PARIS – Emmanuel Macron’s one-man revolution in French and European politics continued this weekend, as he will soon be able to add a huge parliamentary majority to his cause, if the results from the first round of the French parliamentary election hold. Such an outcome appears to be very likely.
Eliminating the old “right-left” divide in French politics by uniting “reformists” of the left, the right, and the center, was the challenge that Macron set for himself when he created his En Marche! movement in April 2016 as part of his bid for the French presidency. The result of the first round of elections to the National Assembly is the clearest indication yet of how successful Macron has been in recasting French politics.
Support for France’s two main traditional parties, Les Républicains on the right (which won 21.6% of votes cast in the first round) and the Socialist Party (down to a mere 9.5%), has fallen to levels unseen in the history of the French Fifth Republic. And backing for the far-right National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, lost to Macron in the presidential election, fell to a mere 13.2% in the first round.
If the second round of voting next Sunday confirms projections, Macron’s new centrist party, La République en Marche! (LREM), could end up with between 400 and 445 of the National Assembly’s 577 seats.
How can a party with about 32.3% of the votes in the first round win in such a landslide in the second round?
The explanation is that only candidates winning more than 12.5% of registered voters in the first round can participate in the second. The low turnout (less than 50%) for the first round means that two candidates at most can make it to the second round, where the candidate with the highest number of votes will win.
This means that in nearly all districts the second round will be a duel between Macron’s LREM and another party. Where the other party is on the right, left-wing parties and voters will support Macron. Where the other party is on the left, it is the right-wing parties and voters who will support Macron.
This year’s voting departed markedly from previous National Assembly elections in several other key respects, beyond the support shown for Macron’s new political grouping.
For starters, more than a third of current MPs opted out. Their withdrawal has opened the door to a new generation of politicians, with a significant number, particularly on Macron’s party list, coming from civil society, rather than from other elected or public-sector positions.
Second, the historically large majority of seats that LREM is set to win, owing to low turnout and the 12.5% threshold for going on to the second round of voting, means that a new and very different French political landscape is emerging. French politics is now crystallizing around a strong center, while the two parties of the left and right that traditionally have formed both the government and the main opposition have been swept to the margins.
For decades the Socialists and the parties of the right, now grouped in Les Républicains, have failed to deliver the economic reforms – and thus the economic growth – that France badly needs. For most French, the traditional parties have come to symbolize a lack of transparency, chronic unethical behavior, and a focus on internal party fights at the expense of the national interest. Now French voters have rebuffed them.
Third, the reconstruction of the French political landscape goes far beyond the radical changes likely to occur in the distribution of National Assembly seats that will occur once the second round is complete. Some future MPs from the two traditional parties, as well as others, will almost certainly buck their own party leaders to vote for Macron’s planned reforms. Indeed, more than 30 members of the National Assembly from Les Républicains, as well as a few key figures from the Socialists, already have made it known that they will be supporting Macron’s reform program.
All of this suggests that Macron will emerge from the second round of the parliamentary election with the strong majority that he needs to embark with confidence on a program to transform France. And the program he envisages offers a viable opportunity – the best in recent memory – to reform France’s economy in ways that will foster innovation-led growth while offering better social protection and education to French citizens.
Macron is raring to get started on that agenda. The first two major reforms that his government will seek to implement entail an overhaul of the labor market and a tightening of rules on ethics in the public sector. But they will likely be just the start of the most dynamic program of reform that France has seen since Charles de Gaulle occupied the Élysée Palace.
Philippe Aghion is Professor of Economics at Harvard University, College de France, and the London School of Economics. Benedicte Berner is a lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, chair of Civil Rights Defenders, and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.