A few months ago, Emmanuel Macron’s political opponents warned that voting for him would create an inevitable political crisis. He could become President, they said, but would obviously never garner an absolute majority in parliament with his new party, En Marche, created just a year ago, and a set of relatively unknown candidates, more than half of whom have never held any elected office. Yesterday, the talking points swiftly changed: the same people who had warned of a hung parliament were railing against the risks inherent in “single party” rule. How quickly we have swung, from anarchy to autocracy!
France’s constitution gives ample powers to its President, provided his party wins a majority at the National Assembly. If he doesn’t, he loses control of his cabinet and is basically reduced to tending after foreign policy. The stakes were thus quite high for Macron, who ran a wildly successful outsider campaign for the Presidency on the premise of getting things done at home. In yesterday’s first round of the parliamentary elections, La Republique En Marche (REM) gathered 32 percent of the vote, ahead of the center-right Les Republicains’s 21.2 percent and Marine Le Pen’s National Front’s 13.9 percent. If that doesn’t sound like an overwhelming landslide, France’s majoritarian system should net Macron more than 400 seats out of a total of 577 in next weekend’s second round of voting. Les Republicains will muddle through as the main opposition party, but they won’t avoid a deep identity crisis. The Socialists, however, are all but decimated: They will have gone from a majority party commanding 284 seats to a shadow of its former self struggling to keep more than twenty. Prominent Socialist politicians, like party chairman Jean-Christophe Cambadelis or the presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, have not even made it to the second round.
How did Macron pull off such an upset? Part of the answer lies in the French political system itself. The 1999 decision, to hold the parliamentary elections a month after the presidential one, was made precisely so that voters would be allowed to follow up on their presidential choice, and thus avoid a political stalemate. Even voters who did not support Macron in April now appear to want to give him the authority to push his reform agenda—and especially to tackle the rigidities of the labor market. REM’s candidates ran using posters with Macron’s face photoshopped next to theirs; being political unknowns, they owe him their victory, and will repay their debt by guaranteeing smooth sailing for his agenda in Parliament. (“The street” will be another story.)
Beyond these systemic reasons, Macron’s raw political talent has been a huge asset to him. For one, he surprised most observers by assembling a cabinet tilting to the Right, with his Prime Minister, Economic Minister and Budget Minister poached from the Republicains. And his first foray into international relations, bookended by the Trump handshake and the Putin presser, was well received. In just his first month, Macron was thus able to dispatch two key talking points brandished against him during the campaign: that he would just provide a facelift for the Socialists (rather than destroying them), and that he would be out of his depth on the international stage.
Something deeper is going on, too. Not since 1958, when de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic during the Algerian war, has France witnessed such a profound reshuffling of its political class. The two parties that have structured French political life along the Left-Right divide for decades have been swept away, with dozens of prominent incumbents losing by margins as high as 30 percent at the hands of virtual unknowns. Districts that have always voted for the Right, like in the West of Paris (Neuilly, Paris’ 16th arrondissement) seem poised to vote in a Macron MP. All this demonstrates not just the disdain that French voters have built up for their current political elite, but also the general fluidity of their political allegiances—something that many experts, especially in the United States, tend to miss. As is often the case, voters tend to be less risk-averse than observers heavily invested in the system.
The historically low turnout, at 49 percent, bears this out: While Macron’s party won almost as many votes as he did in the first round of the presidential election, turnout for his rivals’ parties collapsed. What’s the incentive for showing up to cast your vote for dying parties that have, in the eyes of voters, proven unable to renew themselves and adapt to the challenges of globalization? As in the United States and the UK, the two establishment parties were internally tearing themselves asunder over key issues like the European Union, and were proving unable to offer a coherent alternative to the vision offered by a resurgent National Front. With a party created from scratch, and thus unburdened by the past, Macron had not trouble doing so.
But why is a centrist, liberal and pro-European message resonating in France at a time when “populists” seem to be on the rise almost everywhere else? The answer lies in a category error. Most talk of populism usually conflates two seemingly related but not necessarily linked phenomena: extremist political ideologies from both the Left and the Right on the one hand, and anti-establishment anger on the other. Since liberal elites are often associated with the part of the population that has most benefited from globalization, it would seem obvious to observers that their rejection must be accompanied by an embrace of illiberalism.
Macron’s success gives the lie to this simplistic assumption. He has been able to capture some of this anti-establishment, populist feeling in a way that Hillary Clinton, the quintessential establishment political figure, never could. And make no mistake: Macron is as much a member of the country’s elites as anyone, having attended the most exclusive schools before joining the Rothschild investment bank, and finally landing on Francois Hollande’s staff. But the French haven’t been conned. Macron did bring a new generation of politicians along with him. And he never distanced himself from voters—and would never deign to characterize National Front supporters as “deplorables”. The broader lesson is clear: If liberals want to respond to the rising challenge of illiberal ideology, they need to capture that populist energy with a narrative of change.
Macron would do well to keep his own meteoric rise firmly in mind as a lesson to himself going forward. He has proven that many political institutions, up until now assumed to be immovably solid, are in fact very fragile and up for grabs. With a clear majority, an opposition in shambles, and high favorability ratings, there are high expectations that this President will get things done. If he fails to confront France’s broken system, voters will be as unforgiving with him as they were to his predecessors.