The takeover is complete. Just over a month after his stunning election to the Elysée Palace, France’s youngest-ever president has guided his party to a huge win in legislative polls, crushing the old parties of left and right that have dominated French politics for decade. His La République en Marche (LREM) didn’t even exist 15 months ago. Now projections say the centrist upstart and a smaller ally will control some 360 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, heralding an era of centrist hegemony in the country that invented the left-right divide.
Across the country, LREM candidates – most of them political novices, much like the president – ripped apart the political script, storming bastions of the right and the left with astonishing ease. Admittedly, they fell short of the “Soviet-style” majority some polls had forecast. But they will still enjoy one of the largest majorities in modern history. And that’s without counting the handful of survivors from other parties who have already pledged to support France’s new president, in a desperate bid to save their own skin.
LREM’s spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, was in generous mood as he praised French voters for delivering “a clear majority and an opposition, both of which are very good news.” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, a centre-right politician who joined Macron's movement, added that "through their vote, a wide majority of the French have chosen hope over anger". In fact as dismal turnout figures show, most registered voters have chosen neither.
While Macron’s triumph paves the way for the sweeping reforms he has promised, it also comes with a number of important caveats, starting with the massive level of abstention that made it possible. For the first time in history, turnout in a legislative election has slumped to below 50%, in both rounds. On Sunday, a mere 43% of voters bothered to cast their ballots. This means the 42% of votes won by LREM candidates account for less than 20% of registered voters.
The record level of abstention underscored the widespread election fatigue accumulated over more than 12 months of non-stop campaigning, successive primaries, and a two-round presidential election. It also highlighted the imbalance inherent to France’s electoral system, in which legislative polls tend to be seen as a sideshow to the all-important presidential bout. With his hyper-personalisation of politics, Macron has dramatically increased this discrepancy.
Above all, the measly turnout reflected voters’ widespread disgust with the mainstream parties of right and left that have dominated French politics for decades. A few weeks ago, the conservative Les Républicains were still hoping to win a majority of seats. As results trickled in on Sunday, they were projected to win just 126, their lowest-ever tally. Reflecting on the debacle, their campaign leader François Baroin had little to offer, besides wishing Macron “good luck”.
As for the former ruling Socialists, they slumped to an all-time low of 29 seats. Last week saw the first-round exits of party boss Jean-Christophe Cambadélis and presidential candidate Benoît Hamon. More heavyweights fell on Sunday, including former education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who was seen as one of the party’s rising stars. As the scale of the defeat became obvious, Cambadélis announced his resignation, adding that “Macron’s triumph is uncontestable”.
Among the survivors from left and right, several have already pledged to support the “presidential majority”. They include former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls, who saved his seat in the Essonne, south of Paris, by a mere 139 votes – and only because LREM chose not to field a candidate against him. His far-left opponent has challenged the result alleging voter fraud, and a recount is on the cards.
Indicative of the extraordinary realignment of French politics was a flashpoint contest in northern Paris, in which centrist Socialist candidate Myriam El Khomri enjoyed Macron’s support, while her conservative challenger Pierre-Yves Bournazel was backed by Macron’s prime minister. Victory went to the latter, marking a huge upset in a constituency that was once solidly left-wing.
Le Pen enters parliament
While LREM capitalised on the anti-establishment sentiment, other parties that had been hoping to ride the same wave fell way short of their objectives. It was notably the case of the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, the runner-up in last month’s presidential contest, which failed to translate its strong showing in presidential polls into a large parliamentary contingent.
After two failed bids in 2007 and 2012, Le Pen did win her first-ever seat in the Pas-de-Calais district. But with only seven other MPs seemingly in the bag, the party is well short of the 15-seat threshold required to form a parliamentary group and benefit from the financial resources and speaking time it entails. The defeat of Le Pen’s deputy, Florian Philippot, who masterminded the FN’s “social” platform and campaigned for a divisive “Frexit” from the eurozone, could see the party’s far-right hardliners sharpen their knives.
Over on the far left, the France Insoumise fared marginally better, taking 17 seats, including one for its firebrand leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Marseille. But it still fell short of the meagre tally achieved by the Socialists, whom Mélenchon was desperate to supplant as the main force on the left. The Communists, who were seen holding on to a dozen seats, are now expected to join forces with the France Insoumise in order to meet the 15-seat threshold.
‘Road clear for reforms’
Mélenchon said his party would lead the fight in parliament against Macron’s proposed reforms, which he likened to a “social coup d’état”. But voters have given him – and the rest of France’s scattered opposition forces – precious few tools to challenge the new president and his huge majority.
LREM’s astonishing success is set to radically change the face of parliament, introducing a host of political novices and far more women MPs than ever before. It will also give the new president ample leeway as he sets out to overhaul labour laws, cut tens of thousands of public sector jobs and pump billions of euros of public cash in areas including struggling schools and job training – provided he can keep such a diverse and raw group of MPs united behind him.
Across the border, German officials appeared to be celebrating the result, with both Chancellor Angela Merkel and her left-wing challenger in forthcoming elections, Martin Schulz, congratulating the French leader and his party. Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, wrote on Twitter that "France now has a strong president with a strong majority in parliament,” hailing this as "Good for Europe and for Germany!" Sigmar Gabriel, the German foreign minister, added that "the road is clear for reforms, in France and in Europe."