The sense that a fundamental change was coming had been growing week after week, after Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French Presidential election last month. Like tectonic plates shifting and crumbling around a new eruption pushing them apart, the left and the right, just as they had been edged out by Macron’s En Marche movement (On the Move), began to give way to the newly baptised La République en Marche (the Republic on the Move, or LREM for short).
The conservative Republicans (“LR”) had busily prepared for a cohabitation with President Macron, putting forward the baby-faced but bass-voiced François Baroin as their Prime Minister-to-be. Their hastily concocted party platform, which differed significantly from that of their now disavowed Presidential candidate, François Fillon, flopped and their campaign stuttered. Their confidence at the beginning of the campaign now looks like hubris.
On the left, the Socialists (“PS”) hoped and prayed that, by painting the Macron government as conservative, the left would flock to the polls to “correct” the Presidential vote, while quietly shelving Benoit Hamon’s platform and putting his under-performance down to the candidate’s personal failings. Instead what little support they had appears to have either decamped to LREM or stayed at home.
Last Sunday was just the first round – where the top two candidates (plus anyone who gets over 12.5% of the electoral roll) go through to a run-off this Sunday – but already the picture is clear. Whilst LR finds itself likely reduced to a rump of 70 to 110 seats, the PS is almost completely wiped out, likely to secure only 20 to 30 seats. The far left and far right also under-performed their Presidential scores. The Greens will be totally absent from the chamber. LREM will reign supreme with between 415 and 455 seats – way over the majority of 289 seats which a party needs to govern without other parties.
With perhaps as many as 43% of deputies being female, two thirds of deputies being first timers in the National Assembly, and a range of ethnic minorities present for the first time, this new parliament will be significantly different to any before. But the political effects resulting from the LREM hegemony may be even more significant.
Everywhere you look at last Sunday’s results, you find the same pattern. Save for 19 constituencies, LREM candidates are present in all second round match-ups. LREM saw off all political colours, beating in multiple races the far left’s La France Insoumise (led by political rabble-rouser Jean-Luc Mélenchon), LR, the Greens, the National Front and the PS. Whether the candidates were known local celebrities, individuals with interesting backstories or apparent nobodies who campaigned little or not at all, all were swept up in the Macron-mania.
Canvassing voters these past weeks in my own constituency (the 10th district of Seine-et-Marne), three things were pretty clear to me.
First, election fatigue had well and truly set in. People want to be consulted, but only until they don’t any longer. The addition of primary elections on the left and right to the already-long Presidential and Legislative calendar stretched out the campaign by another six months. Originally used to bring in voters into the party process, with a hope of broadening the parties’ bases and ensuring electoral dominance of the centre left and centre right, the primaries now look faintly comic given the lack of impact they had on the parties’ success. Future primaries may be abandoned, with party memberships choosing their own candidates without resorting to troubling the public, if only because they are expensive to run and the PS and LR will, shorn of their deputies, be mightily low on cash.
Second, a certain coherence between the Presidential election and the Legislative majority was desired, irrespective of voters’ political leanings. Many wanted to give Macron “a chance to govern”, although this should not be confused with agreeing to his party platform, about which most know little. Whilst Edouard Philippe, the new Prime Minister, loudly proclaimed that the first round showed that people were supportive of his policies, this really isn’t true. The new government is very much on probation with a public who is sceptical at best.
Third, whilst those who were engaged in a specific political party still felt motivated to try and provide some kind of buffer against an all-powerful LREM, those on the fringes (distinguish, say, a party member from a sympathiser) were thoroughly disheartened and likely to stay home. They did. Turn out was at a historic low, 50%, for a Legislative Election. Whilst turnout in a first round is often down, and no one expected Presidential sized turnout, this was a shock. Perhaps many thought there was little point voting on a hot sunny day with other things to do when the media had endlessly predicted that LREM would secure a majority. The same voters are unlikely to turn out to the second round – the triumph of LREM is even clearer now. Perhaps some were baffled by the choice presented to them: there were over 25 candidates in some constituencies in Paris, and 14 in mine, ranging from two LR candidates (no one seems to know why), someone protecting animals’ rights, a Green, two Communists and a Frexiteer.
Since the reduction of the Presidential term to five years, the Legislative Elections have followed the Presidential Election by about a month. This was designed to ensure that the Legislative Elections confirm the choice made in the Presidential Election, thus creating a majority for the President to govern with. Whilst the desire to have a stable and coherent majority for the President to implement his programme makes sense, it is clearing turning off voters. A more sensible approach would be to select the President and National Assembly on the same day, allowing a choice to be made that is uninfluenced by a previous election, without undermining the stability of the government (split tickets are pretty rare where multiple elections are held on the same day in other countries). No one seems likely to pick this suggestion up though. Instead the Macron government might implement a suggestion (albeit vague) made by the President during the campaign to introduce some proportional representation (perhaps 10 or 15% of deputies being elected on that basis) to give greater representation to smaller political parties. LREM’s dominance of the National Assembly now makes this much more likely – Macron can afford to give some slack to smaller parties, and by doing so he will reinforce his political credentials.
A huge LREM’s majority is, say opponents, dangerous for democracy. Let’s not exaggerate that danger; LR retain a small majority in the Senate (likely to be reinforced by elections this October – the Senate is chosen by local councilors who themselves were elected in 2014 when LR was riding high) and they also run many regions and major cities. It is also unclear how cohesive a majority LREM will actually be. There are plenty of prospective deputies who have radically different ideas on the details of policy. LREM’s massive majority might actually be an opportunity for parliament itself. There is talk of automatically giving parliamentary commission positions to opposition groups, and a better way of dividing up parliamentary time. These rules changes might benefit future legislatures and make the National Assembly more democratic for when “normal” conditions resume and the makeup of the body is more mixed.
The reset of party politics that has taken place therefore could change both the electoral law for and functioning of parliament. While the opposition parties sort themselves out, Macron could improve the quality of French democracy. That in itself would be a worthy legacy.