In my assessment last month of its medium-term economic prospects, I drew attention to the fact that a downturn in exports caused preponderantly by external factors – the energy crisis and a slackening in global demand – does not justify labelling Germany the new Sick Man of Europe. 

Equally, the fact that the news from France this summer was dominated by often violent protests against the raising of the state retirement age and the shooting dead of a teenager of North African ethnicity by a white traffic cop does not mean that the Communards are once more on the rampage or that the Guillotine is about to be reinstalled in the Place de la Revolution. 

The rejection by a majority of workers of measures adopted by President Macron to ensure the Government’s ability to meet future pension commitments, even if taken in tandem with the chronic frustration shown by those stuck in society’s margins, is no indication that October is once more Vendémiaire or that crazed Marxist Jean Luc Mélenchon is the new Robespierre. 

Nations have their ups and downs. The British people in recent years should appreciate that more than most. And in France, the signs are not only that the economy is rebooting but that all parties, not just those on the far right, are acutely aware of the need to address both mass immigration and injustice based on race and religious identity. 

Does this mean that there is no cause for alarm? No. There is always cause for alarm if you listen hard enough. The French Far-Right has never been as close to pole position in the race for the Élysée as it is now. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, has worked hard on her image and is looking increasingly plausible as Macron’s successor. Long characterised as a racist bigot, she is seen these days as more like the Veuve Clicquot, who, as the first woman in France to run an internationally recognised company, defied convention and revolutionised champagne production in the nineteenth century. 

Where voters once sensed danger, involving an overthrow of the system, now they see the possibility of meaningful change. 

Since the 2017 elections to the National Assembly, which saw her joined on its red benches by 87 other deputies from her party, Le Pen has been careful to rebrand herself as someone who follows the rules and can be relied on to do what’s right. There have been no hysterical outbursts. Rather, she has been at pains to engage with the system and to show that she is, in fact, Democracy’s Child. 

That said, Le Pen remains Le Pen. She promises lots of things, including a “fairer” state pension and massive improvements in the fields of healthcare and benefits. But most of all, she promises to control immigration and to oblige those of immigrant heritage already settled in France to conform to her view of what it means to be French. This resonates across whole swathes of the population, not just on the right. Those who come to France must, she says, do so legally and must agree to respect its culture and customs. Those who do not will be deported or repatriated – though how this would be done is far from clear. 

But can she do it? Can she win the presidency at the third time of asking, in 2027? Who knows. If she does, the example of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, now her country’s prime minister, suggests that she would proceed softly, at least at first, working with others in Europe to clamp down on immigration and to reassert the primacy of national boundaries. It’s hard to be a radical in the EU, mired as it is in protocols and bureaucracy. Patience is required. But with the Far Right advancing in the opinion polls across the Continent while steadily building up their numbers in national parliaments, the testing time may not be that far off. 

Across the hemicycle from Le Pen in the Assembly, the Far Left is meanwhile so fragmented as to be politically incoherent. France Unbowed, a grouping led by the ageing street-fighter Mélenchon, has just 18 deputies, but the former teacher also leads, or seeks to corral, a further 57 deputies from the unfinished jig-saw that is the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), which includes what remains of the once powerful French Socialist Party. Mélenchon is seriously old school. The way he sees it, controlling the means of production on behalf of the workers is the latest thing. The only surprise is that he does not actually proclaim the Proudhonist maxim that property is theft. 

The good news here is that NUPES is unravelling, with the more focused Greens and more moderate Socialists peeling away in search of advantage next time round. It is possible that the latter faction will stage something of a recovery in 2027, but the signs as yet are few and far between. Mélenchon, aged 72, is reported to be ready to lead the leftist charge, but is seen even by many of his own supporters as something of a busted flush.  

What could happen instead is that the centre-right Republicans, led since 2022 by its hardline president, Éric Ciotti, will regain some of its lost ground. As the current inheritors of the Gaullist mantle, Republicans were shaken in 2017 when they secured only 112 seats in the Assembly against the 308 achieved by Macron’s back-of-an-envelope centrists, La République En Marche. Worse followed in 2022, when Macron was returned for his second term as President. The party’s candidate, Valérie Pécresse, lost her deposit and its Assembly representation slumped to just 62. 

So far, so bad. But, as with nations, so with parties, and the smart money as things stand is on something of a standoff in the 2027 presidentials between Le Pen, Ciotti and whoever (interior minister Gérald Darmanin or finance minister Bruno Le Maire) is deployed to carry the post-Macron torch for En Marche. Macron himself will be gone, taking his top-down revision of the system with him, and there is a real chance that his party will follow him into the history books. A victory for Le Pen or Ciotti – now leaning closer to the Far right’s interrogation of France’s soul – would almost certainly be followed by a right-wing majority in the Assembly and a five-year governing coalition.  

Le Pen as President would send shockwaves across Europe. The rhetoric on all sides would be deafening. But for the daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen ­– an out-and-out extremist and long-time anti-semite – the challenges ahead would dwarf all the difficulties and frustrations she has endured over the last 30 years. Governing and campaigning are two different things. The French Deep State, represented by its haut fonctionnaires, top entrepreneurs, judges and the Constitutional Council, would place every obstacle in the way of policies that threatened the good name of France in the wider world. 

What they would do if the wider world – Germany, Italy, Poland and the US – pursued the same rightwards path is, of course, another question. 

For the moment, with Le Pen in her Veuve Clicquot phase, Emmanuel Macron is counting on something of an economic upswing to sustain his legacy and the future prospects of his Jupiterian approach to governance. Business and manufacturing are experiencing slow but steady growth, and two years from now it is possible that the Ukraine crisis – conceivably with his assistance – will no longer dominate the headlines. There will undoubtedly be protests over his law-and-order agenda, which, while seeking to reform the country’s often trigger-happy police, also grants law enforcement greater power to spy on the citizenry. But, for the moment, things are calming down. France is getting about its business. 

On the debit side, the President cannot be confident of meaningful change on the immigration front, which between now and 2027 could move votes more than anything else. He can only hope that France’s black and Muslim communities will buy into his gradually unfolding programme of legal reforms aimed at simultaneously persuading the white majority that their interests are being protected and that all are equal in the eyes of the state. 

No one, least of all Macron, is promising a return of the trentes glorieuses, which transformed France in the decades after the end of the Second World War. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for cautious optimism when considering the next five to ten years. The dramatis personae will change. That much is certain. The hope has to be that France’s underlying conservatism, laced as it is with just a soupçon of electoral explosive, will reimpose itself even if and when the names of those at the top look to be shocking. 

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