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12 June 2017

Emmanuel Macron’s parliamentary victory marks the return of the experts

The new French President is assembling a technocratic government.

By Hugo Drochon

Emmanuel Macron continues to surprise. On Sunday, in the first round of the French legislative elections, his La République En Marche movement, created only six months ago, came out with 32 per cent of the vote, far ahead of the right-wing Les Républicains with 22 per cent. Marine Le Pen’s Front National took only 13 per cent, the same as Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. While the two extremes, left and right, perfectly mirrored each other in their lacklustre performance, the Socialist Party was left for dead at 10 per cent.  

When Macron was elected president in May, polls suggested that his movement might turn out to be the biggest party in the French Assembly, but would fall short of an overall majority. He is now heading to a thumping victory in the second round on Sunday, predicted to win anything up to 455 of the 577 seats of the national assembly, leaving only crumbs to his opponents.

There are questions here about where the legitimate opposition will come from, and whether Macron’s movement can mobilise more voters for the second round – first round abstention was at a historical high of 51 per cent. But for now, Macron has the mandate to implement his programme of economic, social and political reforms.

In putting together a government that includes ministers from the left, centre and right, Macron has stuck to his mantra of being beyond “left and right”. He also achieved his goal of gender parity, although Sylvie Goulard is the only female senior minister, in charge of defence, and her task will be to deepen EU military co-operation, which has already been met with some success.

Goulard, a pro-European centrist MEP and one of the first to rally to Macron, was tipped to be his Prime Minister after Macron had hinted that he would have liked a female PM. But in the end, Macron appointed the Mayor of Le Havre, Edouard Philippe, a moderate right-winger close to the former Republican PM Alain Juppé. Like Goulard and the economics minister Bruno Le Maire, Philippe speaks fluent German – a clear signal to Berlin that Macron wants to renew the Franco-German axis. Like Macron, Goulard, Philippe and Le Maire went to the elite school of national administration.

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Another goal was to have half his cabinet drawn from civil society, something Macron also succeeded in doing. Perhaps his biggest catch was the environmental activist Nicolas Hulot, who became the minister for the environment – a position he had previously refused under previous presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. But it also includes a former health authority chief Agnès Buzyn as health minister, the head of a French publishing house, Françoise Nyssen, as culture minister, and an Olympic fencing champion Laura Flessel, from the French island of Guadeloupe, as sports minister.

Perhaps the person who best incarnates this “renewal”, which Macron wants to extend to his legislative movement including gender parity, is Jean-Michel Blanquer. A former academic who served in the cabinet of Sarkozy’s education minister, after a stint at the head of the prestigious ESSEC Business School, he is now minister for education. The expert has become the minister.

Led by énarques (elite graduates), composed of politicians from both the left and the right, and dominated by people at the top of their fields, Macron’s government is the return of the experts. It is also a government of “national unity”. This is something France hasn’t seen since the end of the war, when Charles de Gaulle formed a coalition composed of the disparate elements that made up the Résistance: Communists, Socialists, Radicals and Christian Democrats. That coalition quickly fell apart, and for the remainder of its existence the IV Republic was ruled by a “Third Force” or “Republican Front”, made up of Socialists, Radicals and Christian Democrats – precisely the type of coalition Macron is trying to resuscitate. 

In recent times, technocratic governments, whether Mario Monti (or indeed Matteo Renzi) in Italy or Lucas Papademos in Greece, have failed. Those were in the quite different circumstances of the euro crisis, but Michael Gove famously claimed last year during the Brexit campaign that the people have had enough of experts. Can Macron succeed where others have failed?

Much will depend on the results of the legislative elections, but the omens are good. From beating Trump in their “hand-shake off” at the Nato summit a couple of weeks ago, to telling assembled journalists at Versailles that Russia Today and Sputnik News are “organs of propaganda” in front of Vladimir Putin, Macron’s confident start on the international stage means momentum is behind him. He has done better than the polls twice already – in the first and second round of the presidential election – so it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to do so again.

But can Macron succeed in his two main challenges: reforming the French labour market and reforming the EU? Reforming the labour market has been the death knell for a number of French governments, including most recently Francois Hollande – an attempt Macron himself was part of. But things have since changed, not least the fact the more reformist trade union the CFDT, with roots in the Christian trade unionism movement, has overtaken the more radical and Communist-influenced CGT as the largest trade union in France. The CFDT is open to cut a deal with Macron, and his government has been having discussions with all the social partners to explain their position.

Macron wants to pass the labour reform law by technocratic decree, but it can only fully come into force if the parliament ratifies it, which is why the elections are so important. If Macron can win the elections then he will have the legitimacy to face down the street protests that will inevitably ensue. And not being beholden to the traditional parties means he is freer to act. He is not tied to the trade unions like the Socialists are, and these same syndicalists will always come out in force against whichever labour law the Conservatives try to pass.

Reforming the labour market, and reducing the budget deficit to 3 per cent (it currently stands at 3.4 per cent), will pave the way to concessions from Berlin, where Macron has been leading a charm offensive towards Angela Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. It seems to be working. Merkel, particularly after Trump’s catastrophic visit to Nato, has left the door open to treaty change, and Schäuble has mooted the idea of transforming the European Stability Mechanism into a European version of the International Monetary Fund, in charge of redistribution.

All political careers end in failure, and Macron’s will be no different. For someone with such drive and ambition, the fall from grace will probably be from even higher. He is already under pressure with his law to “moralise” public life – one of his ministers is suspected of having abused his position to acquire favours for his former wife, and another of having a fake European parliamentary assistant. This leaves Macron in a bit of a bind. He has always claimed he wanted his political associates to be “whiter than white”, but if he concedes on every point, then his political enemies will have found an easy way to challenge every decision he makes. The elections will be the judge of their political futures.

What is clear is that Macron is determined and ruthless, and he has every intention of carrying out the programme he has set himself. For good or for worse, the next five years will be transformative for French politics.

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