New faces, old politics: France’s recent elections

By Pierre Gugenheim

On June 27th, the 15th legislature was inaugurated in the French Assemblée Nationale. The new composition confirms the landslide victory of the political tandem LRM-MoDem. With 356 seats out of 577, it is yet not clear what could prevent the centrist government from moving forward.

Sending a clear message

For the fourth time in less than 2 months, Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LRM) attracted the most ballots. A full 62% of the seats are now occupied by the governmental coalition. This centrist tsunami carries a unique political renewal, with 72% of non-incumbent deputies. Such a clean sweep is not only embodied by LRM but seems to be part of a new increasing awareness. The proportion of women representatives took off increasing to 39%—an increase of 12 points compared to the former chamber. Deputies are now 6 years younger on average than in 2012. Naturalised immigrants also made a timid but real introduction to Palais-Bourbon.

Those new faces in parliament made their way at the expense of some political dinosaurs. A quintessential example of the larger dynamic is the exit of all previous presidential favourites. For Les Républicains (LR, right-wing), Francois Fillon’s promised victory was smashed by a succession of scandals and judicial affairs. Parti Socialiste’s (PS, left-wing) champions Benoît Hamon and Manuel Valls were caught in the downward spiral of their party. They both quit the PS in the aftermath of a historically low electoral score. The reconfiguration of partisan balances might trigger a further change in the political landscape of the Vth Republic. On 3rd July, Emmanuel Macron convoked the Congress for the first time since 2015. He announced a roadmap of proposals to amend the Constitution. These included lowering of ? the number of seats in the two Chambers and further limitations on the cumulation of mandates among others. 

A limited renewal

A collateral damage of the ongoing re-foundation in French politics may be the lack of oppositional voices. PS and LR have failed to produce smooth leadership transitions and allegiances remain unstable. The term “Macron-compatibility” has made an appearance, evoking the porous lines between LRM and traditional parties. Thierry Solère, the former spokesperson of François Fillon, even formed a parliamentary group called ‘Les Constructifs’ with a self-proclaimed role of ‘intermediary’ between LR and the government. Despite being mocked by his own party as a “betrayal professional”, he has still managed to attract 35 members.

Regardless its importance, the National Assembly’s formative process was greeted with disinterest by voters. A full 57.4% of enrolled electors did not take part in the 2nd round, establishing a new record in the ever-collapsing voter turnout. After a year of activity covering the presidential campaign, communication on the legislative elections was shaky. Its proximity in time to Macron’s election did not help, and resultingly the candidates—consciously or not—entertained hazy propositions. The ambiguity in party affiliation and the multiplicity of nominations made a voting decision complex. In the 2nd Parisian district 23 candidates were running, including a dozen claimed right-wing ‘Republicans’. Despite a summed score of 35% in the first round, the choice to present divided candidacies resulted in their loss of a usually solid stronghold.

A great deal of confusion about the roles and competencies of a deputy was also made explicit. Legislative election is based on districts, but this territorial attachment is virtually fictional. The design of these districts, or “circonscriptions” remains opaque. For instance, most Parisian arrondissements are split between 2 or  3 circonscriptions in a manner that might easily raise suspicions of gerrymandering. Add to that, the contradiction between a territorially-designed election and its national purpose creates a democratic vacuum. If it is true that only 28% of last legislature’s members were reappointed, 40% already exercised a mandate in the National Assembly. It even goes up to 68% of deputies that already had a political mandate of any kind. The idea of the legislative body as a mirror of French society continues to be whittled away. Indeed, even newcomers are still socio-professionally homogenous, over-educated, and scoring low in associative participation.

Same old, same old

On 8th July, the one-year old LRM organised its first General Convention. The initiation of a whole work on “training kits” for newcomers raised questions on their professional autonomy. Between the over-importance of party affiliation and the “familiar faces” premium, their legitimacy is now in question. Medal Field’s recipient Cédric Villani and J.M. Fauvergue, ex-leader of anti-terrorism RAID unit, were said to owe their electoral advancement exclusively to the “saw on TV” effect. The introduction of civil society’s representatives—often experts in their field—will definitely help to stem the disconnect between politics and the electorate. However, their inexperience in politics may be a burden. The work of a deputy must not be restricted to a territorial attachment or a stunted expertise; it includes making responsible choices on multiple sensitive issues and participating in giving a global trajectory to the nation.

The real risk is that this “progressist” hype could turn into a hollow shell. On June 28th an internal election was held. With a virtual monopoly over the quaestor agency and commissions presidency, the LRM was fiercely criticised by LR’s leaders. Eric Ciotti dubbed it an “institutional hold-up” and Christian Jacob evoked an “oppositional rights” violation.  Thierry Solère, known for having formed an alternative parliamentary group to its own party, was greeted with the only non-LRM quaestor position. Knowledge of parliamentary game gives a comparative advantage to old politicians, and little schemes can still win positions, votes, or even bills. The quintessence of these old remnants may be the National Assembly’s new president, François de Rugy. This 11th-hour member of the LRM, who cleverly join the bandwagon after his defeat in left-wing’s primaries, might sound like a sour note within the renewal. After 26 years in politics and belonging to 8 different political parties, he is exemplary of a certain opportunism among politicians. Some of them continue to use the LRM label to revive political careers at a standstill.

Emmanuel Macron launched his presidential campaign last year with a book, ‘Revolution’. It is not yet clear if his mandate will be one of progressist ideas or conservative practices. Throughout his campaign, candidate Macron advocated for a new “method” of governance: bypassing the institutional constraints to swift reform. The new Labour Law legislation already progresses in a forced march. Declared a priority, the bill went through the early process in a record time, dismissing 228 amendments out of 232 proposed. LRM was conceived as a movement rather than a structured party, but a growing voting population and faction discipline might reveal a contradiction. Further, it can count on an army of grateful deputies, who got into the spotlight or boosted their career thanks to its meteoric ascent. The new legislature will be facing challenges, the foremost might be to distinguish itself from the executive’s agenda and demands.

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