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En Marche Triumphant: France’s Centre Revolution

19 Jun 2017
By Dr Remy Davison
Photo: @France24_en

The resounding victory of En Marche in the French parliamentary elections will enable President Emmanuel Macron to pursue his political vision. Unpopular elements of that agenda, however, may undermine his support base before long.

On 18 June, as Emmanuel Macron attended commemoration ceremonies for Charles de Gaulle’s resistance call of 1940, the new president’s En Marche movement won a decisive parliamentary majority in the second round of the legislative elections, consolidating his personal victory in May.

This is an extraordinary outcome for a political movement founded on the internet just a year ago. En Marche commenced its election campaign with no parliamentary seats, requiring approximately 300 seats to govern with a stable majority. Now it finds its candidate installed in the Elysée Palace, with approximately 63 per cent of the delegates to the 577-seat National Assembly.

As the presidential elections in May illustrated, French politics is in flux on a scale unknown since the promulgation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The collapses of the centre-right Republicans, under François Fillon, and the centre-left Socialist Party, led by Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, have seen the emergence of a new political centre under Macron. To a lesser extent, the far-left and far-right have been the beneficiaries of the chaos engulfing mainstream French political parties.

The danger for Macron was that he could find himself as a president lacking a workable majority in the National Assembly. However, Macron maintained a lead in the polls before the 11-18 June legislative elections that suggested a landslide victory for En Marche.

It was equally important for Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) to exploit the 33 per cent result it had obtained in the second presidential poll. However, the FN faced a far tougher task in multiple-candidate constituencies than it did in the two-horse presidential race. After Le Pen’s temporary withdrawal from the FN, this left the party with just one sitting member in the National Assembly.

Following the presidential run-off in May, Le Pen and her officials spoke confidently of the FN obtaining up to 50 seats, given the party’s strong showing in the industrial north of France, as well as migration trouble spots, such as Calais.

However, although both the FN and mainstream parties have performed slightly better in the parliamentary elections than expected, the landscape for all of them is grim. With 97 per cent of the vote counted as of 19 June, the projected results see Macron’s En Marche with 361 seats, while the conservative Republicans will have 126 seats. The Socialists (PS) have seen their parliamentary representation shrink to 46 seats, a record low for the party in the post-war era. Cambadelis has announced his resignation in the wake of the PS’s poor result. Ninety seats remain undecided.

On the fringes, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s communist-backed Insoumise did not outpoll the PS but still won 26 seats, while the FN, with just eight seats, failed to achieve parliamentary party status, which requires 15 seats. Marine Le Pen was quick to challenge the legitimacy of En Marche’s victory, pointing to the record high abstention rate of 56.6 per cent.

Despite voters’ abandonment of the PS and Republicans, the communists and the FN have performed poorly. Mélenchon received a significant proportion of the youth vote in the first round of the presidential election in April, but this has not translated into either a strong youth turnout or sufficient delegates to unseat the PS as the dominant party of the left.

It is the poverty of the FN’s performance that demonstrates French voters have ended their dalliance with the far right (for now). The 2014 European parliamentary elections appeared to augur the rise of the far right throughout much of Europe. In the first presidential round of 2017, Le Pen only trailed Macron by around a million votes; even in the second round, her 33.9 per cent share of the vote was creditable, given the FN’s parlous finances. However, the FN’s failure to build on this outcome, resulting in a minuscule parliamentary delegation, raises deeper question as to whether the FN is a serious contender for power or merely a protest party.

Macron’s agenda

The British and now French elections have demonstrated that nothing remains certain in politics. Macron’s success shows that leaders can run an explicitly pro-European campaign and win convincingly from the political centre. Macron now has an overwhelming mandate to implement his agenda. What policies will a Macron presidency and En Marche government seek to implement?

Macron is committed to labour market deregulation. En Marche wants to scrap 120,000 public service positions, possibly through natural attrition. But like his third-way predecessors, such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, Macron’s objective is to combined reform and deregulation with significant investment. Macron has flagged education as his top priority and spoken of wanting France to be an entrepreneurial “start-up nation”. He has earmarked €50 billion (AU$73.5 billion) for investment in skills, services, environment, agriculture, health and infrastructure. Macron also wants to extend unemployment insurance to business people and farmers.

This is a significant fiscal commitment for a government that must still grapple with reducing France’s government debt to GDP ratio, which stands at over 96 per cent. Combining new spending with France’s EU fiscal target commitments (a budget deficit of less than 3 per cent per annum) will be a tall order and Macron’s spending cuts will almost certainly lead to protests. He will face significant opposition to reform of France’s generous state pensions, which have been regarded as an entitlement throughout the post-war era.

On law and order, Macron has promised tough new measures and to boost police numbers. Despite his pro-European stance, Macron also campaigned on EU reform. On foreign policy, Macron essentially represents continuity. Like his predecessors, he advocates multilateralism via the UN Security Council, but he is also a strong supporter of the Francophonie policy of promoting French language and culture throughout former French colonies.

For his cabinet, Macron has drawn on experienced politicians and activists, from the former Greens candidate Nicolas Hulot to technology entrepreneur Mounir Mahjoubi. Old hands include conservative Bruno Le Maire (finance) and Jean-Yves Le Drian (foreign affairs) from the PS.

The first round of the presidential election showed voters coalescing around factors such as region, religion, urban/rural divisions, education and class. Despite Macron’s success, the poor voter turnout in 2017 evinces significant electoral cleavages throughout France. An electorate that has so easily abandoned mainstream political parties could turn against Macron just as quickly once the champagne effect of his victory loses its effervescence.

Dr. Remy Davison is Jean Monnet Chair in Politics & Economics at Monash University and a UN Global Expert. He is the author of ‘The Political Economy of the Eurozone Crises’ and ‘The New Global Politics of the Asia-Pacific’ (both forthcoming, 2017).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.