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French national elections mean president Macron's 'revolution' is now complete

By Richard Ogier - posted Monday, 26 June 2017


The shorthand on June parliamentary elections in Europe looks like this: newly-elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, 350 seats; British prime minister, Theresa May, minus 12 seats.

Before this month's elections in France, centrist Macron's fledgling party had not a single MP. In the new parliament, République en Marche (REM), victorious in a kind of revolution via the ballot box, will have instigated the biggest French parliamentary make-over in decades.

After the UK election, May needs the support of at least ten Northern Irish Unionists to govern. After the French election, Macron needs neither his coalition partner nor a prime minister chosen pre-poll from the mainstream right-wing party. Equally, he has effectively chosen to suspend four new ministers enmeshed in ethics controversies, bringing on a substantial government reshuffle.

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Perhaps because REM's victory was slightly less than the landslide predicted, the full scale and dimension of Macron's coup is yet to be recognised, but it will be. Miraculously, he succeeded in stealing away the French presidency, and parliament, from the established parties via a movement he created, in secret, with a handful of close associates just 14 months ago - its then-logo hand-written by Macron himself.

A bigger reason is that, after the advent of Donald Trump, Macron, a 39-year-old former socialist finance minister, looks like a return to the more conventional tenets of modern democracy: respecting women, racial diversity and the independence of the press, he's pro-European, pro-globalisation - and for its regulation - and believes that the challenges posed by climate change must be rigorously met.

The wave he inspired has flooded the traditional political landscape in France to a degree that arguably surpasses even that of Trump in the US. Not only has Macron guillotined, as it were, the traditional parties' leadership - among them, two former presidents (François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy) and two former prime ministers (François Fillon and Alain Juppé) - few local issues or personalties seem to have withstood the impact. Traditional party numbers in the National Assembly have been slashed, while both the Socialist Party (PS) and Les Républicains (LR), are in programatic crisis, the latter in the throes of a major fissure as I write this. Many new lawmakers have no direct experience of political office at all, while a record 223 MPs for the new parliament are women.

After a sigh of relief, Europe's political elite has variously congratulated Macron, Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel first among them. The majority view is that France has its best chance in 20 years to reform and Europe to advance in the jaws of Brexit (both probably true). But politicians everywhere should note that Macron has pulverised the notion of the safe or blue ribbon seat, putting at risk the concept of the professional or career politician.

And yet the French political parties haven't quite twigged to what has happened. Some in the PS are saying that, if they had positioned themselves further to the left they'd have won, and yet most party supporters have transferred to the reformist REM. Macron was mocked for taking ideas from both sides of the political aisle, but behind a desire for a clean slate and renewal - as in any revolution - reaching across the square in good faith helped REM to win this election.

Now that the French electoral cycle is over, Macron's first problem is that expectations are enormous. When a population puts this much faith in a new political movement, it wants something in return, and fast, when the benefits of such as progressive labour-market reform take time to flow through. Second is that Macron's triumph doesn't belong to a broad popular base. The French electorate is 47 million people and voter turnout was a record low 43 per cent.

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Yet Macron will succeed. The French desperately want change and most of what he is planning has been implemented elsewhere, in northern Europe and Germany, with a greater-or-lesser degree of success: supply side solutions; a flexible work place; emphasis on innovation; protection for workers with education and training to meet the competitive challenges of globalisation and technology to get people into jobs.

France has never had a social liberal president, never seen in power progressive liberalism from the left. At a glance, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (in the Elysée from 1974-81), is the nearest "centrist" equivalent, but his centrism came from the right and was created to clobber some order into the party political right.

A nearer analogy would be to socialist prime minister, the late Michel Rocard (incidentally, a good friend of Australia), who gave us Rocardisme - which stood, as he put it, for no economy without social policy, and no social policy without the economy; in other words, you can't distribute wealth before you create it. The obvious Australian equivalent is Hawke and Keating, in Germany Gerhard Schröder, in Britain Tony Blair. But Rocard was stymied by arch rival François Mitterrand (president from 1981-95), who gave us Mitterrandisme, which was mostly about a Hobbesian accumulation of power - Mitterrand wasn't much interested in economics.

For Monsieur Macron, the road ahead will be rough, but the dynamic has changed in France and is with him. Across the Channel, electorally weakened and looking down the barrel of Brexit, Mrs May might wish she were in a similar situation.

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About the Author

Richard Ogier is an Australian journalist in Munich. He is former Australia Embassy press attache in Paris.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Richard Ogier

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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