French president Emmanuel Macron is less than two months into his five-year term, so it’s too soon to expect much in the way of results. But he’s already done a lot to set the tone of his presidency, presenting a more aloof, even regal, image than his immediate predecessors. Being the youngest French head of state since Napoleon, he has aroused suspicions of having some Napoleonic pretensions to grandeur.
But while politicians should never be encouraged to get an inflated idea of their own importance, it is easy to see how Macron might have decided that a bit more ceremony was in order. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande were seen to have brought the office into some disrepute – not just by their much-discussed private lives, but by participating actively in day-to-day politics rather than cultivating an air of detachment.
It’s also important to remember that the French political system is different from other major democracies. An American president, for example, is a real head of government: he is elected to exercise executive power. Regal symbolism combined with such an office would send a very dangerous signal. But Macron’s power is more symbolic. Although he is a political leader (unlike, say, an Australian governor-general), he can only wield executive power via ministers who have the confidence of parliament.
Which makes it worth looking at what the last couple of weeks tells us about the new president’s relationship with the National Assembly.
Readers will recall that Macron won a crushing majority in last month’s parliamentary election: 308 of the 577 seats for his own Republic on the Move party (REM), plus another 42 for its ally, François Bayrou’s Democratic Movement (MoDem).
That large majority, however, is deceptive; the government parties only had 32.3% of the vote on a low turnout. Macron knows that for the future he will need allies from the centre-left or centre-right, or both – particularly if he introduces, as he has promised, an element of proportional representation for the next parliament. At the very least, he needs to keep his opponents divided.
In any case, the party that an MP is elected for does not always correspond with how they behave in parliament. With 15 MPs required to form a parliamentary group, it was always going to be interesting to see how the new parliament would sort itself out, and how its members would behave in the two key early votes: the election of a speaker and the vote of confidence in the government.
REM and MoDem have formed separate parliamentary groups, each of which has vacuumed up a few independents (including former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls, who has joined the REM group). Their groups now have 314 and 47 members respectively, a combined government majority of 145. The other five groups are all nominally in opposition, but some more so than others.
The centre-right, which won a combined 136 seats, has again formed two groups: one for the main centre-right party, the Republicans, and one for its more liberal ally, the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI). But the UDI has staked out its own line, calling for a constructive engagement with Macron and rebadging its group as the “Constructives”. In doing so it has attracted 12 MPs from the Republicans and another five independent right, for a total of 35 members, leaving the official Republicans with an even hundred.
On the left, the Socialist Party has reconstituted its group as the “New Left”, with 31 members; two who were elected as Socialists have defected to REM, but that’s less fragmentation than might have been expected. To its left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”, or FI) failed to reach agreement with the Communist Party on forming a joint group, so there will now be two of them: FI with 17 members and the Communist-led Democratic and Republican Left (GDR) with 16.
That leaves 17 MPs without a group, or non-inscrits. Ten are from the far right, eight of those being the National Front contingent; three are Corsican nationalists, two from the Left Radical Party, and two independents. The third Left Radical MP has joined the REM group, as has the solitary Green.
(You can see all the groups on their official seating diagram here. Note the neat way in which even the non-inscrits sit in different places according to whether they’re left or right.)
The first business of the Assembly, two weeks ago, was the election of a speaker, or president. MoDem supported the REM nominee, François de Rugy (originally a Green, who sought the Socialist nomination for president earlier this year before joining Macron’s campaign), while the Communists supported the FI candidate. The other three groups each nominated their own candidate. (By comparison, in the previous parliament this vote was just a straight contest between the Socialist and centre-right nominees.)
In a secret ballot, de Rugy won comfortably with 353 votes against 94 for the Republican, 34 for the “Constructive”, 32 for the Socialist and 30 for the FI candidate. Another 24 voted informally, presumably including all of the far right.
Much more revealing was the vote of confidence a week later on the government of prime minister Édouard Philippe. The Assembly approved his “declaration of general policy” by 370 to 67, with 129 abstentions. REM and MoDem, as you would expect, voted unanimously in favor; the far right and far left voted almost as solidly against (four GDR MPs abstained).
But centre-left and centre-right were all over the place. The New Left group had no official line; most of its members abstained, but three voted in favor and five against. The Republicans were officially abstaining, but 23 voted against, one in favor, and one missed the vote altogether. And the “Constructives”, given a chance to be, well, constructive, seemed unsure what to do: they cast 12 votes in favor and 23 abstentions, but the votes in favor included the majority of those who had been elected as Republicans.
So the disarray Macron has created in the party system shows no sign of abating. The centre-right still looks the strongest of the old political forces, but it is deeply divided on how to respond to Macron. If he succeeds in building a lasting centrist coalition, the UDI will want to be part of it, and without them it is hard to see how the Republicans will ever be able to win a majority.
The Socialists have so far preserved a precarious unity on the basis of being neither Macronist nor far left; in doing so they have shed not just a former prime minister but also former presidential candidate Benoît Hamon, who has formed his own “1 July Movement”. And even the far left, although united against Macron, is divided between supporters of Mélenchon’s populism and more traditional leftism.
Interesting times indeed.