20 June 2017

French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) won 350 of 577 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament – 42 of which went to candidates from LREM’s centrist ally, the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) of François Bayrou. The result grants the newly-elected president a commanding parliamentary majority. For a party that is just over a year old there can be no argument that this is a remarkable achievement for LREM, particularly given that France is a country that has traditionally experienced a two-party system.

Record low turnout

Macron’s victory was not as large as predicted by some pollsters – who expected LREM to smash the ceiling of 400 seats – and was dimmed by the record low turnout of just 43%. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said, “Abstention is never good news for democracy. The government interprets it as a strong obligation to succeed.” Philippe recognises that this not a blank cheque for the government, but instead an immense responsibility to convince those that abstained rather than endorse Macron’s third way. Though low turnout can be read as election fatigue (France has gone to the polls four times in three months, eight if one includes the ‘primary elections’ to select the presidential candidates of the centre-left and the centre-right) there can be no denying that over half of voters may not be enthused by Macron’s reform plans to vote. Turnout was also low in the second-round of the presidential elections, with Macron securing a mandate from only 43% of voters.

Socialist Party meltdown

The French legislative election witnessed the near-total collapse of former-President François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste (PS), which retained just 29 seats of the 280 seats they secured in 2012. This is the worst result for PS since 1993, when it fell to 56 seats from 278 during former socialist President François Mitterrand’s second term. PS’s crushing defeat was foretold after a humiliating first round, with PS heavyweight names such as former presidential contender Benoît Hamon and PS leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis both failing to make it to yesterday’s run-off in their respective constituencies.

Speaking after the results, Cambadélis said:

The triumph of Emmanuel Macron is unquestionable and the defeat of the left is certain, the rout of the Socialist Party is undeniable and the right is facing failure. The left has to change everything, its form and its substance, its ideas and its organisation. The left must open up to a new cycle, we have to rethink the roots of progressive approach the welfare state, we need to rethink to fight against neoliberals and nationalism.

The near decimation of PS signals an existential crisis, as internal divisions within the party were amplified during the election campaigning. The left wing of PS rejected the establishment figure and then prime minister Manuel Valls as their presidential contender and opted for Hamon. Hamon himself had previously quit Hollande’s government in protest over the party moving to the right under Valls. Many viewed the contest as a battle for the party’s soul.

Marine Le Pen enters the Assembly for the first time, but she must be disappointed with her party’s performance

Elsewhere, the far right Front National (FN) did not achieve the success they hoped for, despite leader Marine Le Pen experiencing a personal win by securing a seat in the National Assembly for the first time. FN won eight seats, up six seats from the last legislative election in 2012, but they fell short of the fifteen seats threshold needed to form a parliamentary group – undoubtedly a big disappointment for a party that made the second round of the presidential election and hoped to become Macron’s main opposition. Like PS, FN members have called for a change of strategy as a result of the poor performance. Le Pen herself recognised this and launched an inquest into her party’s performance. One area where we are likely to see the FN soften its stance is their anti-euro rhetoric – which, incidentally, was nowhere to be seen during the parliamentary election campaign. According to an Ifop poll published in Le Figaro earlier this year, 72% of French voters are opposed to abandoning the euro and returning to the franc. While FN’s recently elected MP Gilbert Collard has long pushed for FN to drop its anti-euro stance, Le Pen’s close aide and deputy Florian Philippot, seen as the architect of her anti-euro economic policy, failed to get elected.

The pressure is on for Macron

Having secured an outright majority in parliament Macron can implement his economic reform agenda without hindrance. He does not need to rely on the centrist ally MoDem. Macron’s challenge is to manage a party which lacks experience. Polls have shown the French are pessimistic when it comes to the future of their country. Macron has raised the hopes and expectations of French voters. He has pledged to clean up politics and implement a “moralisation bill,” but news today of Sylvie Goulard, the French Armed Forces Minister, resigning following a preliminary investigation into MoDem over allegations of misusing public funds for fake parliamentary jobs, could taint him. As could reports of other financial scandals.

Macron has plans for sweeping reforms. He has until 2022 to show that his ‘neither left nor right’ agenda is a long-term viable option in a traditional two party system. Voters are disillusioned and that’s reflected in the low turnout, Macron must win over those voters that rejected establishment politics. He must persuade them of the benefits of his reforms, such as his contentious labour reforms, or he risks further disappointing already marginalised voters. At the time of his election, Macron’s former boss, President Hollande was also greeted with optimism. If Macron’s planned reforms fail and France’s problem of high unemployment and low growth persists, he will live up to the ‘Hollande’s heir’ label that was bestowed on him by his opponents. Expectations for Macron are sky high – The Economist has him walking across water on its cover.  As my colleague Aarti Shankar outlined here the threat of Eurosceptic populism in France has not and will not disappear with Macron’s election. If he fails to meet expectations that will push voters into the arms of either Le Pen or far left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who are both waiting in the wings with a strongly anti-EU agenda.  Rather than saving the EU Macron could end up damaging it. With no coalition partners or hung parliaments to blame if things go wrong, Macron has nowhere to hide.