By Monique El-Faizy
The historic election of Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old newcomer to politics who, when he assumes the French presidency on May 14, will be the youngest in that office in the nation’s history, has launched France into uncharted territory.
For starters, Macron is the only person ever to ever have been elected president without the backing of a major party. In a country that for decades has been dominated by the mainstream right- and left-wing parties, Macron’s En Marche! movement, scarcely more than a year old, breaks the mold of traditional party politics.
If that isn’t enough uncertainty for a nation that clings to tradition and history like a shipwrecked sailor to a life raft in shark-infested waters, in one month, voters will return to the polls to choose a new legislature.
The challenge could hardly be greater for Macron’s En Marche! party, which has promised to present a full slate of candidates for France’s 577 legislative seats, at least 50 percent of whom will have never been elected to office and of which half will be women. The list of candidates was chosen from more than 1,500 online applications. On Thursday, the movement revealed the names of 428 of them—including 24 from the Socialist Party—and the rest will be announced next week. So far they have an average age of 46, compared to 60 for current seat holders.
Former Socialist prime minster Manuel Valls, with whom Macron had a tense relationship when the two served together in outgoing President François Hollande’s government, offered himself as a candidate for En Marche! but was told he does not meet the criteria set out by the party, because he, like others who were similarly rejected, had been elected to the legislature three or more times. The group is putting muscle behind its promise to change the status quo.
Valls’ offer is significant in that it illustrates the degree to which the Socialist Party is in disarray, its candidate having garnered only 6.4 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections. En Marche! is likely to be able to absorb many of the Socialists legislative seats.
In Macron’s ideal world, the legislative elections would deliver him the seats he needs to govern effectively and enact the program he campaigned on. And while it is difficult to imagine that Macron’s nascent party will be able to overcome this hurdle, at least one recent poll shows him winning the lion’s share of seats and possibly even an outright majority. It has thus far proven unprofitable to bet against the candidate who has consistently shattered expectations.
Though Macron was elected with 66 percent of the vote, his was hardly an overwhelming mandate. More people sat out this election than any other since 1969—25 percent—and upward of another 11 percent of ballots were either blank or spoiled. Many of those who voted did so holding their noses, viewing Macron as the lesser of two evils.
Whether or not Macron’s electoral win will carry over to the parliamentary elections is the crucial question. The French voted against his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to sign up for his program of economic and social liberalization.
Macron doesn’t easily fit into either the socialist or conservative political boxes that the French are familiar with, which leaves many voters scratching their heads in incomprehension or complaining that he stands for nothing and is simply a product of marketing. Voters may decide to cast their legislative ballots for candidates whose positions they find easier to decipher. Macron and his En Marche! movement are unknown quantities.
If Macron can’t garner the 289 seats he needs in the upcoming elections, the En Marche! experiment is likely to fail to launch. Without a majority, Macron will have to enter into a coalition with another party, a move that could well shackle him to the point of ineffectiveness.
Any mainstream party Macron joins forces with will be pushing an agenda and may prevent Macron from being able to fully implement his own. Worse, depending upon the numbers, Macron could be forced to accept a prime minister from a different party, further hampering his legislative efforts.
If Macron gets dragged into the politics-as-usual by partners either on the right or on the left, his agenda will get mired in the same ruts that have kept France stagnant for the past two decades.
Even if he does get a majority, Macron will have to overcome the natural tendencies of the nation he is to govern. The French have yet to fully embrace globalization or, for that matter, the 21st century, and are profoundly suspicious of corporations and profit.
Worker protections are as deeply ingrained in the French identity as is the daily baguette, and the unions will have their members in the streets en masse at the first whiff of an effort to curb their protections. Macron’s challenge will be to make France more competitive while keeping enough of France’s safety net in place to avoid alienating the work force. If he fails to walk that fine line, he may never get the chance to prove the efficacy of his ideas.
The stakes are high, not just for Macron but for France as a whole. If by the next presidential election the angry and disillusioned rural and working class that delivered Marine Le Pen’s National Front more votes than ever before haven’t seen their lives improve, their numbers may well swell, delivering her the populist victory Europe has been fearing.
Monique El-Faizy is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a Paris-based journalist. She is the author of God and Country: How Evangelicals Have Become America’s New Mainstream.
[Photo courtesy of OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS]