In preparation for his presidential bid, Emmanuel Macron, like all candidates, wrote a book outlining his vision for France. He called it Revolution. That a young, little-known centrist who only served a brief stint as minister for the economy under François Hollande and who has no formal backing from any of the main political parties should be elected president with more than 60% of the vote in the second round is indeed a political revolution within the history of the Fifth Republic.
La République En Marche (La REM), the political movement he founded a little over a year ago, is set for a landslide electoral victory in the second round of the legislative elections on Sunday, winning anything up to 450 seats of the 577 in the assembly. Of those freshly elected deputies, half will be women – another revolution. Most will never have run for office, up to 70% of the deputies that make up the assembly might be novices – this sort of turnover has never been seen.
So has Macron succeeded in revolutionising the French political system? With the traditional left and right parties almost disappearing, in a sense, he has. But there are also ways that the reality of French politics will bite back.
Macron has ridden the wave of one French political tradition to sweep to power in the national assembly elections: the idea of the “presidential majority”. After a president is elected, the convention is that they are offered a majority in parliament to implement their programme. The French consider this the logical extension of their first vote, and Macron seems to be benefiting from that logic too. This wasn’t assured; while the logic had held previously, it was in circumstances when the president had issued from the ranks of one of the traditional political parties.
It was unclear whether the logic would hold for Macron, but it has – in fact, probably more tightly than anyone could have anticipated. By positioning himself to the left and to the right, Macron has in effect hoovered up most of the centre ground, leaving the moderate right to fight over it with the far-left and the far-right.
Indeed, Macron’s positioning has led to some confusion among the electorate, who weren’t always sure which candidate represented the presidential majority. Many candidates seized the opportunity, presenting themselves as candidates of the presidential majority even if they hadn’t been formally endorsed by La REM.
This confusion partially explains the historically low turnout in the first round of 49%. But participation in the first round has been on a continual slide, and a degree of election fatigue has settled in. Interestingly, it is the far-right and the far-left vote that has collapsed, with only half of the voters who turned out for either Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon voting last Sunday. La REM, conversely, has been able to retain the loyalty of those who voted for Macron during the presidential campaign.
It is difficult for parties that are concentrated on the figure of their leader, whether Le Pen or Mélenchon, to turn out votes for legislative elections, and Front National voters might have been put off by the public falling-out of their party surrounding Marine Le Pen’s loss, which has led her popular niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, to take a break from politics. But it is also probably the case that those voters didn’t want to condone the presidential majority in the assembly.
Instead they will turn their attention elsewhere, and this is where the old politics will kick back in: on the streets. One of Macron’s most prominent policies is reform of the labour market, a topic that has been the death knell of many governments, not least Francois Hollande’s. Macron’s critics accuse him of neoliberalism, but he is neither Reagan nor Thatcher. His model is Scandinavian “flexicurity”, combining a flexible labour market with a strong safety net and a high investment in retraining. Macron wants to nationalise social welfare, taking it out of the hands of social partners and opening it up to independent workers, which would be a mini-revolution in itself.
With a majority parliament behind him, opposition to these reforms will take place, as it often has, on the streets, and the first real test of the Macron presidency will be whether he will be able to face it down.
Passing these reforms is the test he must pass to find credibility in the eyes of German political leaders, who will only be willing to compromise on European austerity – another of his main policy planks – if he can reform and bring France’s deficit under 3% (it currently stands at 3.4%).
Another bite-back is the return of the “l’affaires”, the political scandals that have plagued the Fifth Republic. One of Macron’s key pledges has been to “moralise” public life, and his justice minister has brought forward a law to try to stamp out nepotistic practices such as employing members of your family as parliamentary assistants. The problem is that two of his ministers have faced questions concerning favours to an ex-wife or hiring a non-existent parliamentary assistant. While it might turn out that neither did anything illegal, this is precisely the type of old politics that Macron wanted to break with. So far, both ministers look like they will be re-elected, but Macron’s image will be tarnished if he doesn’t take a firm line with them.
The president’s final problem will be his legislative majority. With most representatives never having held office, he will have to rely on a small cadre of experts to rule, reinforcing the authoritarian tendencies already present in his type of rule, and which the French system encourages. Concerns have been expressed about his desire to constitutionalise many of the measures that have been used during the state of emergency that has arisen from terrorist attacks.
But where will the legitimate opposition, which all healthy democracies need, be? The Socialists have all but been wiped out and, while the rightwing Republicans will be the second-largest party, half of these want to cooperate with Macron. That only leaves the Front National and Mélenchon’s France Insoumise. With such dominance in the assembly, Macron might struggle to keep public support of his coalition from disintegrating.
Much will depend on whether Macron succeeds in the objectives he has set himself: reducing unemployment and democratising the EU. If he succeeds then a new political configuration will come into place, much like De Gaulle after his founding of the Fifth Republic. If he fails, then the extremes will be back with a vengeance.