France's Macron wins even greater power

French independent presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in Paris on March 2, 2017.


By ISHAAN THAROOR | The Washington Post | Published: June 19, 2017

You've heard this before, but we need to say it again: French President Emmanuel Macron pulled off something extraordinary in 2017. At the beginning of January, he was a 39-year-old maverick politician with a roguish smile and no institutional backing from the country's dominant political parties. Six months later, he is France's unlikely 39-year-old head of state and - as the results of Sunday's final parliamentary vote indicated - the architect of an astonishing dismantling and remaking of the country's political establishment.

Macron's Republic on the Move party, which was only formed last year, was projected to win at least 355 of 577 seats in Parliament - a commanding majority. The center-right Republicans will be his main opposition, albeit with a shrunken total of about 125 seats. The center-left Socialists, France's ruling party until a few weeks ago, suffered a ruinous and perhaps fatal collapse, losing hundreds of seats and emerging with just about 48 members in Parliament.

"This Sunday, you gave a clear majority to the president of the republic and to the government," said Édouard Philippe, France's prime minister. "It will have a mission: to act for France. By their vote, the French, in their great majority, preferred hope to anger, confidence to withdrawal."

The far-right National Front led by Marine Le Pen, whom Macron defeated in a closely watched presidential contest last month, also disappointed. While Le Pen will take a seat in the National Assembly for the first time, her party is beset by infighting and ideological debates over the way forward. The France Unbowed movement led by staunch leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon was projected to win about 19 seats and, in alliance with the Communists, might present the most aggressive opposition to Macron's pro-business, pro-Europe agenda.

Macron's critics suggest that historically low turnout - particularly among young people and the working class - casts his mandate into doubt. But the new makeup of the French Parliament still signals a profound moment of affirmation for Macron, who championed a "neither left nor right" brand of politics at a time when the centrist status quo seems under siege across the West.

"It's interesting that 2016-2017 has seen a dual revolution," said French foreign policy expert Dominique Moïsi to The Washington Post. "In the same sense that no one could have predicted the election of Donald Trump, no one could have predicted the election of Emmanuel Macron."

Many of the people now set to enter office are political novices, drafted into Macron's party because of their specific professional skills or technocratic training and expertise. Others abandoned the center-right and center-left to join up with a movement whose anti-establishment message rang true with voters without promising the radical disruption of more extreme parties. Half of Macron's candidates were women; a significant proportion belong to France's minority groups.

Armed with the biggest electoral mandate in years, Macron, a former investment banker, will seek to push through key reforms he believes are vital to reinvigorating France's faltering economy. The coterie of center-right politicians and experts now guiding Macron's economic policy led my colleague James McAuley to suggest that his supposed "radical centrism" looks more like an unvarnished conservatism. That will now be put to the test.

I want France to be a start-up nation. A nation that thinks and moves like a start-up.

- Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) June 15, 2017


In September, as McAuley detailed, "Macron is expected to move a major labor bill through Parliament that would, among other things, give companies the power to lengthen hours and adjust wages on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to having to observe uniform rules. In interviews with French newspapers, the leaders of France's most powerful labor unions have all warned Macron not to go too far too fast." A tense period of negotiations with the country's major labor unions is expected.

Some analysts suggest this move to a more German or Scandinavian model of labor relations is long overdue - but it cuts against the French social contract cherished by many.

"If you believe the workers of this country and salaried employees generally are going to be fleeced simply because all the glossy magazines have published a smiling photo of the young prince, you are dreaming," said Mélenchon to Europe 1 radio, sneering at Macron. "This is France, and a century and a half of struggle for the rights enshrined in the labor are not going to be wiped out at the stroke of a pen. There will be a struggle."

Since coming to power, Macron has already set about asserting himself as a figure of global heft. A proselytizer of the European project, he engaged in several eye-catching confrontations - a white-knuckle handshake with President Trump and a public upbraiding of Kremlin policy while standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. Should German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling party win reelection later this year, as is expected, Europe's liberal status quo will have two powerful defenders secure in office and ready to take action.

In a marked departure from his affable, chatty persona on the campaign trail, Macron has retreated from the press since becoming president. He has adopted the "Jupiter approach," as it's known in the French lexicon - acting aloof at the top of the nation's political pantheon while those below him duke it out in the daily struggles of governance. We'll see how long he'll be able to remain above the fray, but the French president is in a position of strength that leaders of most other democracies would envy.