November 30, 2023


John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.

CALVADOS, France — Below the becalmed, even moribund, surface of the French presidential election, a battle is raging that will define French politics for the next decade or more.

The most obvious symbol of this struggle to redraw the lines of national politics is Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen.

Like some football star she has transferred from her aunt’s version of the far right to what she believes is a rising force surrounding the xenophobic pundit-turned-politician, Eric Zemmour.

Yet Maréchal, ambitious and eloquent, will not be content to remain as No. 2 in such a movement. She has — significantly — refused to join Zemmour’s new, and possibly ephemeral party, Reconquête (Reconquest).

She is, in any case, just part of what French sports journalists call le mercato — or transfer season — that’s now in progress across the French political landscape.

President Emmanuel Macron already seems assured of victory next month. The war in Ukraine has rallied moderate voters behind him; three of his principal opponents have heavy baggage as Vladimir Putin sympathizers.

The Macron camp has, nonetheless, been busy strengthening its position with a string of transfers or captures from both the center-right and center-left.

Senior “opposition” politicians to declare for Macron include the former center-right Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin; Eric Woerth, a minister under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy; and Renaud Muselier, the center-right president of the Avignon-Marseille-Nice area in southeast France. From the left, Macron’s camp has captured François Rebsamen, the mayor of Dijon, and Marisol Touraine, a reforming health and social affairs minister under President François Hollande.

These and earlier transfers represent something more radical than casual opportunism or coat-turning. They are the visible tremors of a profound reshaping of French politics — a process that began with the election of the centrist Macron in 2017 and will heavily influence the outcome of the 2027 presidential election.

The old ruling “families,” based on the Socialist Party on the center-left and Les Républicains on the center-right, are dysfunctional or near defunct. The structures or patterns which seek to replace them are still ill-defined.

In broad terms, however, France, like Ancient Gaul under Julius Caesar, is dividing into three parts. A triumvirate of new, political tribes is emerging: the Nationalist Right; the Divided Left; and the Consensual Center.

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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Take the Nationalist Right first.

If, as seems likely, the center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse fails to reach the second round of the election, her rancorous and divided party, Les Républicains, may well implode. Part will drift towards Macron’s center and part toward the nationalist, anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and anti-European right.

Another defeat for Le Pen will also accelerate the decline of her far-right party and family business, National Rally (RN). Several RN chieftains have deserted the party for Zemmour in recent weeks — despite Le Pen mostly leading her far-right rival in the polls.

These recruits to “Zemmourism” are not, as they might appear, rats joining a sinking ship, rather weasels who have identified where their best career opportunities lie.

This also, I believe, explains the strategy of Maréchal. She does not see herself as a long-term first lieutenant of Zemmourism. Having betrayed her aunt to join Zemmour, she will maneuver with him — or against him —in the years ahead. She hopes to emerge as leader of a new, big, anti-European, nationalist movement encompassing Zemmour’s new party, some of her aunt’s party and the harder wing of Les Républicains.

Zemmour has been permanently damaged by his Putin idolatry. (He said in 2018 that he dreamed of a “French Putin.”) Maréchal may therefore succeed in supplanting him — even though she has herself been an enthusiastic Putin fellow-traveler for many years.

The next of the “new tribes” is the pro-European, socially liberal, progressive and pro-market Consensual Center. This bloc has a complex electoral geology covering Macron and his party and its centrist allies, part of the center-left and the socially tolerant, pro-European wing of Les Républicains.

Some of the latter have already deserted to a new pro-Macron center-right party, Horizons, created by popular former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

There are already many jealousies and antagonisms within this big centrist tribe. Until 2027, its more or less undisputed leader is Macron. Before the next election, when Macron cannot run again, there will be much bloodletting before a new leader — maybe Philippe — emerges. It’s possible that the Consensual Center will not hold.

Finally, there is the Divided Left (including the Greens) who have split and re-split themselves into irrelevancy, for now. A large section of the old pragmatic, center-left — the spiritual descendants of Lionel Jospin or Hollande — has migrated to the centrist Macron camp. New departures, following Rebsamen and Touraine, can be expected.

As things stand, there is no leader capable of uniting what remains of the French left — and it’s far from clear whether the French left wants to be united.

In terms of vote shares (before the Ukraine war skewed the figures), I estimate that the three new French “tribes” break down roughly as follows: Nationalist Right 37 percent; Consensual Centre 36 percent; and Divided Left 27 percent.

The 2022 presidential election may be all over bar the voting. The next one could be a much closer-run thing, with enormous implications for the future not only of France but also of the European Union.


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