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French elections: 'Macron can't claim a strong popular mandate'

President Emmanuel Macron’s comfortable majority might turn out to be less comfortable than the numbers suggest, writes Dr Míde Ní Shúilleabháin.

Dr Míde Ní Shúilleabháin Lecturer in International Relations, DCU

EMMANUEL MACRON WILL enjoy a numerically comfortable majority when France’s parliamentary assembly convenes for its new term on June 27. However, after the second and final round of the legislative elections yesterday, the La République en Marche (LRM) political movement of the new President obtained a smaller majority than had been expected after the first round.

Nonetheless, while the presidential grouping’s 350 seats (out of a parliamentary total of 577) was less than the projection of over 400, La République en Marche’s return of 308 elected members means that Macron will not be dependent on his centrist allies (MoDem: 42 seats) for an absolute majority.

Indeed, that the LRM-led government returned fewer deputies than expected could be spun as a positive rather than a setback, as it leaves the President with a less-unwieldy majority to manage and quiets fears of an opposition-less rule.

A one man majority?

Significant challenges of management will remain in the ruling majority, however. In an election season that has produced upheaval after upheaval, one of the striking results of the legislatives is that only 25% of sitting deputies were re-elected, with many of the remaining three quarters being parliamentary – and often political – neophytes.

While reflective of the disgruntlement with establishment politics that characterised the presidential election, this preponderance of parliamentary newcomers is a practical, and possibly a political, challenge for party elites.

Furthermore, the staggering abstention rate of over 57% means that, notwithstanding its substantial majority, the government cannot convincingly lay claim to a strong popular mandate. The success in the legislative elections owes much more to the personal popularity of the new president – accompanied by a rejection of the traditional parties – than it does to profound belief in LRM and its candidates.

France’s constitutional republic, which in its current form was conceived and designed by former President and war hero Charles de Gaulle, is one in which politics is very much personified.

Macron has learned from the failures of the weak presidency of “Mr Normal,” François Hollande, and has begun his own premiership in a more traditional manner, drawing upon cultural and military symbolism in his victory celebrations and inauguration to position himself as a strong national leader and one who can lay claims to the lineage of popular predecessors such as de Gaulle and François Mitterrand.

Macron’s foreign policy commendable performances since his election, notably in his interactions with strongman Presidents Trump and Putin, has reinforced his image as a charismatic national leader and increased his popularity with the public. This personal popularity was a major factor in the success of the LRM candidates in a parliamentary election in which political apathy and election fatigue were extremely pronounced.

However, the ruling majority will need some convincing domestic wins to ensure that La République en Marche does not go the way of Hollande’s Socialist party (who went from a ruling majority of 284 to 33 seats).

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Legislative hurdles ahead

Despite the comfortable parliamentary majority, these wins will not be easily won. And the battles to be fought will not only be in the national assembly but also in the press and on the streets.

The first two major pieces of legislation to be introduced are a new law on ethics in public life and a labour reform law. Previous attempts to pass this labour-reform law saw students, workers and unions take to the streets and fatally undermine the already unpopular Socialist government, damage the presidential candidacy of former prime minister Manuel Valls and cost the minister responsible for the law, Myriam El Khomri, her seat.

As for ethics in public life: the member of Macron’s new government responsible for introducing the law, Minister for Justice François Bayrou, leads the centrist MoDem party, a party currently under suspicion of engaging in misleading or potentially fraudulent employment practices in the European Parliament.

President Emmanuel Macron’s comfortable majority in the national assembly might, then, turn out to be less comfortable than the numbers would suggest. And among those new faces in the opposition ranks of the parliament will be long-time campaigners but first-time parliamentary deputies Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the burgeoning left-wing La France Insoumise (Rebellious France), and Marine Le Pen, of a Front National that although much bruised is not beaten. Bonne chance, Président Macron.

Dr Míde Ní Shúilleabháin lectures in International Relations at DCU.

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About the author:

Dr Míde Ní Shúilleabháin  / Lecturer in International Relations, DCU

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