Jolyon Howorth, Understanding The Macron Phenomenon – Analysis
Macron’s new party, with solid legislative win in France, could be revolutionary for integrating Europe
The Macron phenomenon is essentially threefold: statistical, political and programmatic.
The statistical story is paradoxical. Media projections of the Macron phenomenon suggested an overwhelming victory for the young president. In the first round of the French presidential election on April 23, Emmanuel Macron attracted more than 8.5 million votes, representing 23.8 percent of votes cast and 18 percent of registered voters. In the second round on May 7, he netted 20.7 million votes, 66 percent of votes cast, but still a minority, 43 percent, of registered voters. In the first round of legislative elections on June 11, Macron’s freshly minted party, La République en Marche, LRM, drawing support from across the political spectrum and in alliance with another centrist party, attracted only 7.3 million votes, representing 32 percent of votes cast and 15 percent of registered voters. In the second round, LRM elected 350 deputies, fewer than the 400 that had been predicted.
This was due to a record – and premonitory – rate of abstentions, over 57 percent. Analysts suggested that French voters drew back from giving Macron a “hegemonic majority,” conscious that serious opposition in the parliament is both necessary and healthy for democracy. In reality, the political culture of the Fifth Republic attaches overwhelming importance to the presidential ballot and tends to see parliamentary elections as confirmation of the presidential result. With a series of primaries and an electoral cycle in full swing since September 2016, many voters had seen enough of the ballot box. The distraught leaders of the two mainstream parties, as well as Marine Le Pen’s Front National, decimated by the Macron effect, vociferously questioned the legitimacy of Macron’s “majority.”
The political story is potentially revolutionary. Macron’s overt objective in running for the presidency was to destroy a two-party system that had seen socialists and conservatives alternate as presidential candidates for more than 50 years, to the detriment of a hypothetical center that struggled for visibility. Macron succeeded spectacularly in that ambition, creating a once unimaginable centrist tsunami.
Since the French Revolution, the French right, as theorized by the political scientist René Rémond, has comprised three camps: authoritarian/populist; liberal/conservative; counter-revolutionary/nationalist. The latter has traditionally constituted a noisy minority in French politics, but Marine Le Pen succeeded to a large extent, playing on popular anger against globalization and the European Union, in turning her father’s crypto-fascist movement into a following that could attract almost 11 million voters, or 34 percent of votes cast, in the presidential election’s second round, twice the number that had rallied to her father in 2002.
In the legislative elections, the Macron effect reduced that figure to fewer than 3 million votes the Front National netting just eight deputies in the 577-member National Assembly, including, for the first time, Le Pen herself. Macron succeeded in smashing the populist wave in France that many commentators had feared might attract a majority in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Macron also succeeded in badly wounding the mainstream right party, Les Républicains, which, under presidents Chirac and Sarkozy, had managed to reconcile its authoritarian/populist and liberal/conservative strands. By 2016, Les Républicains were riven by growing tensions between these two tendencies. Macron’s appointment of the liberal-leaning Edouard Philippe as prime minister and his successful courting of many other liberal conservatives wreaked havoc within the party, whose presence in the National Assembly plummeted from 230 to 130.
Conservatism in France is now caught in an uncomfortably receding space between Macronism and the Front National.
On the left, the Parti Socialiste suffered from President François Hollande’s inability to resolve his party’s contradictions between a left-wing that views the business of governing as a betrayal of socialist ideals and a right-wing that sees no alternative, in a world of globalization, to embracing significant chunks of the neoliberal economic agenda. By choosing as its presidential standard-bearer a representative of the left, Benoît Hamon, rather than the standard-bearer of the right, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the party effectively signed its own death warrant. Hamon scored a derisory 6.35 percent of votes cast in the presidential elections. Candidates from the formerly governing Parti Socialiste performed disastrously in the legislative elections, their numbers in the National Assembly collapsing from 284 to 44 with Hamon eliminated in the first round. The Parti Socialiste is today both politically and financially bankrupt.