parliament.
Why was the turnout so low? You say half the voters are not represented but one could frame it as half the people chose not to be represented.
Absolutely. They stayed away from the polls. I think it's that clear disillusion. The turnout was particularly low among young voters. They say the offer is not interesting for them. The political parties are not really political parties anymore, but rather a kind of an empty shell. They don't generate new ideas. We have to reinvent something.
So do you think Jean-Luc Mélenchon is right when he says that Macronism is over?
I don't think it's over because Macron is still there. But he must give it ideological content, define it politically. You cannot just be “center”. He says the divide between left and right is over. Well, now we have a divide between extreme right a radical left in the parliament. This is not good. With this national assembly, it will be very difficult for Macron to implement his agenda. He will have to negotiate a majority on every bill, unless the prime minister can form a new government including members from the opposition. He might also dissolve the assembly in one year's time.
What does this mean for France's role in the EU and the war in Ukraine? Is this going to be a problem because it makes decisive French action more difficult?
I don't think it's going to be too much of a problem for Macron’s European and foreign policy. In France, the president has quite a lot of power in conducting foreign policy. Also, public opinion is really quite firmly pro-European in France. Hence, anti-EU parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National dropped or softened their views on those topics in the campaigns. And in Mélenchon’s alliance of four parties of the left, two of them – the Socialist Party and the Greens – are against the anti-EU agenda of the radical left. Also, there is consensus about Ukraine in France that sanctions should be maintained, and that Ukraine must win this war.
As you say, the French president has a lot of executive power over foreign and security policy. In the case of Macron, that doesn't make him necessarily less controversial. Some people criticize that after Angela Merkel left office, Macron tried to take over the leading role in Europe. He also said publicly that we shouldn't “humiliate Vladimir Putin” if we want a solution and somewhat boasted having “talked to Putin more than 100 hours.” Especially Eastern European countries challenge Macron on that and wonder what the results of those efforts are.
This is a question that France has to solve together with Germany - and not only with Germany but with other European countries. Macron has to reorient his position on Putin, at least in communicating it. It seems that Olaf Scholz and Macron did this and got their message straight: that supporting Ukraine is the main goal. France says very clearly that we want Ukraine to win but will not say “we want Russia to be defeated.” What does “win” mean? In Kyiv last week, Macron said that we want Ukraine to regain its 2014 borders, including Crimea. So that's what victory would mean. But it will be up to the Ukrainians to decide if and at what stage they want to stop fighting and negotiate.
Your first reflex to my question was that Germany and France have to discuss the Ukraine crisis. Very often, Germans and French assume that change in Europe starts with the Franco-German engine. In the case of Russia politics, many Central and Eastern European countries criticize that the Franco-German approach towards Russia in the past has led to the current disaster. So, wouldn't it be better if the EU's Russia and Ukraine policy isn't inspired by the Franco-German couple, but rather by Poland, Lithuania or others?
Yes, this Franco-German tandem is outdated, at least on Ukraine and Russia. Europe’s center of gravity has moved east. And the fact that Macron, Scholz, and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi had to take a leader from Central Europe to Kyiv, namely Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, shows it. This was a good choice. It was a message to show that we're not going to do this just by ourselves. We also want to include this other part of Europe. We have to acknowledge that Poland has taken a big role because of the way it has welcomed Ukrainian refugees and because of its military and logistical assistance to Ukraine. The dynamic is moving eastward and that will remain. France and Germany will have to adjust to this.
What do you think of giving Ukraine EU candidate status? There are a number of countries already waiting for a long time with candidate status. Many are frustrated and their populations have turned more EU-sceptic over time. We all know that Ukraine is far from being an EU member for reasons that have nothing to do with the war, but the war made it even more difficult. So, is this simply a recipe for frustration on the Ukrainian side?
I think there's an awareness that we should avoid this trap. That's why Italian politician Enrico Letta and Macron after him pushed the idea of a sort of a large confederation. Unfortunately, it is reminiscent of a failed idea. In 1989, French president François Mitterrand pushed this idea of a European confederation, which would gather all countries of the European continent, including the Soviet Union. But some countries became uneasy because the U.S. was not included though the Soviet Union was. Eventually, it was stillborn.
Now this idea seems to be coming back to life. Macron calls it “European political community.” It would include the EU member states plus the candidate countries plus UK, Switzerland, Norway, if they want to be part of it. The message would be: “we are a European family even if they are not (yet) members of the EU.” As becoming full members might take years or decades, the aim is to prevent a political vacuum that China and Russia can fill, like they have in Serbia.
Now this is controversial again. Some argue that this is a step-by-step approach to becoming an EU member without getting disillusioned and turning to other powers while they are waiting. Others criticize it as political limbo: as the playground of those who’ll never become EU members. I think that we’re in the middle of a discussion about the future architecture of Europe. What we definitely see is that those association agreements like that with Ukraine don't work anymore. It didn't protect them.
Chancellor Scholz said that we find ourselves in a Zeitenwende and meant it as a visionary response to Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. How is this gigantic paradigm shift and an extra 100 billion going into the military perceived by the French public and French politicians?
Actually, the French are happy that the Germans also see this as a completely new situation and that they are investing more in defense. Here, I'm sometimes asked: “but aren't the French worried about the fact that Germany will inject so much money in defense?” There was this kind of feeling that okay, Germany is much more powerful economically, but we, France, are a military power. It's a different way of projecting power if you want. Germany projects economic power and we can project this hard power. And of course, if Germany also projects military power, who are we?
But I haven't really heard such a concern. On the contrary, French political circles and the foreign policy establishment ask: so the Germans are spending this amount of money now, which is very impressive, but it's for four years, right? What happens beyond 2026? And also in four years’ time, you may have a different coalition. So, I think they are waiting to see whether this is really a long-term policy shift: a real Zeitenwende or a one-shot exception. The other question is how will the Germans spend this money? Will they just buy American defense equipment off the shelves? Or will they try to invest in a real European defense industry with innovative technology?
Sylvie Kauffmann is a French journalist, specializing in geopolitics and foreign affairs, and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.
Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
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