On the Move to Victory: The French legislative elections

A little over a year ago, it was with the promise of ending the divide between left and right so as to unclog the economy, that Mr. Macron, a candidate who had never before run for any French office, launched his centrist party, En Marche! (“On the Move!”). Following his investiture, the culmination of a triumphant day for pro-European liberalism over the rising tide of populism, he rode along the Champs-Elysées, in recognition of Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic. In the eyes of the public, the office of the presidency has been tarnished during the past decade, both by materialism and incompetence as manifested by Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. Both vowed for reform, only to be blocked by opposition. To enact the change he desires, Mr. Macron needs parliamentary support. He will probably be getting it this month, despite the right’s attempt to push him into the country’s fourth “cohabitation” since 1958- a situation that seems unlikely given the frustration of the French with the traditional political divide.

On June 18, France will be holding its second round of legislative elections, in accordance with its two round system of majority-plurality; for Mr. Macron to win a majority, he needs 289 seats from a total of 577 in the National Assembly, an outcome which is deemed highly probable by current polls. Back in May, OpinionWay, a poll conducted by Les Echos showed En Marche!-recently re-baptized into La République En Marche! (“The Republic on the Move”) (LREM) in anticipation of the elections- gaining between 310 and 330 seats from 535 districts (excluding Corsica), a result which would have been significantly higher than the one obtained in 2012 by the Socialist party and its allies. Following LREM’s astounding victory in the first round of legislative elections on June 11, that prediction has now been adjusted to a higher projection of 390 to 445 overall seats. In an election that was otherwise marked by an unprecedented 51.29% abstention rate, LREM came comfortably first, winning 32.32% of all votes, while The Republicans (LR) and their allies (who only a week ago felt confident about securing a majority) finished second with a mere 21.56% of the vote. Trailing feebly behind in third place was the National Front (NF), which suffered a 21% nationwide drop with its 13.2% electoral result. The biggest loser from Sunday’s contest was, arguably, the Socialist Party (PS) that only managed to attract 9.51% of the vote and that is now also forced to acknowledge that beyond the legislative elections, it is losing the much larger fight of political relevance. In the unlikely event of failure, the President has allied with the centrist Democratic movement to help ensure a majority. Since voter participation (amongst other factors) is not taken into account, such numerical projections ought to be embraced with caution. Yet, what these findings suggest is that Mr. Macron has never, in the whole of his unorthodox career in French politics, found himself closer to securing a cooperative Parliament.

With such cooperation, he will seek to implement his pro-business agenda and pass a set of laws that his new prime minister, Edouard Philippe and 22 government members have been drafting. This includes a major reform of worker protections, a bill to continue the state of emergency until November, a second bill aimed at implementing permanent security measures, and perhaps most refreshingly (and unsurprisingly, in light of recent events), legislation to fight corruption and nepotism as Mr. Macron plans to make the law of moralization of political life the initial claw of his mandate.

It is the right that poses Mr. Macron’s greatest challenge. The old parties and particularly the conservative Democrats who are embittered by Macron’s victory and the financial scandal that engulfed their candidate, François Fillon (and, in essence, obliterated their prospects for success) are trying- albeit rather ineffectively- to garner enough seats so as to force Mr. Macron into a “cohabitation”- a situation of divided government in France’s semi-presidential system where the President is from a different party than the majority of the politicians in the National Assembly. It is partly out of consideration for the legislative elections that the President chose Mr. Philippe, the centre-right mayor of Le Havre to act as Prime Minister, thereby balancing against his own leanings to the left. Mr. Macron’s bulk support comes from the left and centre, and with the right’s willingness to form a solid block in the National Assembly after the elections, his appointment came primarily with the hope of attracting voters from the centre-right. That being said, Macron and Philippe are natural allies in several ways: they share the same educational background having both attended the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration as well as the same aspiration to regenerate French political life with a similar lack of experience (the latter is admittedly the less experienced). Mr. Philippe himself, has said that in spite of his centre-right position, he shares “90%” of Mr. Macron’s thinking. When two days after this appointment, on May 16, Mr. Macron revealed his ministerial plan, his preoccupation with winning a parliamentary majority was evident. The plan consisted of upholding his loyalty to the left, and securing maximum defections from the right. Its third component was enlisting political outsiders with experience- a practice, which has borne ambiguous effects on France in the past, and one that links-perhaps solely- Mr. Macron with Donald Trump who was keen on introducing it in his own cabinet.

His ministerial appointments thus far show that Mr. Macron is keen on sticking to the plan. Further defections from the conservatives have been carried out with the help of Mr. Philippe (thereby gaining a finance minister in Gerald Darmanin, and a budget minister in Bruno Le Maire, amongst others), a pro-Europe, financially conservative team has been assembled with the President’s choices from the left, and a diverse group of outsiders has simultaneously been welcomed. This includes a heamatologist as health minister, a former Danone executive as labour minister, a green campaigner as environment minister, and the head of the ESSEC business school as education minister. Though admirable for its diversity, the choice of newcomers may do little to help electorally (Opinionway reports that only 38 percent of French people can name their MP). Whatever the case may be, strategic interest is but one part of the reason for Mr. Macron’s policy of wider, cross-party governmental inclusion. Fidelity to his promise is the other: the President seems indeed resolute on upholding his pledge to create a government that is both balanced and competent, so as to bridge the French political divide.

On his part, Mr. Macron has already performed a momentous feat: he was the party-outsider who became the youngest President of the Fifth Republic. Now, it is France as a whole that has the opportunity to embrace a cross-party vision that will bring it one step closer to restoring the Gaullian respect it has long lost. The legislative elections come as the first test.