(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.