When Emmanuel Macron launched his political movement En Marche in April 2016, there was little doubt that the intention was to use it as a platform to win the presidency — but equally little hope that he would bag the top prize in French politics. Back then, French politicians damned Macron’s tactics with faint praise, calling his move a bold one, and prophesied that the Macron bubble would burst long before the election. Even if Macron might triumph in the presidential election, the commentariat claimed that without a strong party, he would have to form a majority with either the Socialist or Republican Party.
But the bubble kept growing. Last Sunday, the French gave his party — now “La Republique en Marche” (LREM) — a chance to cement his presidential victory and to bring Macron’s irresistible rise to a glorious culmination. Following the first round of legislative elections (runoffs between the two or three best candidates in each district will take place on June 18), LREM is forecast to secure between 390 and 430 seats out of the 577 up for grabs in the National Assembly.
Although almost half of the French did not vote and the electoral system — by scheduling the presidential and the legislative elections to take place within a short window — was designed to make it easier for the same party to win both the executive and the legislative, the upcoming victory is the result of both a convincing first month and a successful electoral strategy.
The president has been off to a good start thanks to an efficient comms campaign aimed squarely at putting France back in the news – for all the right reasons. Macron made himself known globally by entering into a handshake contest with US President Donald Trump, and meeting Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate accord with a message of his own — “Make My Planet Great Again”. Macron’s first meeting with Putin was also carefully orchestrated, as the French leader showed willingness to keep a communication channel open with the Russian leader while denouncing his alleged meddling in western democracies’ elections and standing firm on his opposition to the Kremlin’s strategy regarding Ukraine and Syria.
Meanwhile, LREM’s electoral strategy has been executed flawlessly. A campaign promise of refreshing French politics by picking citizens with no political experience for parliamentary seats has fed into the rhetoric of change that played so well for Macron in the first place. At the same time, LREM has attracted a number of politicians from traditional parties, thereby adding experienced politicos to its ranks while weakening the Republican and Socialist parties.
Last Sunday, the French gave his party — now “La Republique en Marche” (LREM) — a chance to cement his presidential victory and to bring Macron’s irresistible rise to a glorious culmination
In the first round of the election, the Socialists collapsed, netting only 10% of the vote. They are likely to lose about 90% of their seats, leaving them with only 20-35 deputies in France’s parliament. That is barely more than Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left Unsubmissive France, which received 11% and is forecast to keep hold of between 11 and 21 seats. On the other end of the political spectrum, the far-right National Front — whose leader Marine Le Pen made it to the run-off stage of the presidential election — can hope to secure just 3-10 seats.
Apart from LREM, the only remaining political force will likely be the Republican Party, albeit severely weakened, with a group that will contain 85 to 125 deputies, down from 199 in 2012. It remains to be seen whether some of those Republican deputies — against whom LREM decided not to appoint candidates — will join Macron’s side once elected.
In the first years of Macron’s mandate, the government’s strong majority means that it will be able to pass legislation without needing the support of other parties, or risking its mandate being hijacked by a group of rebel MPs from its ranks — as happened during the Hollande presidency. That a large part of LREM deputies will have no political experience and owe their seat to the President himself have even raised concerns that they will give him a free hand by voting whatever bill he puts forward in Parliament.
The risk posed by a supermajority in Parliament, however, seems more like an attempt to score political points, rather than a legitimate fear. In the past, large majorities have proven difficult to control and ended up fracturing over controversial policies.
The first bill introduced by the government is unlikely to pressure Macron’s new movement, although it has quickly materialized as its first test. Following a presidential campaign filled with political scandals and corruption allegations, François Bayrou — the justice minister and leader of the centrist Modern party — presented a bill to clean up French politics. The law would ban MPs and ministers from hiring family members and introduce stiffer penalties for corruption.
Shortly after the presentation, a probe over Bayrou’s party’s potentially dodgy contracts for its political aides in the European Parliament threatened to turn the minister into a liability. The affair intensified after media outlets officially complained about receiving phone calls from Bayrou pressuring them over their reporting. Before Bayrou, there was also the case of Richard Ferrand — the LREM leader and now the regions minister — who is facing nepotism allegations dating back to before he became an MP.
Whether this hiccup in Macron’s movement will evolve to become a real liability remains uncertain at this point. Voters have shown little appetite for political skulduggery after the grimy presidential campaign. Ferrand’s likely victory in his canton next Sunday suggests voters might let it go for this time.
The real challenge for the government in the next few months will be to pass its recently announced reforms to make labor laws more flexible by capping the compensations for workers who have been fired and limiting the role of collective bargaining in salary negotiations. The strong majority in Parliament will enable the government to negotiate with unions and employers associations from a position of strength.
But the real challenge to Macron’s program will be social resistance. Labor reforms have traditionally triggered episodes of protests and strikes. Unions, whose influence has been declining in France, still have the ability to start strikes in railways, airports, oil refineries or power plants which could paralyze France’s economy in order to pressure the government into a compromise.
Whether Macron’s cabinet sticks to its program or accepts a compromise will act as a bellwether for the rest of his mandate. Should he fail to implement his plans — which include an economic agenda made of public investment initiatives and to cut public sector spending by €60 billion — and disappoint the electorate, Macron’s ranks will dwindle by the next election, and the prospect of the National Front gaining power will reappear.