The French elections are over - now the business of politics begins


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Paul Smith

Paul Smith is Associate Professor in French and Francophone Studies and Head of Department at the Faculty of Arts, the University of Nottingham

It wasn’t quite the tsunami some were predicting after the first round of the French general election on 11 June, but Emmanuel Macron’s extraordinary story continues.

After securing the presidency on 7 May with the second-highest run-off score under the Fifth Republic, the new head of state’s La République en Marche (LRM) – a party that won’t be one until July – secured 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly on 18 June, with a further 42 seats for its allies from former justice minister François Bayrou’s party, MoDem.

This isn’t a record. In 2002, Jacques Chirac’s UMP won 365 seats. But what does matter is that LRM has a majority by itself, should relations with MoDem deteriorate further than they did in the week following the elections.

However, faced with allegations that MoDem MEPs siphoned funding from the European Parliament to the party, the party’s three ministers ‒ Bayrou, Sylvie Goulard at defence and Marielle de Sarnez at European affairs ‒ asked Edouard Philippe not to include them in his post-election cabinet. For both Bayrou and Macron, it became impossible for the minister guiding legislation on the ‘moralisation’ of politics to hold on to his position in the face of an official enquiry. The extent to which Bayrou jumped or was pushed has not yet fully emerged.

A fourth minister from the first Philippe government, the former Socialist Richard Ferrand, one of the first converts to Macronisme, also stood down over separate allegations about his past activities. Re-elected to the Assembly on 18 June, he is expected to chair the LRM group.

The major difference between this legislature and its more recent predecessors is a political one

The incoming legislature does show some original characteristics. First, three-quarters of deputies are newcomers. Second, there are more women deputies than ever before: 223 (38%) compared to the last parliament’s previous best of 155 (27%). What is more, the proportion of women elected is much closer to the overall proportion of candidates, which was a little over 40%, despite the penalties parties risk if they don’t run an equal number of women and men.

The Assembly is also younger on average than its predecessor: 48 years compared to 53 in 2012. There are far more deputies in the 20-30 years and 30-40 years age groups than ever before, and far fewer are over 60 years old.

Macron’s promise to shake up the political class has obviously paid off in respect of the ‘newness’ of the class of 2017. But in other ways it hasn’t. The largest socio-professional group in the Assembly are defined as cadres (senior management), and they are followed by ‘category A’ civil servants, then businessmen and -women. The technocratic and business elites that gave us Macron and his PM will throng the Bourbon Palace.

Of course, the major difference between this legislature and its more recent predecessors is a political one. There is no clear left-right divide between government and opposition. LRM-Modem straddles the broad centre. To its right, the Republicans (LR) and their allies in the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) number some 136 deputies, along with various unaligned right-wing deputies. But already, before parliament has formally met, the LR-UDI group has splintered, with about 40 deputies forming a separate group willing to work with the government.

On paper, the Socialists and their allies, with more than 50 seats, have done far better than anyone expected. Below the surface, however, the situation is desperate. The collapse from more than 200 seats will have an enormous impact on party finances. More significantly, five years of ‘Hollandisme’ has seen the party’s presence evaporate at the various levels of local government. Moreover, the divisions between those prepared to work with the government and those opposed is likely to see them split into two groups in the Assembly.

By contrast, the right is still strong in la France profonde, and it is no surprise that leading right-wingers have decided to re-centre their power bases in regional assemblies or as the mayors of some of France’s major cities.

It’s Macron who has a majority, and the elections are over

The strength of the parties at local level will be tested in September, when half of the Senate is due to be re-elected. The upper house is elected by departmental colleges comprised of local councillors but dominated, in numerical terms at least, by municipal delegates. All the elections that determine the complexion of France’s local assemblies took place well before the launch of Macron’s En Marche!, and it’s not yet clear how the presidential party will go about recruiting supporters and candidates in the colleges.

Macron, however, already has a hard core of supporters in or connected to the Senate. Gérard Collomb, his interior minister, was a senator and mayor of Lyon. Two of his closest advisors, Jean-Paul Delevoye and Jean Arthuis, were once influential figures in the upper house and still have their networks. Delevoye handled the nominations of LRM candidates for the National Assembly and is almost certainly working on the Senate election. In the meantime, Macron has delegated François Patriat, a former Socialist and senator for Côte-d’Or in Burgundy to sound out ‘Macroncompatibles’ senators, mostly on the left, in an effort to establish a group of perhaps as many as 60 supporters, ahead of the Senate renewal.

The Senate cannot block legislation except over constitutional questions that are not put to a referendum. In any case, the right-wing majority there is unlikely to oppose Macron’s attempts to modify the labour law that he has made the flagship reform of his first months in power.

Opposition to that, within parliament, will come the rump PS, but above all from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise and from the Communists (PCF). The former have 17 seats and had hoped to persuade the latter, with eleven, to join them. But within the PCF leadership there is no love for Mélenchon and they have set up their own group, with the help of a quartet of overseas left-wing deputies.

However, it’s Macron who has a majority, and the elections are over. Now the politics begins.

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