First they said he could not win. Then they said he could not govern. Now the sceptics are warning that France’s new president Emmanuel Macron may be too powerful.
Mr Macron’s party is on course for a crushing parliamentary majority, as the disruptive effects of his presidential victory ripple through France’s political system. La Republique En Marche (REM), half of whose candidates have never held political office, is expected to take 400-450 out of the 577 seats in the National Assembly in second-round elections on June 18.
With a win on that scale, Mr Macron would form the second largest parliamentary majority in the history of the Fifth Republic. This would allow the president to pass pro-business reforms swiftly, including a bill to make the jobs market more flexible, and measures to boost police powers to fight homegrown terrorism.
“We’ve underestimated how the French political system is dictated by the presidential election,” Joel Gombin, a political scientist at IEP Aix-en-Provence, says. “This means that in the next few months or even years, parliament will play a very limited role. Many of the new MPs will have no experience of the job and therefore won’t feel like challenging the government.”
Najat Vallaud Belkacem, the former socialist education minister who qualified for the second round but is predicted to lose to her REM opponent near Lyon, said: “Giving all the powers to Emmanuel Macron, it’s allowing him to force through legislation, to cut civil service jobs. Whoever gets all the power is always tempted to misuse it.”
The state of political confusion after a fraught presidential campaign, and the meltdown of the traditional parties, have been bigger drivers behind the 39 year-old president’s success than enthusiasm for his programme: abstention hit a record high with more than half of French voters choosing to stay at home in Sunday’s first round vote.
REM’s position on the political centre ground will allow it to draw votes from either the mainstream right or left, depending on who its rivals are in each of the constituency run-offs. Its candidates’ inexperience has turned out to be more a positive than a negative in the eye of voters. “Political virginity means you don’t have enemies, it plays in your favour,” Mr Gombin says.
For the other parties, defeat is expected to range from severe to very severe. With less than 10 per cent of the national vote, the Socialists are likely to win a mere 20 to 30 seats, down from 284 previously. Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, secretary general, and Benoît Hamon, its disastrous presidential candidate, were eliminated in the first round, as were many ministers in the outgoing government. Many others are facing a trouncing this Sunday. State funding, calculated according to the number of MPs elected, is bound to dry up, posing the question of the party’s very existence.
“We’re down, beheaded, fragmented, it’s difficult to suffer such a violent first round,” Thierry Mandon, a former Socialist junior minister, said.
The centre-right Republicans, who are predicted to secure fewer than 110 seats, down from 199, lost momentum after Mr Macron’s politically adroit appointment of Edouard Philippe, a centre-right politician, as prime minister. Another defector, Bruno Le Maire, now economy minister, is poised to be re-elected in Normandy.
Many far-right and hard-left voters simply did not turn out. Only far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who attracted 46 per cent in her northern constituency, looks confident of entering parliament. Her influential deputy, Florian Philippot, is likely to be defeated in the east. The hard-left party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who nearly qualified for the second round of presidential elections, is expected to secure a dozen seats at best.
“It looks like the president’s party is going to have a large majority, but this does not mean there is a consensus on his programme,” Mr Mélenchon says.
Indeed, analysts point out that if the French two-round electoral system tends to amplify the parliamentary lead of the largest party, opposition risks flourishing outside the chamber. About half of the French are against Mr Macron’s plan to give companies more freedom to strike deals with their employees on hours and wages, according a survey released by Odoxa last month. CGT, France’s second-largest union, has already promised to take to the streets against the bill.
“Unions will take on the opposition on the jobs market reform,” Mr Gombin says. “The question is, who will challenge the government on areas that are not core for the unions, such as the question of police powers and civil liberties? France lacks social movements, it will be interesting to see if some emerge.”