France Reborn?

The 2017 French election season is officially over. Pundits and analysts were confounded at each twist of scandal and Russian disinformation, as well as each domestic spike of discontent. A young, never-before-elected presidential candidate without a formal political party could not possibly win, nor could he secure a legislative majority. But this is exactly what Emmanuel Macron did. Elections are over, and the hard work of governing now begins as President Macron launches his reform agenda. Will French society endorse these reforms as much as they did his candidacy and his call for political renewal?

A Legislative Mandate

Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM), won an impressive 308 seats (out of 577) in the National Assembly after the second round of legislative elections on June 18. His centrist allies in the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) won 42 seats, bringing the presidential majority to 350 seats—an absolute majority and one of the biggest majorities of the Fifth Republic. The second-biggest party,Les Républicains (LR), garnered 112 seats, and its former ally Union des Démocrates et Indépendants (UDI) got 18 seats, while the political devastation of the Socialist Party (PS) continued as the party secured only 30 seats. The far-left France Insoumise (FI) and far-right Front National (FN), which had both performed remarkably well for extreme parties in the presidential election, respectively received 17 and 8 seats. Three quarters of representatives in the National Assembly are completely new to politics or did not hold seats after the 2012 election, and they are very diverse with over 223 women and 35 minority representatives. It bears stating the obvious: this is a completely new political configuration for France.

Data: Ministère de l’Intérieur. Note: LREM and FI did not exist in 2012.

This reconfiguration however came at a political price—French voters did not vote. Despite strong support for LREM, abstention reached its highest level since 1958, with 57.36 percent of registered voters staying home, and another 4.2 percent spoiling ballots or casting blank votes. There is no doubt that this has cast a shadow over Macron’s victory and may portend a more politically challenging environment than his absolute legislative majority suggests. Several reasons may have contributed to these abstentions: voter fatigue after a long election season; complete electoral confusion due to a high number of candidates in many legislative districts, many of whom switched political allegiance between the first and second rounds; and a strong sense from the media and general public that Macron’s party would sweep the legislative elections, which encouraged the grassroots mobilization for LREM and LR voters but alienated dejected extreme party voters. This illustrates a growing French political schism centered on the true agents of change. For Macron supporters, change comes from a newly formed political center with faces and voices that are untarnished (and untested) by traditional French politics and public scrutiny. Others believe that radical change can only come from the far-left and the far-right (and on some issues, these forces agree) and view the political center as the cause of the malaise from which they seek change. On the positive side, all political forces agree that change is a prerequisite for France’s renewal. On the negative side, these political forces do not agree on what the nature of that change is and what can bring it about.

Political Soul-Searching

These results were the final blow for a Socialist Party that had seen its support waning for five years under a particularly unpopular president, and whose candidate placed fifth in the presidential election’s first round. With its size greatly diminished, the party now faces a long road back to rebuild itself based on values agreed upon by the majority of party members and to regain voter trust. Though the party has announced it would vote no-confidence for Macron’s government, dissent within the ranks has already begun as more moderate voices in the party suggest they will abstain. Some centrist elements of the party could also break party lines and support part of the president’s agenda, further dislocating the Socialist parliamentary group and accelerating the party’s reconfiguration.

And while LR weathered the legislative elections, the party now faces the consequences of its rightward shift under François Fillon’s candidacy: the hardliners have announced they will refuse to give the government a confidence vote and are drifting further right, causing 15 representatives to break away and join forces with UDI to create a “constructive opposition” group that is open to collaborating with the government. Macron’s decision to include former-LR senior officials in his government has hastened this split by political design.

France’s elections have eviscerated France’s political party structure, and its reconfiguration will be a shaping force throughout Macron’s tenure as president—to both his political advantage and disadvantage.

A New Government and a Few Bumps along the Road

An early test for the Macron government and his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, did not go well. Macron has pledged that no one serving in his government be under investigation. This pledge symbolizes a break from French political party tradition and was reinforced by the scandal that consumed the political fortunes of the LR candidate, Fillon. However, LREM’s coalition partner, MoDem, has been engulfed in an investigation into possible fictitious employment using European Parliament funds—similar to the one that Marine Le Pen and her Front National party faced. Though long-standing politician François Bayrou, president of MoDem and minister of justice until June 21, insists the party is innocent, and no one has yet been indicted or been placed under investigation, he and two other ministers attached to the party preemptively resigned (Sylvie Goulard, former minister of armed forces, and Marielle de Sarnez, deputy minister of European affairs). Macron allied himself with Bayrou to deliver centrist votes during the campaign, and while the latter’s departure is unlikely to impede the president’s support among MoDem representatives in the Assembly and his reform efforts, it depleted his government of respected voices, particularly Goulard, in favor of new faces that may not have deep expertise in their portfolios. This will be Macron’s challenge: meeting his rhetorical requirements for centrist, fresh political faces while needing seasoned political forces to navigate deep structural reforms.

First Stop: Labor Reform

The priority for Macron will be reform of the French labor market to make it more flexible and competitive—reforms for which former president François Hollande faced intense societal resistance, and which were ultimately watered down. Though the full bill has not yet been drafted, the reform will follow three main lines : (1) capping wrongful termination settlements to foster hiring for small and medium-sized firms; (2) loosening sectoral collective bargaining conditions, making it possible to negotiate labor organization at the company level, while respecting local agreements and existing legislation; and (3) streamlining intra-company “social dialogue” (broad consultation covering economic and social policies that aims to create consensus among the main actors of the labor market) to give employees more representation and influence. Though the government has promised extensive consultation with all stakeholders, the first two reforms met with strong labor union protests under Hollande.

Despite Macron’s legislative majority, his government is unlikely to use it, preferring to pass ordinances (legislation emanating from the government rather than the parliament) rather than laws in anticipation that his government will face resistance from society. Macron’s political calculation will be the necessity of an early and decisive reform move to turn France’s economy around and gain political space with Germany to encourage eurozone reforms that support European integration and greater debt mutualization—anathema to some German constituents as they head to the polls on September 24. A deep desire for change may boost Macron’s agenda, but an improving French and eurozone economy may diminish the appetite for big change.

Implementing structural reform can be viewed as a form of political suicide. Ask the German Social Democrats after the implementation of the Hartz reforms in 2003 (the Social Democrats have not won an election since). Ask former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, who launched economic reforms that aimed to ease firing restrictions for large firms and offered temporary tax breaks to incentivize companies to offer permanent employment contracts. Such reforms were unable to give a sufficient boost to the Italian economy, after which Renzi’s popularity dwindled amid a failed attempt to seek political reforms in addition to the economic ones.

In France, and across Europe and Western democracies, we are simply in uncharted political territory. We are carefully watching this new experiment in French politics and its push for major change from a new political center. The beginning of a post-political-party era or a harbinger of greater political fracturing and instability? An opportunity to push for major reforms or the breaking point for the electorate? France will give us many things to contemplate in this new political era.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Donatienne Ruy is a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: CHRISTOPHE PETIT-TESSON/AFP/Getty Images

Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Heather A. Conley