/ 19 June 2017

Macron faces hurdles, despite massive boost

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron’s upstart party, En Marche! (Forward!), won a stunning victory in Sunday’s legislative elections. With this latest big boost, the youngest president in the six decade-long Fifth Republic has transformed the country’s political landscape in a matter of weeks and has potential to become one of the country’s most successful-ever political leaders.

Yet, his ultimate success in coming years is still by no means guaranteed. This is not least because new legislators representing En Marche! — whose average age is early to mid 40s compared to the 60 to 70 of the outgoing lawmakers in the lower chamber — are drawn from a broad spectrum of political views and the cohesiveness of the bloc is uncertain.

Moreover, France’s political mood remains volatile and one indicator of remaining voter unease is the exceptionally low turnout in the legislative elections, estimated at 43%. Although the electorate has decided to favour hope over anger in this ballot, the tide could still turn against Macron if he fails to address widespread anti-establishment discontent fuelled by economic pain, which has seen the country suffer years of double digit unemployment but also low growth.

Given the very high expectations now surrounding his presidency, Macron will be acutely aware that, despite early optimism over the election of the last two incumbents — Nicholas Sarkozy and François Hollande — both ultimately became unpopular one-term heads of state, despite also enjoying legislative majorities. Indeed, Hollande — who became the least popular president since records began — decided last year not to even seek re-election, the first incumbent not to try for a second term in the Fifth Republic.

The new president knows only too well that, if he fails with his programme, the primary beneficiaries of any discontent may well be other anti-establishment figures such as National Front leader Marine Le Pen and/or hard left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, who finished second and fourth respectively in last month’s presidential elections. Le Pen is perhaps the biggest threat, despite the fact that she got comprehensively beaten last month by Macron, given that she secured more than 40% of the final round vote and is young enough to run potentially in several more French presidential elections.

In this context, Macron is now likely to try to push as fast as possible with his reformist agenda to overhaul the country’s politics and economy. This includes proposed labour laws to try to reduce the unemployment rate of around 10% and also to reindustrialise France through innovation-led policies. Collectively, this could provide a major fillip to the eurozone’s second largest economy.

Macron wants to try to push his agenda as hard as he can in his first 100 days not just so he can secure as many successes as possible during his extended political honeymoon. In addition, he knows his opponents remain, at least temporarily, disorientated by his remarkable accomplishments over the last few weeks, which have upended the traditional two party-politics status quo of centre-left Socialists and centre-right Republicans.

Not only did last month’s final round presidential election put the country into uncharted territory by being the first in the country’s modern history that neither the Republicans nor Socialists managed to qualify. Now En Marche! has handsomely beat both parties in the legislative ballots in a way that many people thought most unlikely even a few weeks ago given that the party was only founded in April 2016 and only had a relatively small number of candidates in place before Macron’s presidential victory last month.

Previously, many had thought the most likely outcome on Sunday would be En Marche! emerging as the largest single party, but without a majority, which could have left much of Macron’s agenda stymied. For much of the Fifth Republic, the incumbent president has enjoyed the support of a relatively secure legislative majority in the lower chamber from his own party.

Yet, Macron has defied the political odds and has not just won an outright working majority of more than 289 seats, but won one of the more sizeable majorities since former president Charles de Gaulle’s 1968 landslide victory. This could now help realign French politics, especially given that key figures from both the Socialists and Republicans have now rallied behind En Marche!

Aside from the rise of Macron and En Marche, one of the stand-out results of the 2017 elections has been the decline of the Socialists. The party finished fifth in last month’s presidential ballot, and lost its status as the largest single party in the lower chamber on Sunday falling to less than 50 seats, the lowest ever tally by the Socialists.

The Republicans fared somewhat better, and will become the largest opposition force, but with less than 150 seats, down on the 200 seats last time around. Meanwhile, the National Front has barely improved on the two deputies it had in the previous legislature.

Taken overall, Sunday’s elections have significantly increased the prospects of Macron’s agenda being enacted and he will now press ahead as fast as he can with his reforms. Yet, given sky-high expectations and the volatile public mood, there remains a key danger that he will be able to realise the hopes that are held about his new presidency.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics