French politics

How French President Macron broke the Left-Right divide – and what he needs to do now

Macron’s new party, with solid legislative win in France, could help re-integrate Europe.

The Macron phenomenon is essentially threefold: statistical, political and programmatic.

The statistical story is paradoxical. Media projections of the Macron phenomenon suggested an overwhelming victory for the young president. In the first round of the French presidential election on April 23, Emmanuel Macron attracted more than 8.5 million votes, representing 23.8% of votes cast and 18% of registered voters. In the second round on May 7, he netted 20.7 million votes, 66% of votes cast, but still a minority – 43% – of registered voters.

In the first round of legislative elections on June 11, Macron’s freshly minted party, La République en Marche or LRM, drawing support from across the political spectrum and in alliance with another centrist party, attracted only 7.3 million votes, representing 32% of votes cast and 15% of registered voters. In the second round, LRM elected 350 deputies, fewer than the 400 that had been predicted. This was due to a record – and premonitory – rate of abstentions, over 57%.

Analysts suggested that French voters drew back from giving Macron a “hegemonic majority,” conscious that serious opposition in the parliament is both necessary and healthy for democracy. In reality, the political culture of the Fifth Republic attaches overwhelming importance to the presidential ballot and tends to see parliamentary elections as confirmation of the presidential result.

With a series of primaries and an electoral cycle in full swing since September 2016, many voters had seen enough of the ballot box. The distraught leaders of the two mainstream parties, as well as Marine Le Pen’s Front National, decimated by the Macron effect, vociferously questioned the legitimacy of Macron’s “majority.”

The middle ground?

The political story is potentially revolutionary. Macron’s overt objective in running for the presidency was to destroy a two-party system that had seen socialists and conservatives alternate as presidential candidates for more than 50 years, to the detriment of a hypothetical Centre that struggled for visibility. Macron succeeded spectacularly in that ambition, creating a once unimaginable centrist tsunami.

Since the French Revolution, the French Right, as theorised by the political scientist René Rémond, has comprised three camps: authoritarian/populist; liberal/conservative; counter-revolutionary/nationalist. The latter has traditionally constituted a noisy minority in French politics, but Marine Le Pen succeeded to a large extent, playing on popular anger against globalisation and the European Union, in turning her father’s crypto-fascist movement into a following that could attract almost 11 million voters, or 34% of votes cast, in the presidential election’s second round, twice the number that had rallied to her father in 2002.

In the legislative elections, the Macron effect reduced that figure to fewer than three million votes, the Front National netting just eight deputies in the 577-member National Assembly, including, for the first time, Le Pen herself. Macron succeeded in smashing the populist wave in France that many commentators had feared might attract a majority in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Macron also succeeded in badly wounding the mainstream right party, Les Républicains, which, under presidents Chirac and Sarkozy, had managed to reconcile its authoritarian/populist and liberal/conservative strands.

By 2016, Les Républicains were riven by growing tensions between these two tendencies. Macron’s appointment of the liberal-leaning Edouard Philippe as prime minister and his successful courting of many other liberal conservatives wreaked havoc within the party, whose presence in the National Assembly plummeted from 230 to 130.

Conservatism in France is now caught in an uncomfortably receding space between Macronism and the Front National.

On the left, the Parti Socialiste suffered from President François Hollande’s inability to resolve his party’s contradictions between a Left-wing that views the business of governing as a betrayal of socialist ideals and a right-wing that sees no alternative, in a world of globalisation, to embracing significant chunks of the neoliberal economic agenda. By choosing as its presidential standard-bearer a representative of the Left, Benoît Hamon, rather than the standard-bearer of the Right, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the party effectively signed its own death warrant.

Hamon scored a derisory 6.35% of votes cast in the presidential elections. Candidates from the formerly governing Parti Socialiste performed disastrously in the legislative elections, their numbers in the National Assembly collapsing from 284 to 44 with Hamon eliminated in the first round. The Parti Socialiste is today both politically and financially bankrupt.

Macron has insisted that, in France, two ideological currents previously thought to be incompatible – cultural and political liberalism traditionally defended by the Left, and economic and commercial liberalism traditionally defended by the Right – can in fact be rendered compatible within one broad political family. A recent opinion survey shows that Macron supporters are closer to the Left on cultural liberal issues and closer to the Right on economic liberal issues. Macron has suggested that, rather than a clear split between these two currents within liberalism, there is a continuum. How extensive and durable that continuum proves to be is a function of the statistical paradox examined earlier.

Millions of French voters – a clear majority – remain resistant to Macronism. Given the electoral collapse of both mainstream Left and mainstream Right, the fate of the Centrist continuum, as the new government sets about governing, will be decided not only in the street – the last available platform for the radical Left – but also in internal battles within the ranks of La République en Marche. With 350 deputies, half of them political novices drawn from civil society, the party has plenty of scope for internal dissension. Macron considers the old cleavage between Left and Right to be out of date. The main cleavages henceforth will be between Centrist “progressists” and “conservatives” of both Left and Right as well as between Europeanists and nationalists.

Dreams of reform

The third story behind the Macron phenomenon is a programme that aspires to be revolutionary. The first law to be enacted aims at eliminating corruption in political life. Economic policies involve an unprecedented attempt to combine key features of economic liberalism – greater flexibility in employment, lower company taxes, encouragement of industrial and commercial innovation, massive professional retraining programs – with generous state protection and increased benefits for those on the lowest incomes. The state and the market are cast as symbiotic partners.

Reducing inequalities is paramount, involving major reform in housing and health policies. Domestic challenges include reforming the labour market through wholesale revision of an arcane code that runs to more than 3,000 pages, developing a new model of growth based on harnessing the digital economy, encouraging entrepreneurship, raising significant tax revenues from internet companies, reducing taxes on firms that invest in growth, and funding research and development in environmental transition. Macron invited all US climate scientists to relocate to France.

The French economy’s structural problems are toxic. The nation has not had a balanced budget since the 1960s. The debt to GDP ratio of 96% is among Europe’s worst. Macron intends, where all his predecessors failed for want of trying, to reverse that situation by bold initiative. His leadership style is executive. He consults widely but decides alone – and then expects total loyalty in implementation. To date, this has worked extraordinarily well.

Outside France, there are two priorities: to re-launch European integration through a balanced and dynamic Franco-German axis; and to generate a new deal for Africa, in part to stem the flow of migrants. If Macron succeeds at only half of what he intends, he will prove to be a transformational president. If he fails, Marine Le Pen will be back with a vengeance.

Jolyon Howorth has been a visiting professor of political science and International affairs at Yale since 2002, dividing his teaching among the Political Science Department, the Jackson Institute and Ethics, Politics and Economics. He has published extensively in the field of European politics and history, especially security and defense policy and transatlantic relations – with 15 books and more than 250 journal articles and book chapters. He is the Jean Monnet Professor of European Politics and Emeritus Professor of European Studies at the University of Bath.

This article first appeared on The YaleGlobal Online.

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