The crisis of political legitimacy of the French Fifth Republic

By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor


Note for readers: the second round of the French regional elections took place on Sunday 27 June

The unprecedented high level of abstention in the second round of the French regional and departmental elections confirmed the continuing crisis of the 5th Republic’s legitimacy.

Only 34.3% nationally voted in the elections.

However, it would be a mistake to use these results as a guide to the outcome of the 2022 Presidential election.

We should expect a much bigger turnout in the April 2022 presidential elections as voters will be more motivated by the campaigns of the parties, which will reflect the increased polarisation in national politics.

Macron’s governing party, La République En Marche LREM, trailed behind its rivals with just over 11% of the national vote. In five regions, it did not even meet the 10% threshold to enter the second round.

Le Pen’s Rassemblement National RN failed to breakthrough in its main target in the south, Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur PACA, and also saw its national vote drop.

The right-wing Les Républicains LR successfully defended the seats it already had.

The left also held on to the regions it had previously controlled.

Although the regional elections were described in the French media as a slap in the face for both Macron and Le Pen; the latest opinion polls still place the two of them significantly ahead of their potential rivals.


Abstentionism was once again the big winner in the elections. The abstention rate was at an all-time high, barely better than the first round.

The hand wringing of the parties of the right and the media about the dangers abstentionism poses to French democracy is devoid of any understanding of the root causes.

As in the first round, many young people, women, and workers on low incomes refused to participate in a political circus that ignores their needs and instead concentrates on cynically confected debates about identity and security infused with racist scapegoating and Islamophobia.

But we should also note the impact of the Gilets Jaunes movement on the high rate of abstention.

Their mass revolt of the ‘lefts out’ culminated with a rejection of the political establishment. Their primary demand was a people’s referendum to replace representative democracy with the people’s voice through direct democracy.

They proposed three referenda: the power to amend the constitution, recalling elected politicians, and the power to overturn a law or treaty approved by parliament.

The Gilets Jaunes revolt helped increase the rejection of party politics and left deep marks on the population.

The regional winners

The right

The LR held on to its victories from 2015. Notably, it defeated the RN in its main target region, PACA.

[The left had already decided not to stand in the second round in PACA to reduce the chance of the RN using a historic breakthrough to boost its claim to be able to lead France.]

The LR and the traditional right are struggling to agree on a united presidential candidate who can reach the second round.

Macron has tried to boost his chances for re-election in 2022 by depicting himself as the only bulwark against the RN.

He has deliberately helped to increase Le Pen’s profile in an attempt to turn next April’s election into a contest, with the only choice being between himself on one side and Le Pen on the other.

But if these elections had been a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential elections, as everybody predicted, their outcome shows the failure of such a strategy.

Macron had hoped to win over one part of the LR voters, with a further section going to Le Pen.

In the event, not only did Macron’s party suffer humiliating defeats, but also the LR was able to defeat his schemes aimed at dividing the LR.

The far-right

The RN [like its predecessor, the FN] failed to win a region. It also suffered significant falls in its vote across the country.

The RN’s prospects of winning in a few regions were heavily trumpeted before the first round in the media and by Marine Le Pen herself.

The failure to win in PACA is a big blow to the RN. Moreover, it reinforces the view that there is a ceiling on its potential support in the race for Presidency, which is some way short of a majority.

But the RN continues to exert a pernicious effect on the national political agenda. For example, a study of election campaign materials shows a considerable overlap between the racist rhetoric of the RN and the LR.

Both before the election and in the aftermath of the record-breaking abstention all of the parties of the right – the LREM, LR, and RN – continue to outdo each other on racism and Islamophobia to create scapegoats for France’s social and economic malaise.

The left

The national political polarisation also impacts on the left, where a process of recomposition is slowly underway.

Nationally, the Socialist party SP stabilised its electoral position and held on to its political offices. It should be noted that the Greens increased their weight within the left and now have serious ambitions to be the leading left presidential candidate.

The feverish efforts by the bourgeoisie to demonise and undermine the participation of La France Insoumise FI in any left alliance increased in the week before the second round.

The FI was the only party on the left that refused to join the solidarity with the police demonstration in May. [Note: an earlier opinion poll said that 60% of France’s police officers intended to vote for the RN in recent regional elections.]

This act made the FI a target for sections of the left.

In Ile de France, the campaign against the FI saw a vicious division of labour between the victorious LR incumbent Valérie Pécresse, the RN, and ex-SP figures like Manuel Valls, who was prime minister under socialist President Hollande. Valls loudly refused to support the SP and voted for Pécresse instead.

However, in the second round, the Greens and the SP in the Ile de France withstood the pressure to break with the FI. They provided a healthy example of how the left can work together to maximise the chances of a left candidate winning through to the second round of the presidential election.

By contrast, in Occitanie, the left was divided. The Greens refused to work with the FI so they could have an alliance with the SP. In the event, the SP also turned down an alliance with the Greens.

The FI successfully fought off some of the attempts to isolate it despite the constant campaign of vilification against it from many quarters, including the media.

Its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, continues to be a significant figure on the left in the polls for the presidency.

The 2021 election witnessed a turning point for the Communist Party. It lost its last remaining local base in the Val-de-Marne, once a stronghold of the famous CP leader, George Marchais.

In relation to next year’s presidential election, the left collectively polls enough to beat Macron and Le Pen in the first round, but it does not have one hegemonic candidate.

The latest partial victories of the Justice for the Traoré family campaign have essential lessons for the French left on the vital importance of consistently standing up to racist scapegoating and police violence against black people.

Adama Traoré died in police custody on his 24th birthday, July 19, 2016, after being restrained and apprehended by police. His death led to mass protests across France against police brutality in France.

This month his sister, Assa Traoré, was acquitted in the defamation case initiated by the police. Adama’s brother, Bagui Traoré, has just been released from prison following his acquittal. He has endured five years in pre-trial detention.

The left must stand in unity against the demonisation of Muslims and migrants.

If the left is to win the presidency in 2022, much work still needs to be done to create a popular, coherent economic alternative to austerity and neo-liberalism.

After the election – racist divide and rule

The National Assembly has returned to debating the bill on Separatism, which demonises the Muslim population.

The FI voted against the bill at the first reading. It is anticipated that the SP, CP, and the Greens will join with the FI and vote against the bill at its second reading.

In parliament after the elections, the racist offensive has continued. It was not Covid, climate change, or unemployment that agitated much of the right, but whether women officials in the polling stations should be allowed to choose to wear the hijab.

Recently, there has also been an increase in the use by police of Stop and Search targeted against migrants. In addition, the persecution of undocumented workers continues and it is becoming increasingly difficult for migrants to update their legal documentation.

Macron’s austerity offensive

The racist offensive of the right goes hand in hand with Macron’s escalation of attacks on the French welfare state and his attempt to reverse the social and economic gains made by the French working class.

Macron has refloated his plan to increase the age at which people can access their state pension from 62 to 64.

For the moment, the Conseil d’Etat, the highest administrative court in France, has ruled that the president’s unpopular attempt to reform unemployment insurance and his proposed Article 24 to prevent people from photographing police are illegal.

Winning the Presidency in 2022

In the coming weeks, the temperature of the race to be president will rise as potential candidates announce their wish to run in party primaries or as independent candidates.

As things stand, the left will not make the second round without unity behind one candidate. So, the contest to see who stands the best chance of defeating Macron will dominate left politics.

For the left to win the presidency, it is indispensable that it consistently opposes all forms of racism.

It must unite behind coherent and detailed policies that can defend the interests of all sections of the working class and the oppressed.

Useful link on the 2021 French regional and departmental elections in the second round
The official government site for results: