Macron’s crushing majority
Despite the poor performance of the left René Gimpel expects militant action
And so it came to pass - the prodigal obtained his majority. Emmanuel Macron, youngest French president and elected to public office for the first time, last year conjured up ex nihilo a political party, La République en Marche (LRM) and has seen it obtain a solid majority in the general election. Half his new national assembly members had never been in politics before, half are women, all owe their appointment to Macron personally and all have signed a pledge to carry out the president’s programme, which Macron claims is synonymous with a ‘programme for France’. In the 17th century, the absolutist king, Louis XIV, proclaimed: “The state is myself” - something of this claim adheres to Emmanuel Macron.
LRM has 308 of the 577 seats and its close ally, Mouvement Démocrate, a further 42. The two parties are in lockstep. Meanwhile, the conservatives, Les Républicains, drop from 199 seats to 113 - they may split into pro- and anti-Macron factions, as the president tries to woo more to come into his big tent. Most dramatic of all, the Socialists, who held 284 seats, are reduced to a rump of 32. This rump does not even include Benoît Hamon, the Parti Socialiste’s failed candidate for the presidency, who not only sank from view then, but in addition failed to make it to the second round of the national assembly elections. Virtually all the party bigwigs have disappeared and the remainder probably owe their re-election to LRM not fielding a candidate against them, as Macron estimates he can gain their support for his programme. This could entail a further splintering of the PS.
Here in the UK, which is the Third District (Northern Europe) for ex-pats, the PS’s long-serving Axelle Lemaire succumbed to Alexandre Holroyd of the LRM, who more than doubled the vote previously obtained by Lemaire. Holroyd is Anglo-French, was educated at the French Lycée in London and claims to have a good understanding of business in both countries. In an interview in the daily Le Monde, long-standing PS member Kader Arif says of Lemaire’s loss:
My generation has known losses, but when we were beaten it was usually by adversaries who understood politics and had local legitimacy, having served on councils or in other capacities. Now we are replaced by people who were parachuted in a few weeks before the first round, without experience, ideas or programme other than a photo of Emmanuel Macron on their desk.1
Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical group, La France Insoumise (FI), notched up 17 seats, from a second-round contest in 77 constituencies. Given the extraordinary abstention rate in the first round of voting - over 50% for the first time in French electoral history - Mélenchon went on air to urge his followers: “Damn it, get out of the house and vote” (elections in France take place on a Sunday and Mélenchon needed every young vote he could get). He himself secured Marseille, displacing a popular PS member - and succeeding in the south of France, where the Front National (FN) is strong. The importance of that figure of 17 seats is that FI, the “humanist, social justice and ecology” party, has passed the magic cap of 15 seats, which allows it to form a recognised grouping in the assembly. This brings privileges such as the right to propose motions and to sit on permanent commissions.
The French Communist Party (PCF) obtained 10 seats and both this party and the FI might have done better had they not contested seats in each other’s constituencies, weakening the far left. Not so lucky were the FN, which saw its number of seats increase from two to eight, but this was far short of expectations. Contesting election after election, Marine le Pen finally obtained a seat in Nord-Pas de Calais - perhaps not surprising in a depressed area, which has been beset by conflicts with refugees seeking access to the UK. Le Pen, or “Blue Marine”, as she likes to style herself (the blue in the French flag as opposed to the red), has been crowing about her victory and warning Macron that he does not have a mandate to govern France as he wishes. So delusional as usual about the FN’s real strength. Nevertheless, in one respect le Pen is right. If the first round of voting revealed a high abstention rate, the second round went further, with 57% of the electorate abstaining. And of those who did vote, a startling 25% cast blank ballots.
Divide and rule
Macron’s programme is considered ‘radical’ in the same way that Tony Blair’s was considered ‘modernising’. That is to say it aims to crush the working class, curb the unions, drastically cut public-sector employment and slash benefits. The flagship element is the dismantling of France’s progressive (by European standards) employment law, with its 35-hour week, security of employment and generous retirement benefits. Macron has said he will move directly to abrogate the law.
While the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), had been the largest and most militant trade union for decades, recently it lost its number one position to the Confédération Française Démocratique de Travail (CFDT), which arose out of social and Christian democratic traditions, rather than the communist traditions of the CGT - militants like to call it a bosses’ union because of its willingness to do ‘sensible’ deals where the CGT will not. Macron is preparing a divide-and-rule strategy in this sphere, as in all the others. The minister for the economy, Bruno le Maire, is preparing a reduction in unemployment benefit and the introduction of an hourly rate of €5 for certain workers at the bottom end of the pay scale. Le Maire will be buttressed by Gérard Darmanin, minister for public accounts, who served under president Sarkozy.
According to the French version of US business magazine Forbes, the president says that France is being “asphyxiated by the weight of administrative and union regulations, tax harassment and strictures”.2 Macron’s slogan, “Liberalise France and protect the French”, aims to appeal to right and left, though, as the Forbes article concludes, Macron draws more from Fillon’s Les Républicains than from Hollande’s socialists. Macron’s appeal to the centre rests in part on his passionate belief in the European Union, an institution in which he intends to place France alongside Germany as the behemoths setting the pace for the other 25 countries. On Brexit, Macron matches David Davis’s hard line; he considers Britain’s decision to leave “a crime” and intends to make the UK pay dearly for this.
The left in the assembly, however broadly described, has been greatly reduced. Adding together socialists, FI, the PCF and some independent lefts and greens, there are barely 80 members. It is possible that these will move closer to the CGT and take extra-parliamentary action, though in what form remains to be seen. However, there is a different scenario. For all the pledges that Macron has secured from his cohorts to toe his line and not act against his interests, their signed promises have no legal standing under the French constitution. An assembly member should owe no loyalty to self, to party, or even to the electorate that voted the member through. The loyalty is supposed to be to the interests of France, as a nation and state.
Yes, the president is attempting to identify that interest as identical to his own, but what will happen when contentious matters come to be debated? A conservative weekly, Valeurs, used as its cover a famous painting of Napoleon on his rearing white horse, but changed the face to Macron’s and entitled the article: “Macron I: the dangers of all-encompassing power”.3
There is another French expression which relates to the Napoleonic period. Many who lost their seats in this election are said to have suffered their ‘Berezina’ - a reference to an incident in the catastrophic retreat from Russia in 1812. When will Macron’s Berezina appear over the horizon?
1. Le Monde June 18-19.