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Low Turnout and Macron’s Partial Victory

Walter Russell Mead

The big news this Monday is that Emmanuel Macron has achieved his sweeping victory in French legislative elections. On paper, at least, he is now the youngest and most powerful French leader since Napoleon.

But there is a problem: turnout. Both in the presidential and the legislative elections, a lot of French people didn’t bother to vote. Only 44 percent of voters bothered to show up for the last round of parliamentary elections.

Some of it was the lack of suspense. Macron’s En Marche party was so heavily favored to win that a lot of people saw no reason to vote. And some of it was genuine disillusionment with the tired alternatives on offer; the Left, especially, took a shellacking.

But there’s something else: French history, from Louis “L’etat c’est moi” XIV, through the Emperor Napoleon, right down through the Fifth Republic with its powerful Presidency, is the story of a country that likes a strong executive.

That said, France is a country that likes to rebel, and the opposition Macron really has to worry about isn’t in Parliament; it is in the streets. Low turnout could be telling us that many French voters feel alienated from formal political mechanisms; if that’s true, they could show their true feelings when the inevitable strikes and demonstrations against Macron’s proposed economic reforms start to take shape. As Benjamin Haddad noted in his essay in our pages last week, all that Macron has so far proven is that “many political institutions, up until now assumed to be immovably solid, are in fact very fragile and up for grabs.” His victory does not make the country necessarily less volatile.

Louis XVI, Napoleon, Charles X, Louis Philippe, Napoleon III, even de Gaulle: French history is full of leaders who seemed to be in full control of the country thanks to their mastery of its institutions—until, quite suddenly, they weren’t. Macron has conquered the world of institutionalized French politics; it remains to be seen whether he can master the street.

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