Saturday, 17 June 2017

Harder times ahead

A faithful reader of this blog has posted a number of comments about my last post ("A poisoned chalice" - June 13). I am most grateful for comments as they always give me food for thought, as well as a good peg on which to hang a few more points about the first round of the parliamentary elections, particularly the rate of abstention and the fact that most of Macron’s babes are political novices.

On the rate of abstention first. The first thing that struck me last Sunday was the fact that nobody I met, including officials at the polling station, seemed very electrified by the process. There was definitely no sense of anticipation that you sometimes feel in the air on election day, as there was, for instance, in the first round of the presidential election in 2007, when there were high hopes that Nicolas Sarkozy would be the man to put an end to 15 years of drift. This year, the big surprise was Emmanuel Macron’s score in the first round of the presidential election on April 23. Since then, mainly thanks to his highly skilled handling of unfolding events, there has almost been a sense of inevitability about them: getting the best of Marine le Pen in the TV debate, winning the presidency, the inauguration, first appearances on the international stage, the appointment of the government, the rise of his own political party and the disarray and even disintegration of the traditional ones. However difficult it was to predict all of these things at the outset, observing French politics over the last two months has almost been like watching a famous violinist playing a fiendishly difficult concerto or a pole-vaulter effortlessly clearing a two meter hurdle – they make it look so easy!  Little wonder that “The Economist “, on its cover this week, described Macron as “Europe’s saviour” and pictured him walking on water whereas Theresa May had sunk below the surface with only her shoes emerging!

One explanation for the high rate of abstention last Sunday is therefore that a lot of election-weary voters considered the parliamentary elections as more or less a formality. Many of those who bothered to turn out simply wanted to give Macron a boost and many of those who didn’t felt that there was little point in voting for an opposition destined to have little power in parliament anyway. Between the two of them, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who have expressed the most hostility to Macron and his policies, lost about four million votes between the presidential poll and last Sunday.

This overall impression is reinforced by my experience in my own constituency. I went to the public meetings of two candidates, one from LREM, and one from the Les Républicains, the party that, in its various guises, has held this seat in every parliamentary election since 1958. It selected a new but serious candidate, a personal friend and political ally of the Prime Minister and Alain Juppé’s former chief of staff. He was endorsed by all six local mayors. In his meeting, attended mainly by local worthies, he was clear and honest about the strategic difficulties facing his party and spoke of the need to co-ordinate parliamentary business with that of the local authorities. Whatever one’s political views, he came across as well qualified and well placed to be a good constituency MP. Last Sunday he polled not quite 23%, an unprecedented low watermark in this constituency for a candidate of his political persuasion

In stark contrast to this low-key public meeting, that of his LREM rival was more grandly organised, well attended and featured some nationally known figures. The talk was about Macron’s victory, his vision, and the need for a new departure. Points were made about climate change, renewable energies and Europe, none of which sounded more ground-breaking than an endorsement of motherhood and apple pie. They were dutifully applauded. Hardly a word was spoken about constituency matters, apart from a few bland sentences, like the need for more car sharing to avoid traffic jams at rush hours. Last Sunday, the candidate polled just over 48%, the best first-round result for the centre-left since 1958. He will no doubt be elected to represent the constituency this coming Sunday.

In France, it must be noted though that the role of an MP is not exactly the same as that of a constituency MP in the U.K. Listen to any member of the House of Commons, as I did to Jeremy Corbyn this week in his first speech to the House after the U.K. elections, and it is clear that he considers himself, together with his fellow MPs, as first and foremost the representative of his constituents. In France by contrast, MPs are called députés and are considered as “representatives of the assembled nation”  (“représentants de la nation assemblée”) as stated in the States General convened by Louis XVI in 1789, to which much of France’s modern political history and phraseology can be traced. Even if they are elected from a constituency, representing its interests is seen as a secondary matter to participating in the framing of legislation and monitoring the government of the day.

In this sense, the voters of my constituency, as well as those of countless others throughout the country, are being entirely consistent by sending to the Assemblée Nationale a député who represents a fresh political outlook more than  narrower political interests. As Emmanuel Macron has radically changed the political outlook for the next five years, it seems natural that, under the French system, voters should give him the parliamentary majority to underpin it. In any event, the opposition parties will take some time to reorganise themselves. Many of their supporters feel confused and disoriented  - a further reason for the high rate of abstention last Sunday and probably an even higher one this coming Sunday. 

The fact that the newly elected députés will represent the whole nation does not however give them instant and automatic knowledge of how parliament works. Which is why I have not been the only one to describe them as political novices. This is not meant to be derogatory. There is a lot to be said for new blood and fresh thinking in the somewhat stale Assemblée Nationale, but the government is probably right to consider that the controversial nitty-gritty of labour market reform is not an issue on which they should cut their parliamentary teeth. Some of the new MPs will learn fast, others will find the going tough. And inevitably, with a large number of seats under a single banner, they won’t all have the same views and factions are likely to form. After five years, some may end up joining whatever emerges from the centre-right realignment; others may go the other way and rejoin a rejuvenated Parti Socialiste. Whatever happens, the next five years will be fascinating to observe.

At the end of the period, if Macron’s ideas are implemented as announced, many will come to the end of their short parliamentary career as the number of MPs will be cut by about half. In addition, those who do stand for election to the next Assemblée will do so on the basis of a new voting system that will include a dose of proportional representation.

On Tuesday of last week, the French soccer team beat their English rivals in a friendly match in Paris. The French team scored the winning goal in the second half, even after one of their players had been sent off. It was an impressive and stylish performance. President Macron, watching the match with Prime Minister May, must have relished the victory, as proof of what Team France can achieve when it puts its mind to it. Might he have pondered a more symbolic significance as well? Whether he did or not, the French soccer team, for all its panache last Tuesday, is a long way from qualifying for the World Cup in 2018. Macron is only at the beginning of his campaign to reform France. Let the hard times roll!

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