As divided and polarized as French politics may be after the first round of general elections, consensus is emerging on one thing. Politicians across party lines lamented the new record of non-voters on Sunday evening and called for reforms to political institutions.
In fact, 52 percent of those eligible did not vote. It is an expression of the deep crisis in which the French political system finds itself. Institutional reforms are necessary.
But French politics will only regain more credibility and enthusiasm if the culture of debate also changes. Mutual accusations dominate instead of substantive arguments.
The political opponent is portrayed as a danger, and there is hardly any respectful engagement with the ideas of others. Macron and his government also play a not inconsiderable part in this. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s speech on Sunday evening can serve as an example.
She called for all “republican forces” to rally behind the project and government candidates in view of the political extremes. The subtext: the left-wing electoral alliance of socialists, greens, communists and the party of left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon is just as dangerous and less committed to the values of the republic as the Rassemblement National party of the far-right Marine Le Pen.
This statement is problematic in several ways. Firstly, because it thwarts what Borne himself had said a few sentences earlier: All candidates and those involved had “brought democracy to life” with their commitment.
Secondly, because with the supposed equality they are playing down the right-wing extremists. And thirdly, because the impression persists that the Macron government knows only one strategy in the face of serious political competition: to discredit the political opponent.
Admittedly, the left-wing party union and the right-wing extremists often use such rhetoric. But the government should – and must – set a different tone from its stronger position in order to bring substantive positions to the fore again.
One thing is likely to help keep them from doing so: Like in the US, first-past-the-post system leads to a spiral of escalation. That’s why, no matter how the second round of voting ends next Sunday, Macron should tackle both: reform the institutions – for example with the introduction of proportionality in the parliamentary elections. And the attempt to introduce a new culture of debate.