The French election: Our man in Paris reports

We have a correspondent in Paris (why should Council Bluffs be the only city so honored?). He’s an American who has lived and worked in Paris for the last 15 years as an attorney. He’s been involved in U.S. politics on behalf of the Republican Party in the expat community in France for the same period.

He filed this report:

1. The election was won by centrist En Marche candidate Emmanuel Macron by a very significant margin – approximately 66% for Macron against 34% for his adversary, the nationalist right-wing Front National candidate Marine Le Pen. Macron will be sworn in as president next Sunday.

There was somewhat more abstention (about 25%) in this election than in the last one, but the turnout is still extraordinarily high by US standards (millions of people actually went in person to cast blank ballots, as a means of demonstrating civic participation while still registering dissatisfaction with the choices – a practice I applaud). Turnout was probably hurt by the unpopularity of the candidates, the general feeling that Macron was certain to win, the weather (welcome to northern Europe), and the fact that this is a three-day weekend, so lots of people were enjoying a vacation.

(Incidentally, France takes tomorrow off as a national holiday, to celebrate V-E Day. Good on them.)

2. Macron is an unusual figure: 39 years old, background in finance before entering government, former Socialist Party cabinet minister. He created his new party, En Marche (approximately, “Off We Go”) only in April of 2016. Distrusted by the left because of his business background; distrusted by the right because of his association with the Socialists, as well as his unconventional marriage to his former high school drama teacher.

While a minister, he pushed through a law (known as the “Loi Macron” after the charming French tradition of naming bills after their sponsor, so that you remember who to blame later) that attempted to modernize economic regulation. It was nibbled to death in parliament, but it’s overall concept wasn’t completely idiotic.

3. It’s essential to remember the French voting system: there was a “first round” of voting two weeks ago, with an infinity of candidates in the race. Only the top two vote-getters go on to the second round. Macron and Le Pen each got about 25% in the first round; Fillon (scandal-plagued candidate for the center-right Les Républicains) got 20%, as did Melonchon (perennial representative of the hard-left La France Insoumise), with the Socialists getting less than 10%.

The Front National is still utterly anathema to a huge part of the country (for good reason; cf. infra). Thus, a huge number of people who voted today for Macron were voting against Le Pen, rather than supporting Macron himself.

In this context, it’s useful to remember that France has only very recently adopted a primary system for the parties to choose presidential candidates, and they haven’t really figured out how the interaction between primary and general elections will impact their politics. For example, Hamon, the candidate for the Socialists, won in the primaries on the votes of the left, and therefore got entirely plastered in the general. Fillon fought a very hard primary race against Alain Juppé in the Les Républicains primaries, and didn’t have time to heal all the wounds before the general.

4. En Marche was created by Macron because President Holland had driven the Socialist Party into single-digit poll numbers, and the moderate Socialists needed a refuge. In France, it’s quite common for parties to be created simply to serve the needs of their then leaders (Les Républicains, on the center-right, is the successor to the UMP, which was essentially the creature of former president Jacques Chirac). Only the Socialists have a long history of continued existence, and therefore it’s less unusual than in the US for a new party to do relatively well.

5. France has a mixed presidential/parliamentary system, with each branch having considerable power (the judiciary is not what the US would consider independent). The parliamentary elections are also in two rounds, the 11th and 18th of June.

The spokesmen for the parties which opposed Macron in the presidential race (both left and right) are unanimously saying tonight that their parties intend to fight the parliamentary elections separately, not forming alliances under Macron. En Marche doesn’t have the same infrastructure as the older, bigger parties – offices all over the country, long-time adherents to do the door-to-door work, huge mailing lists, etc. We don’t know to what extent the (historically) major parties will cooperate with En Marche for certain districts (there is precedent for tactical cease-fires), but if they don’t then it’s entirely possible that the parliament will be controlled by a party (or parties) opposed to Macron’s program.

This is a situation called co-habitation, where the president and the prime minister are of different parties. It’s happened before, and is not necessarily unworkable (not nearly as much a deadlock as Congress and the White House being of different parties is in the US) but it certainly doesn’t lend itself to determined, radical measures.

Best case: parliament is held by Les Républicains and this forces Macron to govern from the right. Worst case: no clear majority in parliament, in which case, minority government, shifting coalitions and general drift.

6. Le Pen announced tonight that she is creating a new party, Les Patriots, to unite various parties of the nationalist right. I don’t see this going very far. She was viewed as having turned in a very mediocre performance as a candidate, and I think it’s unlikely at this point that other right-wing parties will put themselves under her direction.

7. The center-right Les Républicains certainly suffered a major defeat in these elections, but they have all the resources necessary to fight the parliamentary elections hard. However, the Socialists were utterly crushed (I’m not sure I saw more than two Socialists giving commentary on television tonight, which is extraordinary) and the extreme left were the beneficiaries.

I’m speculating, but I think it’s quite possible that the Socialist party (or what is left of it) becomes dominated by the more extreme positions, as happened with Labour in the UK and may be happening with the Democrats in the US. The Melonchon election-night gathering had a lot more people present than the Socialists did.

8. En Marche has a very middle-of-the-road platform (some, less charitable, might say “evasive” or “trying to please everyone”). For his 100 days, he intends to reform the labor code (nod to the right), strengthen unemployment benefits (nod to the left), and do something to improve the public school system (nod to everyone who is not a civil servant). As noted above, it’s impossible to know whether he’ll actually have a parliamentary majority to approve his proposals.

9. While Macron was voted into office in significant part on the basis of votes against Le Pen, it is true that he represents for a large number of people a sort of renewal – a young, handsome, very bright, dynamic figure coming from outside the traditional party structure. There is genuine enthusiasm for him personally among a certain part of the population (and a similar distaste for him personally among another, possibly larger number of people).

However, he is too young and too inexperienced to have his own solid base of support, either in the population at large, among opinion-makers, or in parliament. A lot will depend on who he brings into his cabinet. If he is forced to stock it with the same old, tired faces, his next five years will be incredibly difficult.

10. A note about Le Pen: The Front National is not a standard party, and American conservatives should not be unhappy to see it lose. Its origins are in colonial revanchistes; until recently it was openly illiberal and anti-Semitic, and many of its adherents still are; its political representatives are generally second rate; and its policies are an incoherent mix of left-wing economic fantasies and nakedly nationalist reflexes which were outdated a century ago. This is not (yet) a political party with which US conservatives should have anything whatsoever to do.

11. A few minutes ago, Macron finished giving his acceptance speech to a crowd of about 15,000 people who braved a chilly, rainy night to see him. The speech was classic for him – well-delivered lines essentially devoid of substance. However, the most repeated word was “audacity”; if he keeps to that in practice, things might not be catastrophic.

As I look back over these notes, I’m afraid I might have made the situation look rosier than is warranted. France has escaped the worst, but no one should have any illusions about what’s coming. France needs not revolution but aggressive reform.

We know this is possible – it’s been done in the UK and Germany. I’m simply fundamentally dubious that Macron is the man to bring it to France. However, I think it wouldn’t be dramatically wrong to say that the conservative position, in France and the US, should be to give him time and urge him in the right direction.

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