Macron continues to defy expectations with poll absolute majority
French president has made impressive start but big challenge is to motivate jaded voters
French president Emmanuel Macron: has built his victories on French rejection of their political class. But he has not entirely transformed that rejection into support for his programme. Photograph: Michel Euler/AFP/Getty
The election of an absolute majority loyal to President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday closed an extraordinary period in French politics.
In just 14 months, a young economy minister launched his own political movement, En Marche!, resigned from the government, declared his candidacy for the presidency of France, decimated the two former parties of government and proceeded to win four rounds of presidential and legislative elections.
The common wisdom said a man who had never been elected to political office, without the backing of a party machine, had no chance of being elected.
When Macron swept to office with 66 per cent of the vote on May 7th, there was widespread speculation that he would be paralysed by the lack of a parliamentary majority, or that he would be forced into constant compromise with his allies in the small centrist party, MoDem.
Macron defied all predictions. His République En Marche (LREM) won 308 of 577 seats. MoDem won another 42, enough to be helpful, but not essential to carrying out Macron’s programme.
“Our political system is worn out. We are going to change it . . . We are you!” Macron said in a speech at the Mutualité auditorium in Paris on July 12th of last year. France’s political class underestimated him at their own peril.
Now French media have taken to portraying Macron (39) to Napoleon, who became emperor at 35.
Macron has kept his promise of renewal. Three-quarters of the deputies elected on Sunday did not serve in the previous assembly, a record since de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958.
And in a country where the under-representation of women has been a source of shame, the new Assembly is 38.6 per cent female, a 12 per cent increase over the previous chamber. The average age has dropped from 54 to 48.6 years.
Providential leaders usually end up badly in France. Remember Joan of Arc, two Napoleons, Maréchal Pétain? In the US, Donald Trump succeeded Barack Obama. Doomsayers predict it is only a matter of time until the wheels come off.
Two abrasive, combative, vociferous orators and former presidential candidates with volatile troops were elected to the Assembly for the first time. The presence of the extreme right-wing leader Marine Le Pen and the extreme left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon ensures that this is not the end of history, that France is not about to live happily ever after.
Le Pen’s Front National (FN) won eight seats, Mélenchon’s France Unbowed 17. Mélenchon founded his movement two months before Macron launched En Marche! In other circumstances, the extreme left-wing party’s score would have been considered phenomenal.
Mélenchon is fascinated by Robespierre, the architect of revolutionary terror. “The French people have chosen us to carry the lantern of combat,” he declared on Sunday night. It is significant that France Unbowed took the entire Seine-Saint-Denis department, comprised of the most restive banlieues north of Paris.
A riot nearly broke out when a France Unbowed candidate lost to the former prime minister Manuel Valls by 139 votes in the Essonne department south of Paris. “Cheaters! Thieves!” the losing side shouted amid scuffles with Valls supporters.
While claiming their own legitimacy from the ballot box, Le Pen and Mélenchon say Macron’s majority is not representative because of the record high abstention rate of 57.4 per cent.
Another 9.9 per cent of ballots were blank or null, meaning 67.3 per cent of registered voters did not participate or rejected all candidates.
When this is factored in, a substantial majority of deputies were elected by less than a quarter of their constituencies’ registered voters. Abstention was highest among the economically disadvantaged and young people.
The country has seen eight elections in as many months. Voters have gone to the polls more often than to museums or the cinema. But weariness is not the only explanation. Polls had predicted a veritable tsunami of some 450 seats for Macron. Warnings of the danger of Macronist “hegemony” appear to have incited the electorate to self-correct between the two rounds.
The conservative Les Républicains (LR) won 113 seats, compared to 199 in the previous assembly; the Socialists 30 seats compared to close to 300. Like the extreme right and the extreme left, the remnants of the pre-Macron era’s leading political parties mirror each other. Both are orphaned of leaders and ideology. Both are riven between “Macron-compatible” or “constructive” elements and hardliners who believe they can fight their way back to relevance.
Macron has built his stunning series of victories on French rejection of their political class. But, as his impressive but smaller-than-predicted triumph in the legislative elections showed, he has not entirely transformed that rejection into support for his programme. Winning the confidence of a jaded and disillusioned electorate could be his hardest battle.