Macron victory offers
new political horizon
new political horizon
France enjoys solid institutions of governance, and is enjoying its most stable, consensual and efficient period over the past 200 years. Yet, the country has struggled to effectively address the challenges associated with Europeanization and globalization. The helplessness of the previous conservative and socialist governments faced with the deep economic crisis has contributed to the rise of radical populist parties on the left (Mélenchon) and the right (National Front), and a deep distrust between large segments of the population and the political class. In the wake of President Trump’s election in the United States and of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, there were fears that right-populist Marine Le Pen might be the winner of a polarized presidential election in France, which has raised serious doubts about the country’s capacity for systemic reforms. The presidential election and the victory of Macron over Le Pen has opened a completely new horizon both in political and policy terms.
Politically, aside from the unexpected landslide victory of a candidate who had no party support, the striking consequence is the dramatic fragmentation of the traditional parties of government. The Socialist party of former president Hollande is in pieces, has no program and no real leadership. It is not even guaranteed 5% of the vote in the forthcoming European elections, according to recent opinion polls. In October 2018, the left wing seceded and all the leaders of the various factions have been defeated or have retired. The Conservatives (Les Républicains) split, with a minority supporting Macron, who chose his prime minister from within this group. The leadership of the party (Wauquiez) is highly contested internally and has failed for the time being to attract support beyond a small circle of activists. The leftist opposition is embodied by “France Insoumise,” an unreliable party built around and for its leader, Mélenchon.
Extreme right weakened by Le Pen defeat
The extreme right, renamed “Rassemblement National,” has been weakened by the defeat of Marine Le Pen. It has been hit by secessions, and faces a fraud scandal and deep doubts about the party’s strategy (oscillating between a national-social and a neoliberal-identitarian wing). Meanwhile, the new Macronist movement, La République en Marche (LREM), holds an overwhelming majority in parliament, but is purely a creature of the new president, has no real program and has so far proven unable of transforming itself into a real party of government (i.e., a party that could mediate between the president and the electorate). In conclusion, the whole party system is in deep crisis and is not able to channel either support for or opposition to the government.
Free hand for ambitious reform program
In terms of policy, Macron and his overwhelming majority have a free hand to implement the president’s ambitious program proposed in 2017. Macron is taking full advantage of the Fifth Republic’s institutions. He is proceeding forcefully and actively, and has begun to realize reforms on all fronts, including labor law, company law, school and university systems, fiscal policies, health care, anti-poverty programs, and transportation. He is determined to go on in 2019 with a constitutional reform and the most radical reform ever conceived of the pension system, which would merge all 42 present regimes into one. It remains to be seen if he will succeed. The political opposition is too weak to be a real obstacle to the president’s policy agenda. Moreover, Macron has been able to overcome mass mobilization against his policies organized by the trade unions, which traditionally have been effective in blocking unpopular reforms. He took advantage of his determination and legitimacy to foster change, and of the deep crisis in the trade unions, which are divided and out of touch with the real world. Although Macron has suffered growing unpopularity, this has not had an immediate effect on his government.
Ironically, Macron is beginning to suffer from the reverse side of the phenomenon which helped to put him in power. The lack, or the extreme weakness, of intermediary bodies capable of mediating and securing agreements is a preoccupying factor. The political landscape is in ruins and the only real opposition is embodied by two irresponsible political parties. Meanwhile, organized interest groups and trade unions are not capable of channeling protest. Consequently, the extreme centralization of power in the Fifth Republic, boosted by Macron’s “vertical” top-down method of governance, and his contempt for parties and organized interests is blatantly apparent. The president has had to face unorganized but violent popular riots with the “yellow vests” movement starting in November 2018, which has proved to be the first serious challenge to his governance approach (attacked as arrogant, elitist and dismissive of ordinary people) and to his policy (contested as taking from the poor to give to the rich).
Stakes high with
While this is not entirely new in France, it is a powerful indicator of the inability of the country to find a stable and cohesive direction, and to combine assertiveness and dialogue. The difficulties are further exacerbated by a challenging environment. The Brexit issue, U.S. President Trump’s opposition to multilateralism, and the weakness of the German government are impediments to the ambitious pro-European and multilateral set of proposals put forward by Macron. He has decided to put his weight into the European Parliament elections campaign and to develop a coalition of the so-called progressives in Europe against nationalist populist parties. The stakes are very high given the present situation in Europe and the outcome is uncertain.