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Anyone looking at France right now could be forgiven for thinking the country was on the edge of a revolution.
Major cities from Paris to Lyon erupted in riots overnight on Thursday, with black-clad protesters lighting bonfires and hurling projectiles at riot police after President Emmanuel Macron rammed an unpopular reform of the pension system through parliament. More than 400 police were injured.
The violence capped weeks of mass protests as millions marched through French cities to oppose the reform, which will raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62 currently. More protests are already planned for next week, piling pressure on Macron’s already embattled government and prompting Britain’s King Charles to cancel a highly-awaited visit.
Yet for all the sound and fury of the protests, which could yet worsen if students join in, there’s nearly zero risk that Macron himself will have to leave office. Having narrowly survived a vote of no confidence, he may seek to reshuffle his cabinet and sack his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne — but the presidential system is so designed that the leader is nearly guaranteed to remain president until the last day of his term, in 2027.
The bigger question, then, is about what happens after Macron, whose hyper-personal style of leadership has often been described as king-like, even by the standards of France’s monarchical Republic, leaves the stage for good.
Barred from seeking a third term by the constitution, Macron will leave behind a leaderless and rudderless ruling party that may well cease to exist without him, creating a power vacuum that far-left and far-right leaders, including three-time presidential contender Marine Le Pen, are itching to fill.
And while Macron has a solid hold on power now, the parliamentary rebellion his government faced down this week — and the chaos engulfing the country — raise ominous questions about the future for anyone who hopes to see France stay firmly anchored to the pro-EU, pro-NATO liberal camp.
In other words, after Macron, le déluge.
Macron’s shaky platform
The first danger sign flashing over French democracy is the state of Macron’s own party, the centrist Renaissance group. In many systems, ruling parties have deep roots and an ideological foundation that, at least in theory, give them a raison d’être beyond exercising power.
But this isn’t the case for Macron’s party, which was born for the sole purpose of hoisting its founder into the Elysée presidential palace and then supporting his government. As such, it’s docile by nature and, with a few exceptions, hasn’t produced bold personalities who would in other circumstances be natural successors to the president.
And while the party is already short of a majority in parliament, the rebellion against the pension reform this week revealed Renaissance to be much weaker even than was previously thought — more of a hollow platform for Macron to stand on than a launchpad for future leaders. Indeed, Prime Minister Borne believed that she could rely on support from the center-right Les Républicains party to provide the necessary votes to pass the reform, as part of an informal coalition arrangement.
Yet this hope vanished suddenly and unexpectedly when a group of 19 Les Républicains, led by southern lawmaker Aurélien Pradié, defied orders from their own party leadership and announced they would support a motion of no confidence in Macron’s government. As rebellions go, it revealed not just the weakness of Renaissance, but the continued disarray of the mainstream center-right in France — which has produced most of the country’s leaders since World War II and is now a shadow of its former self.
“The political landscape isn’t just fractured; it doesn’t offer any hope for the president, the government or their supporters,” said Jean-Daniel Lévy, a political analyst with pollster Harris Interactive. “There is no such thing as a Macron doctrine or an ideological successor to Macron.”
The second alarm bell ringing is how much the pension crisis has emboldened the far-right and far-left factions in parliament. Take Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left firebrand who’s made two failed bids for the presidency, and is now the most recognizable face in the NUPES, a recently-formed left-wing coalition gathering what’s left of the Socialist party, Mélenchon’s hard-left France Unbowed group and the Greens.
Having faded from view, Mélenchon has roared back into the limelight during the pension reform battle, appearing constantly in the media. Anti-NATO, Euroskeptic and calling for an end to France’s 5th republic (his 6th Republic would end the presidential monarchy), the ex-socialist whose sympathies lean more toward Venezuela than Brussels is ideally suited to produce revolutionary soundbites.
With his pension reform, Macron has “lit a fire and blocked all the exits,” Mélenchon quipped this week.
Le Pen eyes the crown
Yet Mélenchon’s prospects of taking power in 2027 look slim. According to an IFOP poll published in early March, just 21 percent of the French believe he’s best-positioned to lead the opposition — suggesting he’s not very well-loved by other adherents of the NUPES coalition.
Much better positioned is Marine Le Pen, the far-right chief whom Macron defeated twice in the final rounds of two presidential elections. Indeed, since her last defeat, Le Pen has made further strides toward making herself look presidential while continuing to try to detoxify her party’s image.
Not only has Le Pen ditched the “National Front” party name that was associated with her Holocaust-minimizing father, Jean-Marie Le Pen; she has abandoned an electorally-disastrous plan to exit the euro currency zone and she’s established herself as the leader of her party’s 88-strong delegation in the French parliament, placing her at the center of the action against the pension reform.
She hasn’t confirmed that she’ll make a fourth bid for the presidency. But there’s no reason to believe she wouldn’t. And this time, Macron won’t be around to stop her.
“After Macron, it will be us,” she told BFMTV this week, referring to her National Rally party.
Aside from Le Pen, the obvious choice to succeed Macron would be Édouard Philippe — his remarkably beloved one-time prime minister. Since leaving office in 2017, Philippe has been quietly biding his time as mayor of Le Havre, a mid-sized port city on France’s northern coast, and nurturing his own center-right political platform, Horizons.
The fact that Philippe, in an interview earlier this month, came out to address the fact that he’s suffering both from alopecia and vitiligo only seemed to bolster his popularity with the French, who rate him as their preferred political personality, according to this ranking.
But Philippe’s stance on retirement, backing an increase in the legal age to 67 — above and beyond what Macron proposed — has not done him any favors. According to a poll by Odoxa, 61 percent of the French weren’t happy with his attempt to defend the pension reform.
He still hasn’t said for sure whether he will run in 2027, and the past week’s action suggests his association with Macron could turn out to be a drag on his prospects once campaigning gets started, should he decide to enter the race.