Will Macron have a majority?
In June there will be a general election in France as well as the UK. René Gimpel looks at the main contenders
France’s presidential election provided the drama of two quasi-outsiders, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, facing off - both having defeated candidates from mainstream political parties. Though Macron held a ministerial post (economy) under president François Hollande, neither he nor Le Pen had ever been elected.
As is customary, presidential elections are followed by general elections (les législatives) to parliament (assemblée nationale), which will take place in two rounds, on June 11 and 18.1 The national assembly is made up of the representatives of 577 constituencies - 27 of which are overseas regions or territories, such as Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana - while 11 seats are reserved for French citizens living abroad. For instance, here in the UK, assembly candidates will vie for election in order to represent the several hundred thousand French nationals living here and in 10 other European countries - hence the constituency title, ‘Assembly Member for Northern Europe’.
Since 1958, no president has failed to secure a parliamentary majority for his party in the subsequent general election. However, though Emmanuel Macron has a new party, République En Marche(REM - ‘Forward, the Republic’2), the party has no deputies in the outgoing national assembly. Macron is attempting to secure his majority by adopting a particular strategy. True to his own positioning as a centrist candidate, he has nominated ministers from the right, notably prime minister Edouard Philippe from the Republicans - François Fillon’s party - and from slightly left-of-centre parties. Macron has not required appointees to abandon their current political affiliation, but perhaps the question should be, will those other parties accept the defection of their members to REM?
Macron stated that he wanted to balance his choice of ministerial posts between men and women - which he has, but with a caveat: only one important post, defence, has gone to a woman. She is Sylvie Goulard, who, like Macron, is a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, one of the grandes écoles.3 After lengthy negotiations, REM gained the support of a previous centrist party, the Mouvement Démocratique (MoDem), with its high-profile leader, François Bayrou, now appointed minister of justice, despite having to appear in court in January 2019 to face defamation charges.
Originally REM was to field candidates in all 577 constituencies, but this has been scaled back to 526. The uncontested constituencies are those Macron believes will return assembly members sympathetic to REM and hence likely to align themselves with his programme. REM will have a balanced gender candidacy and Macron has stated that he wants half the candidates to be drawn from “civil society” rather than the “political classes”. In France, it is not necessary to hold any elected position to be appointed secretary of state or minister and some of REM’s ministers are drawn from this “civil society”, as it is called. Nevertheless, in the forthcoming general election, those ministers who must stand for election or re-election have been informed that if they fail to gain a seat in the national assembly their portfolio will be withdrawn.
Current opinion polls suggest that REM will have the largest number of seats in the new assembly - possibly an overall majority. But there are risks. As mentioned, existing political parties who have seen their members accept ministerial posts from Macron may mount a rival candidate against them in their constituency. Another problem for REM concerns the distribution of public funds to political parties, which is based on the results obtained. If a candidate from another party wins and that candidate has endorsed REM, do the funds go to the latter, or to the party of the candidate’s official affiliation? On top of this, there is the usual horse-trading among parties, each one proposing to withdraw a candidate in one constituency if the second party withdraws in another.
The biggest unknown is what will happen to REM if it becomes the governing party. If the electorate votes for the ‘moderates’ of REM in order to exclude far left and right, this does not mean that stability is assured. REM’s make-up is of people with quite differing views, whether they are in ministerial positions or not, so key questions - like keeping or scrapping the 35-hour week and the tax on wealth - will quickly antagonise one side or the other.
The Front National currently has only two deputies in the assembly, but is likely to increase this, though not by as much as was expected before Le Pen’s defeat. The far left, as represented by Mélanchon’s La France Insoumise (FI - ‘France Unbowed’) and the Parti Communiste Français, are likely to see a modest increase in their number of seats. They might have expected more if they had made an electoral pact to support each other’s candidates in their respective strongholds. The PCF backed Mélanchon in the first round of the presidential election, but this solidarity seems to have disappeared and both parties will contest the same seats.
The Parti Socialiste did badly in the presidential elections, with its candidate, Benoît Hamon, obtaining only 6% of the vote - and this despite the fact that Hamon represented the left wing of the party (supporting the 35-hour week, together with the legalisation of cannabis and euthanasia, as well as making the right pro-ecology noises). The PS is preparing to fight back in the general election - it is entirely dissatisfied with the current ministerial composition. In the first place, it fell to Edouard Philippe, having been appointed prime minister, to recommend ministerial posts, not Emmanuel Macron, because this is the prime minister’s prerogative. Philippe will have acted in concert with Macron though, and the choice of ministers is revealing of Macron’s move to the right. No member of the Parti Socialiste has been chosen, because new ministers have either resigned from the party or have been expelled from it. The party’s first secretary, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, held a press conference on May 18, in which he criticised Philippe’s “vertical column” of rightwing appointees, with too many ministers drawn from the grandes écoles rather than civil society.
Cambadélis went on to list the reactionary social and fiscal attitudes of those flocking around REM and made the obvious point that there was nothing “socialist” in any aspect of Macron’s programme.
1. As in the presidential elections, France uses a two-round, first-past-the-post system: if no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first round, the two candidates with the highest number of votes go through for the decider.
2. Before his victory, Emmanuel Macron’s party was called En marche!
3. The grandes écoles (‘great schools’) refers to those institutions which mould the technocratic and political elites in France.