France goes to the polls on Sunday for first round legislative elections that could radically alter the country’s political landscape.
Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist who won the presidential race last month, leads an upstart party – En Marche (Forward!) – that currently has no legislative representation. This weekend, he is hoping to change that.
Last month, Macron, handsomely beat far right contender Marine Le Pen to become the eighth President of France’s almost six decade old Fifth Republic. This was the first final round presidential election in the country’s modern history in which neither of the two mainstream parties managed to qualify. Liberals, globalists, and EU fans around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Now the key concern is how effectively the young President will be able to govern. So much rests upon the upcoming legislative elections, in which En Marche will field candidates in all 577 constituencies, with the first rounds this Sunday and the second scheduled for June 18.
The worst case scenario for Macron – which seems the least likely from polls – is a hostile majority against him that will make it hard to for him to govern and potentially risk political paralysis in coming months. This could leave much of Macron’s agenda stymied, if not dead on arrival, including his proposed labour reform to try to reduce the unemployment rate, his plans to cut public spending, and his vision to re-industrialise France through innovation-led policies.
Should En Marche not emerge as the largest single group in the legislative assembly, France will move into “cohabitation”. There is precedent for this: from 1986-1988, 1993-1995 and 1997-2002 under the presidencies of Socialist Francois Mitterrand and Republican Jacques Chirac respectively. In these periods, the centre of gravity of domestic policy moved away from the President and into the hands of the Prime Minister and the majority party in the assembly.
Polls, however, are pointing to two more optimistic possibilities for Macron. En Marche appears on track to secure either a working majority, or at least win a plurality of legislators.
Currently, the winds seem to be blowing in Macron’s favour. An Ipsos Sopra-Steria poll on Tuesday indicated En Marche could win almost 30 per cent in the first round. This poll forecast that, after the second round election later this month, En Marche could potentially secure 400 plus seats out of 577 – the biggest majority since Charles de Gaulle’s 1968 landslide victory.
The third scenario, which only a few weeks ago appeared the most likely outcome, is En Marche emerging as the largest single party, but without an absolute majority. If this is the case, the Prime Minister may have only limited latitude to move Macron’s agenda forward.
Much would depend upon the exact size of the pro-Macron forces in the legislature that emerge in June’s ballots, and whether En Marche could potentially cooperate with other parties – including the Socialists – given that Macron served as economy minister in the cabinet of former Socialist President Francois Hollande.
The polls indicate that Macron’s honeymoon period with French voters is by no means over. Yet significant potential hurdles lie ahead for his insurgent organisation En Marche. This is not least because its legislative candidates are drawn from a broad spectrum of political views, and the cohesiveness of the bloc over several years remains to be seen.
In this regard, while Macron could yet prove one of France’s most electorally successful Presidents ever, recent political history is not promising for him. The last two incumbents, Hollande and the Republican Nicholas Sarkozy, were both deeply unpopular one-term heads of state, despite 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.
Unless Macron can pull off sustained success in coming months, his presidency may follow a similar pathway. The volatility of the public mood could yet turn against him rapidly. There is currently widespread anti-establishment anger fuelled by economic pain which has seen the country suffer years of double digit unemployment (reaching 10 per cent) and low growth (only 1.4 per cent this year).
The primary beneficiaries of any discontent with Macron may well be the hard left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, who finished fourth in last month’s presidential elections, and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who is now licking her wounds. Although Le Pen was comprehensively beaten last month, she may well re-emerge as a political threat to Macron, and is young enough to run in several more French presidential elections, which some argue was her plan all along.
Macron’s fight to reform France did not end with last month’s presidential victory – it began there. Sunday’s legislative elections are crucial: for Macron’s agenda, for the fledgling En Marche, and for the future of France.