Emmanuel Macron’s uphill struggle

On 7 May, Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential elections, winning 66 per cent of the votes in the second round of elections, against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s 34 per cent. In a symbolic move, he chose to celebrate his victory outside the Louvre, a world-famous museum in the capital Paris, as opposed to Place de la Concorde or Place de la Bastille, each typically reserved for right-wing or left-wing candidates respectively.

Despite the victory, turnout was the lowest since 1969, with around a quarter of voters abstaining and a record 11.5 per cent spoiling their ballots. President Macron now faces a major challenge: governing a politically polarised country under what is likely to be a ‘cohabitation’ between himself and a cabinet that is likely to be made up of politicians from parties other than his own nascent En Marche! (E.M.) party, recently renamed ‘La République En Marche!’ His first test will be the legislative elections, on 11 and 18 June.

Cohabitation or co-operation

Typically, the presidential and legislative elections in France are won by the same party. The president then nominates a prime minister, whose appointment is approved by the parliament – usually an easy procedure since the president’s party commands a majority in the legislature and the prime minister is generally a party colleague. In theory, the prime minister is then responsible for forming a cabinet, though in reality, when the president and prime minister are from the same party, the president wields significant influence. The president must approve the appointment of all cabinet ministers and chairs all cabinet meetings.

Of the 47.5 million registered voters in France, only 21 million voted for him

However, three governments since 1945 have had presidents and prime ministers from different parties. When this happens, the presidential powers – normally wide-reaching – are significantly curbed, because the prime minister is constitutionally tasked with the day-to-day running of the country.

Macron is lucky: his chances of cohabitation are low, thanks to a constitutional reform in 2000. Now, the presidency lasts for five years rather than seven. The legislative elections are now held within a month of the presidential vote, making the new president’s party far more likely to win a parliamentary majority. Nonetheless, this does not guarantee his government success.

Macron, who only founded the centrist, liberal and pro-European E.M. just over a year ago, currently has no lawmakers in parliament. He is likely to gain a parliamentary majority, but only just. The danger comes not from the left, which is increasingly fractured, but from a resurgent L.R. electorate who voted for Macron only to keep Le Pen out of office.

This presents Macron with a Catch 22: He must convince voters in June to switch from traditional choices such as the left-wing Parti Socialiste (P.S.) and the right-wing Les Républicains (L.R.) to his untested party, but he cannot afford to portray the others in too negative a light during the campaign, as he is likely to need their support when pushing through legislation.

Macron knows this, which is why he has picked a centrist mayor from L.R., Edouard Philippe, as his prime minister. Philippe has picked a cabinet made up of politicians from the P.S., L.R., the far-left, and high-level figures from civil society.

The prime minister himself has remained close to former university classmates despite their affiliation with the left, and is unpopular with some branches of his own party for his centrist views – for example, he was one of a handful of L.R. lawmakers who did not vote against gay marriage. He even wrote a weekly column for the left-wing newspaper Libération in the run-up to the presidential election. He has also said that ‘the country comes before the party’, suggesting that he will be more co-operative than previous prime ministers in cohabitation.

Macron’s own legacy

Despite Macron’s clever manoeuvring at the government level, he risks a ‘legitimacy deficit’ among the general population. Of the 47.5 million registered voters in France, only 21 million voted for Macron, while 16 million either abstained or spoiled their vote. The remaining 11 million voted for Marine Le Pen. In the first round, Macron secured only 24 per cent of the vote, and the swing towards him in the second election was in large part due to a widespread desire to block a far-right presidency.

His left-wing opponents point to a piece of legislation known as the Macron law, which he authored as economy minister with the help of then-prime minister, Manuel Valls, in 2015. The legislation encompasses a wide variety of issues, including liberalising employment law, allowing bus companies to run services that directly compete with railway routes, and loosening barriers to entry into highly regulated professions, particularly in the legal sector.

The law proved unpopular with the general population because it also made it easier for employers to fire workers and tightened laws on severance packages. Thousands of people staged demonstrations and strikes for months, and even a section of the P.S. – then in government – publicly criticised the measures. Ultimately, Valls passed the bill by decree, using article 49.3 of the French constitution, which allows the prime minister to bypass parliament.

The El Khomri law, named after the then-labour minister Myriam El Khomri, is even more unpopular. The legislation, which built on the Macron law, was a major overhaul of the French labour code, relaxing restrictions on firing workers, reducing overtime payments and suggesting a limit on compensation packages for unfair dismissal.

It triggered strikes, demonstrations and a long-running protest movement called ‘Nuit debout’ in Paris while the government forced the legislation through the lower house without a vote, using the same article of the French constitution as for the Macron law. It came into force in August 2016 despite widespread public opposition; it became one of the key criticisms of then-president François Hollande.

Macron secured only 24 per cent of the vote in the first round

Macron was influential in drafting the legislation, although he was later sidelined by Valls and Hollande and resigned just after the law was adopted. Still, his mark on the bill was clear enough that Le Pen, in their final debate before the presidential elections, dubbed it the ‘El Khomri-Macron law’ and consistently claimed that Macron would enact ‘an El Khomri law to the power of 1,000’ if he were elected.

Because of these laws, Macron will find it difficult to win over young workers. While he performed well with older voters, only 60 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds and 57 per cent of his own age group, the 35 to 49-year-olds, voted for him. These are the voters who entered the labour market before the Macron and El Khomri laws, many of whom would have protested fiercely against the changes, perceiving them as removing their job security. His opponents will likely portray his proposals as undermining workers’ rights, possibly sparking off fresh protests.

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