Macron win leaves governability gap in France

By Andrew Hammond

Emmanuel Macron, the independent, centrist candidate, was elected on Sunday as the eighth president of France's almost six decade old Fifth Republic.  While there is significant relief, in many quarters, that he handsomely beat far right contender Marine Le Pen, the country is in unchartered territory after the first final round presidential election in the country’s modern history that neither of the parties of mainstream centre-right, Republicans, or centre-left, Socialists, managed to qualify.

A key concern, now, centres around how effectively Macron will be able to govern.  At 39, he is the youngest president by far in the Fifth Republic, and his new political movement -- En Marche! (Forward!) -- currently has no seats in the legislature which is presently dominated by Socialists and Republicans.  In January, Macron announced En Marche! would try to field candidates in all 577 constituencies in the forthcoming legislative ballots on June 11 and 18, but the prospects of the upstart movement securing a working majority (even potentially in an alliance with key blocs of lawmakers from one or more other parties) are highly unclear.

This gives next month’s two-round legislative election even more significance than usual.  For much of the Fifth Republic, the incumbent president has enjoyed the support of a relatively secure legislative majority from his own party, yet in the unusual circumstances of 2017, this is my no means assured and there are at least three main scenarios.

The two most optimistic possibilities for the new president is that En Marche! either secures a working majority in June -- or potentially forms the biggest group of legislators, but not an absolute majority.  The latter is perhaps the most likely outcome, and previously occurred in two earlier periods in the Fifth Republic – from 1958-1962 and 1988-1993.

In this eventuality of no overall majority, the president’s handpicked prime minister, may have only limited latitude to move his agenda forward.  Much would depend upon the exact size of the pro-Macron forces in the legislature that emerge in June’s ballot, and whether En Marche! could potentially cooperate with other parties, including the Socialists given that Macron served as economy minister in previous President Francois Hollande’s Socialist cabinet as economy minister.

The worst case scenario for Macron, which cannot be completely discounted, would be a hostile majority which will make it hard to govern and potentially even offer up the prospect of political paralysis in France in coming months.  This could leave much of Macron’s agenda stymied, if not dead on arrival, including his proposed labour law to try to reduce the unemployment rate of around 10%; his plan to cut public spending, and also re-industrialise France through innovation-led policies.

Should En Marche! not emerge as the largest single group in June’s elections, France would enter a period of so-called ‘cohabitation’ which would require Macron to appoint a prime minister outside his party.  There is again some precedent for this in the Fifth Republic from 1986-1988, 1993-1995 and 1997-2002 under the presidencies of Socialist Francois Mitterrand and Republicans 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 parliament.

A key danger for Macron in this scenario is that he could well fail, politically, to realise the significant expectations that are held about his new centre ground presidency.  Given the current volatile mood of the French electorate, this could see in the second half of 2017 and beyond rising support for not just Le Pen but also the hard left.

Recent political history in France is not promising for Macron with the last two presidents, Republicans Nicholas Sarkozy and Hollande, both unpopular one-term presidents -- despite enjoying a legislative majority.  Indeed, Hollande -- who has become 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 since the Fifth Republic was created in 1958.

If Macron’s presidency were to follow a similar pathway to his two predecessors, the public mood could 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 (currently 10%) and low growth (only 1.4% this year).

The primary beneficiaries of discontent with Macron in coming months could be Le Pen and/or hard left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, who finished fourth in last month’s first round presidential elections.  Melenchon has created a new grassroots movement -- La France Insoumise (Untamed France) – and his candidacy was backed last month by the Communist Party.

Both Melenchon and Le Pen oppose the Euro single currency, and are sceptical of the EU at large.  Moreover, both also favour French withdrawal from NATO and warmer ties with Russia.

Although Le Pen got comprehensively beaten on Sunday, she may well reemerge as a political threat to Macron and is young enough to run potentially in several more French presidential elections.  She performed on Sunday significantly better than her father and fellow former National Front leader, Jean Marie, who was crushed in 2002 when he reached the final round of that year’s presidential election against Chirac.

Then, Chirac won over 80%, the largest victory in a French presidential election.  However, Le Pen has different positioning to her father, winning on Sunday around double his share of the vote in 2002, appealing not just to the far right, but also some centre-right voters, and also a slice of the left too given that she presents herself as an anti-globalisation champion, including opposition to international trade.

Taken overall, the success of Macron’s presidency will now rest significantly on next month’s legislative elections.  If En Marche! can emerge as the largest single party, or even secure a legislative majority, prospects of his agenda being enacted will increase significantly.


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