Party Realignment in France

AP Photo/Christophe Ena

French President-elect Emmanuel Macron waves to the crowd during a campaign rally in Chatellerault. 

Last Sunday, Emmanuel Macron became the eighth president of France’s Fifth Republic. It was a stunning victory, with Macron grabbing two-thirds of the vote against his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen. Yet skeptics have claimed that Macron’s triumph was not really a victory at all but rather an expression of fear of the extremist alternative. Macron therefore has no mandate, claim the nay-sayers, and his presidency will soon succumb to the various forms of conservatism and resistance that doomed his two predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

This analysis ignores the extent to which Macron’s victory has destabilized the French party system. He won the presidency without the support of an established political party. That has never been done before. Neither of the major parties, the Socialist Party of incumbent President Hollande nor the Republican party of scandal-plagued candidate François Fillon, made it into the final round. As France prepares for legislative elections on June 11 and June 18, the Socialists are in utter disarray, while the Republicans, seeking to regroup in order to mount an effective opposition to Macron, find themselves without a natural leader and hobbled by factional dispute.

The disarray of the Socialists is breathtaking. The party’s presidential candidate Benoît Hamon turned in the worst performance of any Socialist candidate since 1969, scoring just over 6 percent of the vote in the first round. Early polling on the first round of the legislative elections forecasts another dismal fifth-place finish. With a new law prohibiting deputies from holding another elective office now in effect, many incumbent Socialist deputies will prefer to hold on to other posts such as mayor rather than run for re-election to the National Assembly with the odds stacked against them.

Manuel Valls, Hollande’s penultimate prime minister and unsuccessful aspirant for the Socialist presidential nomination, endorsed Emmanuel Macron rather than the party’s nominee. Valls, who had long advocated that his party drop its “socialist” label, proposed after the presidential election to run for the Assembly on the Macron ticket, which has adopted the label “La République en marche” (LRM). He was rebuffed by the LRM investiture commission, which was charged with vetting the fledgling party’s candidates, on the grounds that he did not meet their criteria, among which is the requirement that no LRM candidate can have held more than three prior mandates as a deputy. Out of respect for Valls’s stature, LRM may not run a candidate against him in his district, but the rejection of a figure of Valls’s prominence shows that the Macron forces are confident that what French voters really want is a wholesale renewal of the political class.

This morning LRM leader Richard Ferrand announced a preliminary slate of 428 candidates for the legislative elections. (There are 577 seats in the National Assembly; the party’s investiture commission is still examining applications to fill the remaining seats.) Of these, 95 percent are not currently in the National Assembly, and 50 percent have never held elective office of any kind. The average age is 42, compared with an average age of incumbent deputies of 60. Exactly half of the LRM candidates are women.

The LRM approach to choosing candidates is clearly meant to send a message of generational renewal and gender parity. But it also sends another message: Macron intends to push the old mainstream parties aside as much as possible. Rather than fill the ranks of his movement with defectors from the center-left and center-right, many of whom are eager to escape the wreckage of their old parties and their apparent movement to the extremes. If Macron is successful in putting together a party of novices, all of whom will have pledged allegiance to his program, he will have a freer hand than he would with an assembly of old campaigners from the discredited establishment.

Nevertheless, even though LRM currently leads in the legislative polls, it is unlikely that a party starting from scratch will achieve a majority on its own. Macron will most likely have to build a coalition government. The possibilities for coalition will depend in large part on his choice of prime minister, which is to be announced soon after he officially becomes president on Sunday.

Current speculation centers on two people. One is Sylvie Goulard, a member of the European parliament who belongs to MoDem, the centrist party of François Bayrou, whose renunciation of his own candidacy and announcement of support for Macron marked a turning point in the campaign.

The other is Edouard Philippe, mayor of Le Havre and a member of the Juppéist faction of the Republican Party. The Republicans, though plunged into turmoil by the failure of their scandal-plagued candidate François Fillon, nevertheless remain a more potent force than the rival Socialists. Internal strife threatens to complicate their approach to the legislative elections, however. The older generation of the leadership has been swept away. Vying to replace Juppé, Sarkozy, and Fillon are younger contenders like Laurent Wauquiez, Bruno Le Maire, and François Baroin. Wauquiez wants the party to go after Front National voters by adopting a hard right line. Le Maire, meanwhile, has made overtures to Macron and offered his services as a minister. Baroin, on the other hand, is proposing firm and uncompromising opposition to Macron while at the same time refusing to veer toward the Front National. Other potential leaders—Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet—have yet to reveal their hands.

On the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who succeeded in his goal of humiliating the Socialists in the presidential election, has been rebuffed by his Communist allies, who have refused to support his France Insoumise party in the legislative campaign. The Communists will run their own candidates against those of FI, with the likely effect of undermining both camps.

Finally, the Front National has succumbed to internal recriminations in the wake of last Sunday’s defeat, which saw Marine Le Pen falling well short of expectations. There has long been dissension in the FN ranks, but it was kept within limits by the hope that the party’s time had finally come. The failure of Le Pen’s strategy has blown the lid off, however, and vociferous attacks have been directed especially at one of her key advisors, Florian Philippot.

But opposition to Philippot had been led by Marion Maréchal Le Pen, Marine’s niece and party leader in the south. The day after the election, Marion announced that she would not be a candidate for the legislature and would in fact withdraw from political life to spend more time with her family. This would appear to strengthen Marine’s hand while doing nothing to clarify her future strategic direction. She may decide to shed some of the advisors who brought her to this point, although her defeat appears to owe more to her own abysmal performance in the final debate than to the party line she shaped with her inner circle over the past six years.

Emmanuel Macron thus emerges from this election with a stronger hand than anyone would have imagined at the outset of the campaign. His high-stakes gamble paid off handsomely for himself personally as well as for his nascent movement, and this may encourage him to take additional risks and perhaps even to challenge Angela Merkel’s thus far adamant refusal to contemplate a change in her attitude toward austerity. Her rival for chancellor in next fall’s election, Martin Schulz, has indicated that he’s prepared to stick his neck out and confront Merkel on this issue. If one byproduct of Macron’s audacious candidacy is to make social democrats elsewhere a little less cautious than they have been to date, then chalk up an early win for France’s new president.

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