Aline Burni (PhD candidate, Federal University of Minas Gerais)
France went to the polls last Sunday, June 18th, to vote for the second round of the legislative elections. Following a recurrent practice under the logic of the V Republic, in which institutions have been designed to favor a strong President over the Assembly, the newly elected president conquered the majority of seats in Congress (about 350 out of 577 seats go to En Marche! and MoDem together). But this time there are many particularities in his achievement, and he has certainly played very well with both the contextual factors and the rules of the electoral system. Managing these two factors is what made Macron achieve his victory, in my opinion. And I will explain how.
First of all, let me mention the peculiarities of these elections, things that make it very unique in the French political history. It is not irrelevant that Macron launched his party En Marche! (On the move!) only a year ago. A few months ago nobody could predict his election, neither a majority in Parliament for La République En Marche! (LREM – name given to the legislative election coalition). France is known for its robust party machines and the powerful effect of partisan-ideological drivers in voting behavior. This time, however, the power of a leader, En Marche!’s campaign and the deep rejection of traditional politicians have been stronger than long-term attachments among voters. Another aspect that is appropriate to highlight is the record abstention, the highest since 1958: 57,38%. This, of course, raises the question of legitimacy and representativeness of Macron’s government. Although he got a clear majority of seats, elected politicians have been chosen by only a restricted part of the population. Additionally, abstention is not random, it is much more likely to affect certain segments of the electorate, such as young people, and those who belong to the lowest social strata. In the 18-25 age range, 75% of voters did not show to cast a vote last Sunday.
Another point to observe is the great defeat of traditional parties. The Socialist Party only conquered 30 seats, its worst score since its foundation. As soon as the results were announced, its first secretary resigned. Additionally, although the Republicans got more seats than recently predicted by opinion polls, their 113 elected representatives correspond to their worst score since 1958. Numerous traditionally powerful names in politics were defeated on Sunday, both from the left and the right, such as Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (former Minister under Hollande), and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (former Minister under Sarkozy), just to mention a few. Finally, these legislative elections also resulted in a record percentage of women representatives (they will compose 38% of Congress) and a considerable number of beginner politicians who will equally compose the House (1/3 of En Mache! candidates have never run any election before). There is an undeniable renovation happening in the French political landscape. For now, all we can say is that there is a decomposition of the political space, which was traditionally structured under two ideological blocs (left and right), but we still don’t know which elements will restructure the political competition in the near future.
So why did Macron win the Bourbon palace? First, he took advantage of the context, favorable for outsiders and novelty. In a scenario where traditional political parties suffer intensely from distrust and damage, the novelty element can be very advantageous. By creating a new party – which is not even treated as a political party, but as a movement –, and by distancing itself from traditional ideological blocs, Macron was able to inject a desired dose of renovation and freshness in the political system. Additionally, he has innovated by focusing on an underexplored liberal position on a cultural dimension, which opposes directly to another emerging force in this very same political dimension, the populist radical right. This way, Macron has been able to occupy a liberal niche previously vacant in France, not explored by traditional parties. The usage of technological tools and a modern campaign style, with intense use of the internet, also played a crucial role, specially to reach young, culturally liberal, well-off, and pro-globalization citizens, who felt orphan under the Hollande government and a stagnated left-wing supply.
Secondly, Macron and his movement have well managed the rules of the game and waited for the decisions taken by other running parties. French legislative elections work under a two-round majority system, where one deputy is elected in each district (circonscription). If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes in the first round (among at least 25% of registered voters), those who get at least 12,5% of registered voters can run a second round. In the second round, for its turn, it is possible to have more than two candidates in the dispute, and it is not necessary to get more than half of the votes, but to be the one most voted of all. This year, the dispute was announced as highly fragmented. In certain districts, more than 20 names were presented in the first round. This logic, as does the first-past-the-post rule, benefits the favorite candidate, who doesn’t really need a huge number of votes to get to the second round and win it, in cases where the competitiveness is relatively low. Candidates for En Marche! had the advantage of sharing the label of the president, which has put them as favorite in many cases. Some of them have even presented themselves before, but never got even close to run-off. In other words, the calculus to win in a fragmented scenario, with very low mobilization (high abstention) and a slight brand advantage, results in a need to conquer a relatively small number of votes to win. If we add to that the negative weight of being an establishment candidate, candidates from En Marche! had a slight, but decisive advantage over the others, and they needed to make sure that Macron’s supporters would show up to vote for them. This is the kind of calculus En Marche! has done. They launched candidates or supported an existing one in as many districts as possible, and maximized their chances of victory with the novelty element present both in En Marche! as a movement, and candidates as beginners in politics.
Last, but not least, knowing that his young party would be forced to build coalitions to govern once elected, Macron anticipated it, he built his coalition long before the elections happen, including not only the centrist MoDem, but also personalities from the traditional right-wing and left-wing taken as compatible to his own ideas. He did not let the results of the polls define his marge de maneuver to negotiate power. Macron managed the two-round majority system with strong fragmentation, he took advantage from the fact that the legislative elections happen very close to the presidential elections (with mobilized En Marche! supporters to give the president a majority, and discouraged voters who previously supported other presidential candidates), and he has chosen his coalition long before the elections took place, creating a gravity center in the center of the political spectrum, which would give him the possibility to eventually negotiate an extra support either with the left or with the right, depending on their strength.
Macron has won many bets for now. However, his government certainly has several challenges ahead. Not only it was elected by a better-off France in socio-economic terms, but also En Marche! elected representatives who mainly belong to an upper-middle class. They are mainly well educated, liberal workers, who benefit from globalization and liberalism. The new president must make sure his reforms and actions will not benefit exclusively those who elected him, but also segments that struggle the most with worsening socio-economic conditions. Those citizens, who come from popular strata, are also the ones who usually choose radical parties, specially the National Front, and they are as well more likely to abstain in less salient elections, since they do not feel their participation can change the political outcome. Macron needs to recreate the sentiment of political efficacy and reengage all sorts of citizens in politics, not only those who agree with his policies. Coupled with this challenge of making excluded citizen feel they are included again in the decision-making process, there is also the challenge of making changes in the electoral system, one of his campaign promises. This reform should add proportional doses to the composition of the National Assembly, since the gap between share of votes and number of seats given to a party has been more and more critical over time. Yet, there is a paradox here: if proportional representation could mobilize voters again, it could also give radical alternatives more access to representative institutions. Ironically, if Macron introduces more proportionality to the electoral system, he will also increase the power of the National Front, which will still be his main ideological opponent, despite its low number of seats in the National Assembly. The thing is that in future elections Macron will no longer count on his novelty advantage.
Therefore, president Macron’s third and most difficult challenge is to hold the populist phenomenon, still alive. Populism is not defeated only because some populist parties have done worse than expected in a number of recent elections, such as the FN in France, the PVV in the Netherlands, or the FPO in Austria. Populism has already achieved one of its goals, which was to introduce a new political dimension into the competition and destabilize the partisan system. This new dimension is more concerned with cultural issues than traditional economic ones. Immigration, terrorist attacks and globalization will continue in the agenda under Macron government, which plans to take the European Union even further. At this moment, the way political trends will be organized is very unpredictable, which leads an open way to populists. Moreover, support for populist radical right parties has shown a certain regularity and rooting. Parties from this family are willing to adapt to the circumstances and to implement new strategies. Events such as the terrorist threat that took place this Monday in Paris usually bring back to the debate some of the National Front’s favorite subjects. This could eventually activate latent sentiments against immigrants, Islam and multiculturalism. ••