Events in France point to a more chaotic future, and Ireland must build its defence and security infrastructure amid growing challenges

Mike O’Sullivan – The Irish Times – Wed Jul 3 2024

Next weekend, France faces into the second round of its unexpected, dramatic general election, with a number of grave risks on the political and economic horizons. There will be implications for Europe, and Ireland.

In a year of elections globally, France has suddenly become the source of political drama as Emmanuel Macron’s plan to throw a grenade into the political arena has backfired badly. His hope was to recompose the centre of French politics but instead he has evacuated it.

Amidst a large first-round turnout, he has now re-energised the far left, which is building a rancorous coalition with other left-wing parties and, at the same time, ushered the far right to the antechamber of government. For the second time, Macron has remade the French political system.

This is an election that very few French people wanted, and the timing of it, with the holiday season and Olympics, could not have been more divisive. With the first-round results manifestly favouring the far right Rassemblement National (RN), Macron is the main loser and ‘Macronism’ (big speeches and big ideas) is very likely over.

The other scenario, given the obvious lack of durability of a far left-anchored coalition, is some form of technocratic government. Both scenarios are laden with the risk of constitutional crisis and the potential for political unrest and strikes.

At a time when Labour looks likely to bring a steady, boring calm to British politics, it seems the contagion of political chaos has passed to Paris, and neither of the above two scenarios is likely to result in an orderly Assembly. The far left and far right are very hostile to each other, and neither would have patience for true technocrats, a feeling that is likely reciprocated.

In that context, it is hard to imagine any meaningful policies being enacted in France in the next year, and to a large extent the 2027 presidential race has kicked off.

Macron has done something unusual for a French president in that he has, possibly like David Cameron and his successors in the Tory party, done harm to his country. In the eyes of many, his decision to call an election has opened up a series of tail-risks for France and Europe, and this is where the implications for Ireland lie.

France, like the UK, has a debt-to-GDP ratio that, apart from the period around the world wars, has not been as elevated since the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. This and a large budget deficit create the conditions for a financial accident and a more difficult relationship with Brussels.

Both the RN and the Nouveau Front Populaire have deep-seated antipathies to the anglophone commercial and financial world, and neither has a good relationship with the European policy ‘centre’ that would enable them to work easily with the EU and its institutions.

As such, there is a higher risk of financial stress in the euro zone, though likely not a full-blown crisis. In this context a far-right-led government may opt to put fiscal policy on autopilot and focus much more intently on the issues of identity, immigration and security, which itself would be contentious.

The likely demise of Emmanuel Macron as a political force will be felt across Europe. He has been the motivating force behind the idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ and has provoked the security debate with comments like “Nato is brain dead”. His diminished standing will make the EU/Nato security outlook less coherent, especially so if he sits atop a Rassemblement government.

Additionally, the centre of European political power may now move towards countries like Poland, with Italy and Greece also likely to become more influential. Of particular concern is the scope for relations with Germany to suffer if there is a Rassemblement government.

There are perhaps two more lessons for Ireland. The first is that it has one of the best democratic systems in the world, even if that is not always accurately reflected in public discourse. The lesson is that democracies need to be nurtured and protected, and the incivility that has crept into public life is a negative development.

The second is that Ireland is increasingly suffering the problems that have bedevilled France for some time – an inability to absorb large numbers of immigrants, the demands of an intensely dangerous international security environment and the allure of populism. These problems need to be addressed in a structured way, with clear political vision.

Ireland as a state is still set up for a globalised world, but as deglobalisation sets in these negative trends will intensify. In that regard it is wiser to regard events in France as a harbinger, or warning for the future, as opposed to an outlier. The aim then is to start to build infrastructure – defence and security is one example – that will mean Ireland has the resilience to meet the growing challenges that a more chaotic world throws at it.

Mike O’Sullivan is the co-author of L’Accord du Peuple (Calmann-Levy) with Pierre-Charles Pradier, and a speaker at the Rencontres Économiques in Aix-en-Provence this weekend