The transformation of French politics is complete. Following the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election earlier this month, French voters over the weekend gave him a parliamentary majority to enact a platform that Macron says — and they hope — will rejuvenate the nation. The opposition, while greatly diminished, has pledged to fight on, challenging his mandate and pledging to protect from the “absolute power” that the president seemed ready to wield.
Macron, a political neophyte who has never held political office and only briefly served as minister of the economy in the Cabinet of his predecessor, Francois Hollande, has nevertheless proved a compelling figure on the campaign trail with both great timing and an unerring ability to read the public mood. In less than a year, he launched his own campaign and a political movement — En Marche (Republic on the Move, or REM) — that won a sweeping victory in Sunday’s vote. According to a tentative tally, REM won 350 of the 577 total seats in parliament, with the center-right alliance claiming 137 seats, and the center-left Socialists took 44. Far-left parties, including the French Communist Party, won 27 seats.
Also notable was the showing of the far-right National Front party. Even though it is one of the strongest political forces in France, claiming more than a quarter of the electorate and pushing its leader into the presidential runoff in two consecutive ballots, the party had just two seats in the last assembly. This time, the party won 8 seats, among them party head Marine Le Pen, who will join parliament for the first time.
Central to REM’s success was its claim to launch a renewal of French politics; about one-half of its candidates were also political newcomers, drawn from a wide variety of fields. As a result, the new National Assembly will be younger, and more ethnically and professionally diverse than any of its predecessors. In addition, a large number of women will be seated in the new parliament.
Newcomers are by definition inexperienced, and that has some observers concerned that Macron, the beneficiary of a system that already imbues the president with great power, will be even less encumbered than usual by the National Assembly. That complaint rings hollow given electoral reforms designed to strengthen the president’s hand: A referendum held in 2000 validated changes in the electoral calendar that scheduled parliamentary votes immediately after the presidential ballot for the express purpose of giving the president a working majority. This past weekend, many voters acknowledged that they were voting as much for Macron and his platform as they were for specific individuals.
Macron, a former investment banker, has said that he wants to strengthen France’s entrepreneurial culture and modernize its sclerotic bureaucracy and social security system. He seeks labor reforms that would give businesses more flexibility in setting wages and responding to changing economic conditions.
Macron’s greatest advantage is his youth and vitality. He called on voters to throw out an elite, out-of-touch political class that had little appreciation of the needs of a modern society. His support for the European Union has struck a chord among many French who yearn for a more relevant and outward-oriented government. He reinforced that message with powerful performances on the international stage since taking office, standing up to U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks.
The opposition remains firm in its opposition, however. They dismiss his victory, claiming that the clamor for change was such that voters would have elected donkeys, goats and even hippos in Sunday’s vote. More significantly, they note that abstention reached a historical high: Turnout was just 43 percent, a record low for the Fifth Republic. That will give labor unions and the left, ever ready to take to the streets against reform they do not like, ample reason to indulge in protests. The relatively strong showing of the extreme left — still marginal but representing a hard core of voters — will reinforce that inclination. Already, those leaders speak of a “social coup.”
There is no missing, however, the transformation of French politics. Throughout the Fifth Republic, France has been governed by either the center left or center right. Yet today, as the head of the Socialist Party — who was denied his own seat in the first round of parliamentary voting — conceded, “the collapse of the Socialist Party is beyond doubt.” While the Socialists, who were in power until just weeks ago, were reduced to roughly one-seventh of its pre-election strength of 314, the right lost nearly a third of its seats.
With an overwhelming parliamentary majority, Macron can press forward with his program to rejuvenate his country. The mood in France, however, requires him to succeed if that effort is to proceed beyond the initial forays. Experience, or the lack thereof, may ultimately matter in ways that Macron did not anticipate.