Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Poisoned chalice ?

There is little doubt in most peoples’ minds that Emmanuel Macron scored a magnificent victory in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The mainstream media have been falling over themselves to find every possible synonym for “triumph”. “Macron sans opposition”, screamed a banner headline in “Le Monde “. The FT morning briefing on Monday was titled: ”Macron wins big”. The precise number of seats in the Assemblée Nationale won by candidates from his party, La République en Marche (LREM) allied with François Bayrou’s party, Modem, will not be known until after the run-off votes next Sunday, June 18. But it looks fairly certain that it will largely exceed 400 (out of 577), a very comfortable majority indeed.  Les Républicans, who have paid the price for their divisions over strategy, will end up with around 100 seats and the Parti Socialiste has been pulverised. Those former members of the party who stood under the Macron banner of LREM have come off well, whereas those that didn’t have faced intense competition from the more radical left-wing rebel party, La France Insoumise (LFI) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Many former ministers and senior party officials have been ousted in the first round of voting, submerged by the on-going shock waves unleashed on April 23. In his much lauded rise to power, it has now become clear that Emmanuel Macron’s stroke of genius was to see, before anyone else, that the traditional parties of the left and, to a lesser extent, the right were so worn and torn that he just needed give them a powerful shove at the right moment to see them keel over and collapse in a heap.

Does all this mean that he will now have a free hand to reform the French economy by pushing through the bold programme that he has promised the country?  In the light of the consummate political skills he has shown so far, he may very well bring it off.  But a few words of caution are undoubtedly necessary.  

The first point to make is that turnout on Sunday was a measly 50%, the lowest for parliamentary elections since 1958. It suggests, among other things, that voters basically followed the institutional logic of the fifth republic: most of those who turned out considered that Macron should be given the parliamentary majority he is seeking and voted, almost automatically, for the candidates of his party, while many others felt that the outcome was a foregone conclusion and that there was little point in turning out to vote for the opposition.  Either way, it does not amount to a massive endorsement of his reform programme, at best an indication that voters are willing to give him a chance to do what he has pledged do. Naturally enough, little detail has yet been revealed, particularly on labour market reform.

When such detail emerges, it is unlikely to be scrutinised by a freshly elected lower house, largely populated by political novices with little or no knowledge of parliamentary procedure. The government has made it clear that, in order to expedite this first major reform initiative, it will simply ask parliament to approve enabling legislation and proceed further through the equivalent of executive orders (ordonnances). If this procedure is followed, most of the detailed measures will be drafted by civil servants and signed off by ministers, presumably with substantial input from trades unions. Parliament’s role will be minimal. Even if objections to the procedure are raised in the Senate, the membership of which has not been changed in the slightest by Sunday’s elections, it can only propose amendments that both the government and the lower house are constitutionally entitled to ignore.

If there is any serious opposition to whatever measure are put forward, recent history suggests that it will come only from the streets. In this respect, there is an interesting parallel with the 1993 parliamentary elections, that gave a similar, 472 seat, majority to a coalition of right-wing and centre parties. The President of the time, François Mitterand, was obliged to appoint a right-wing Prime Minister, the patrician Edouard Balladur, who interpreted his majority as a green light for bold reforms designed to ..........reduce high youth unemployment!  His labour minister attempted to introduce what was called an “initial labour contract” (contrat d’insertion professionnelle), aimed at young, first-time job-seekers. Under the proposals, they were to be offered a labour contract that employers could terminate at their discretion within two years while paying only 80% of the minimum wage. A wave of protests and street demonstrations by a united front of unions, university and high-school students forced the government to withdraw the proposals a few months later. Since then,  two similar initiatives have have been attempted by different governments and have met a similar fate for similar reasons. The conclusion that must be drawn is that in France, the size of a parliamentary majority is irrelevant in the face of a combined front of unions and students that is visibly, vocally and sometimes violently opposed to it. Nearly twenty-five years later, unemployment among young people is still stubbornly high.

Emmanuel Macron and his government must be keenly aware of these precedents and, one hopes, determined not to make the same mistakes again.  At least one member of LREM must have had all this in mind when he said (quoted by “le Monde”) during a victory celebration on Sunday evening: “the risk is that if there is no opposition in the Assemblée, it will eventually be expressed in the streets!”

There is no doubting the political skills that Emmanuel Macron has displayed in conquering and consolidating power. The next big question is whether he will be able bring the same powers of persuasion to bear on the exercise of power and overcome the many and varied forms of opposition that will rise to challenge him. In summary, will he be able to do not only better, but a lot better, than all the governments of the fifth republic since the onset of the economic crisis at the beginning of the 1970s?  We should know within a few months whether this talented young President is able to extract a magic potion from a potentially poisoned chalice.

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