A cliffhanger and a landslide, part II

(Some of this will make more sense if you first read Tuesday’s first part, here.)

While Britain’s election saw an incumbent humiliated, the French parliamentary election is a triumph for the country’s new centrist president, Emmanuel Macron. His party, Republic on the Move (REM), although barely a year old, is set to win about three-quarters of the seats in the National Assembly.

To be sure, that’s partly an artefact of the electoral system (explained in my preview) rather than a sign of overwhelming popular support. REM, in alliance with the more established Democratic Movement (MoDem), has 32.3% of the first round vote, compared to 21.6% for the centre-right Republicans and their allies. The various components of the left (more about that shortly) had 27.6% between them, while the far-right National Front had 13.2%. (Official results here; note the way the interior ministry helpfully orders the parties from left to right.)

But those numbers will produce wildly divergent totals of seats. By my count, REM and MoDem lead in 454 of the 577 seats, and are into the runoff in another 67. They will be overtaken in a few, but they can expect to win maybe somewhere in the 440s. The centre-right will have at most about 80, and the left not much more than half that, divided about equally between the Socialist Party and its allies on one hand and the forces to its left on the other.

That will leave around a dozen seats for everyone else. The National Front leads in 21, but it will be overtaken in most of them as its opponents pool their votes. It might finish with about five, with a few more for assorted regionalists and independents.

So Macron’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, will probably have the largest majority any government has enjoyed under the fifth republic. Indeed, it will be even better than the numbers suggest, since a significant proportion of centre-left and centre-right MPs are also pledged to support Macron’s program.

Not surprising, then, that there have been calls for electoral reform to address the gross lack of proportionality. Macron and Philippe have promised to introduce an element of proportional representation into the system, without specifying just how much. Previous president François Hollande made a similar promise, which went nowhere; the Assembly has been based purely on single-member districts since 1988.

The result is a remarkable turnaround from just a couple of months ago, when Macron, although travelling well in the polls for the presidency, had virtually no party organisation and only a handful of endorsed parliamentary candidates. But the opinion polls (unlike in Britain) did a good job of picking the movement, and by last week it was clear that a landslide was on the way.

That’s probably the main reason for the poor turnout, which hit a record low of 48.7% (down from 57.2%). That also made it almost impossible for third-placed candidates to make the runoff, since they needed 12.5% of enrolled voters. Only one made it, the National Front candidate in Aube’s first district, who will contest a “triangular” with REM and the Republicans.

Last month I talked about Macron’s odd relationship with “neoliberalism”, but last week’s events drew attention to his equally conflicted position regarding another buzzword, namely “populism”.

At one level, calling Macron a populist seems absurd. He was endorsed by most of the French political establishment; his positions are antithetical to those of such notorious populists as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage; and of the four leading presidential candidates he was the one proposing the least radical change to France’s social and economic structures.

Yet in other ways the label is not so silly. He came from outside the established parties, relying on his own citizen-based movement; while he had the support of elites, he clearly also mustered a great deal of popular enthusiasm. In particular, he understood the need to address the public’s very low opinion of the political class – to deal with the “integrity deficit” that has undermined confidence in democracy. And he seemed to appreciate that successful leaders need to demonstrate a willingness to trust the voters.

In these ways there are similarities between Macron and Jeremy Corbyn: both won support for their perceived authenticity. But Macron looked in a different direction for his alliances. Whereas Corbyn tried (with surprising success) to unite the young, cosmopolitan educated classes with an old-style socialist working-class base, Macron sought to bring progressive, multicultural policies into alliance with liberal economics.

Each strategy worked in its own environment, and particularly in its own electoral system. Neither would have stood much chance if forced to operate under the other’s conditions.

The nearest French analogue to Corbyn is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came fourth in the presidential election and whose far-left movement, “Unsubmissive France” (FI), polled 11.0% on Sunday and will probably finish with about ten seats. Its Communist allies will win about another seven for their 2.7%. But Mélenchon also is a somewhat unlikely populist, although his hostility to multilateral institutions and sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s Russia give him something of a common bond with the likes of Trump and Farage.

Between them, Mélenchon and Macron have all but destroyed the old Socialist Party. Its presidential candidate Benoît Hamon and party secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis were both knocked out in the first round, and with just 7.4% of the vote (down from 29.3%) it will probably win about a dozen seats. Assorted independent left candidates, most of them with Socialist support, will win a similar number.

Faced with such fragmented opposition, Macron will have a clear run in parliament for the foreseeable future. But a large majority brings its own problems; doubly so when so many of them have no political background. And a centrist party always faces pressure to define itself by leaning one way or the other.

At some point the president may need to decide whether he can keep competing with both centre-left and centre-right, or whether he is trying to replace one of them – and if so, which one.




9 thoughts on “A cliffhanger and a landslide, part II

  1. Well Macron was (briefly) a member of PS so we know which general direction he would go. And the socialist wing of REM is a lot bigger than its Republicain wing. That is why he appointed a former-Republicain, Édouard Philippe, as his PM: to attract the moderate centre-Rightists (Juppé wing) and in government to presumably enforce bipartisanship, at least to begin with and then we’ll see just how good Philippe is in fostering it. Like Macron he is relatively new to politics which under the circumstances might be a strength. According to the Guardian’s France (and French) correspondent “As a student, Philippe was briefly a social democrat activist within the French Socialist party before moving to the right.” He also writes regularly for Liberation!

    Proof really that the old labels are well beyond their sell-by date.

    It will be interesting to see if they act on creating some kind of PR. They need to do it before the next election cycle begins. They are both smart enough to realize that the dominance of REM cannot be sustainable or stable. It might just be a rare opportunity to forever alter the system to something more stable and representative.


    1. I think that’s exactly right; this is a golden opportunity to get some sort of PR and make it stick, thus ensuring a role for centrists into the future. The danger is that REM deputies will decide that, having done rather well out of the current system, they’ve got no interest in changing it.


  2. You’d think if Macron’s party survives, it would displace the Socialist Party on the centre-left. In the first round of the presidential election, at least 46% of the vote was for candidates to the right of Macron. That tells you where his support lies.

    It’s the Socialist Party that has suffered the most from the rise of Macron. The results suggest there’s very little ground to occupy between Macron and Melenchon. Since it doesn’t seem likely the Socialist Party could go further left than they did with Hamon, that leaves them fighting for the same turf as Macron.


    1. Thanks David – yes, that seems right to me. I think part of the Socialist Party will drift into a closer alliance with Mélenchon’s group, and what’s left will ultimately be absorbed by REM, which will come to look more like a left-leaning centre party. But we’ll wait for Sunday and see just who manages to get back.


      1. Speaking of Benoit Hamon being eliminated in the first round, Manuel Valls who was rejected by REM and rejected by PS because of his refusal to endorse Hamon in the prez contest and failed attempt to run as REM’s candidate, is hanging on in Essonne: polls show it is 50:50 with the other candidate for France Insoumise. That FI might win here is another sign of the changing of the guard. Essonne, part of the Paris urban sprawl to the south-east centred on the “new town” of Evry (where Valls was mayor) and immigrant and poorish (though remember even a poor part of Paris is richer than any non-Ile de France area of France).


      2. I’d be surprised if Valls loses there; he’s got a lead of nearly eight points, with more than 26% of centre-right vote that will mostly flow to him. But yes, another sign of disarray in the Socialist Party.


      3. Macron’s and likely LREM’s triumphs are driving the Anglosphere commentators a bit loopy, especially of course the Right. Previously I’ve pointed out Henry Ergas’ dilemma and he was at it again yesterday in his Saturday OpEd for Murdoch.

        There is consequently a pervasive crisis of legitimacy that risk depriving Macron’s administration of the political capital and reserves of loyalty needed to implement tough decisions.

        The Right are incapable of ever accepting the legitimacy of anyone else governing than themselves. We saw it in the despicable Mitch McConnell (GOP leader in the US Senate) who declared after Obama’s convincing win that the first duty of all Republicans was to ensure his removal and oppose all his policies regardless of merit or national interest. We saw the same with so many, including Ergas’ host newspaper, and led by the two senior editors Paul Kelly and denis Shanahan, that the Gillard government was illegitimate because of minority government supported by two independents who should have supported Abbott!

        Even Macron scoring an overwhelming win in both presidency and the National Assembly won’t stop them. And they deploy every bit of exaggeration or imagined weakness they can summon staying just this side (arguably) of fake news:

        But Macron’s imperious style and autocratic pretensions show signs of veering into hubris, eroding what little honeymoon period he may otherwise have enjoyed.

        Seriously, is he perfectly Freudian here? His description sounds like Abbott, or Trump or even Theresa May. Everyone knows that a big majority without any serious opposition holds dangers and traps for a leader and party but let’s give the bloke the benefit of the doubt, Henry. Only this next week will Macron get his hands of the actual levers of power.
        I think Ergas and the Anglosphere commentariat’s bile over Macron (there has been a series of articles by Project Syndicate) is extreme discomfit with the implosion of their beloved neo-conservative 40-year experiment, and worst of all, that France might show a path out of the cul-de-sac they have created. That would be unbearable, especially as they have spent those 40 years criticizing France and predicting its imminent collapse.
        Yeah, no weight on Macron’s 39-year old shoulders!


      4. And indeed Valls got back, but only by the skin of his teeth: 50.3%, or a margin of just 139 votes.


      5. Those French polls are remarkably accurate. On Friday they were giving it as exactly 50:50.
        No matter one’s opinion of Valls it is good to have such a person still in the National Assembly. He will still have a voice.


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