Loud have been the ululations after the victory of president Emmanuel Macron’s Republique en Marche in the second round of elections to the French National Assembly last Sunday. If his greatest admirers are to be believed, Mr Macron has saved France, the European Union, even the world – in the sense that he is said to have stopped the tide of Trumpian populism, hoisting a banner of optimistic centrism, as if to declare to the aggressors, as did his countrymen at Verdun in the Great War, “Ils ne passeront pas!”
Macron’s meteoric rise lifts confidence in the EU, declares the Financial Times. “This late cresting wave of enthusiasm has given the Fifth Republic… a new lease of life,” says Foreign Affairs, noting that many had “feared that France was about to succumb to the same furies that had led British citizens to turn their backs on the European Union and American voters to elect Donald Trump”. The latest issue of The Economist carries a photo montage of Mr Macron walking on water, and suggests he may be in a position to save Europe and transform France.
Quite something for the neophyte leader – if it were all true. But it’s not.
Firstly, Mr Macron represents no return to reassuring normality. How can he, when he is a force of disruption himself? He rose on the coat tails of the last president, Francois Hollande, as his deputy chief of staff and later economy minister, before spectacularly turning on his benefactor – and sinking any chance he had of a second term in the Elysee – by announcing his own candidacy as an independent.
Mr Macron has never been elected to any office before the presidency and this is an entirely new party that has been formed. REM may offer plenty of hope, but what does “neither left nor right” really mean? Likewise, bringing fresh faces into the national assembly sounds attractive, but according to reports so many will be new – 91 per cent of incoming REM deputies – that they have all been told to attend a two-day training session on how to be a legislator.
They are untested. Many have little awareness of what their party’s programme is, apart from it serving to support Mr Macron. If his movement is not fuelled by the same kind of populism as Mr Trump’s, it shares the same desire to break with and break up the old establishment. So this is not back to normal. It is another victory for “outsiders”.
Secondly, there has been much talk of Mr Macron’s overwhelming mandate. It is true that in the presidential election he triumphed over Marine Le Pen by 30 percentage points; although for a National Front candidate to win 35 per cent of the seats is nothing for Mr Macron’s team to boast about. Why didn’t he crush a contender whose party is treated with revulsion by much of the world?
It is also true that in the National Assembly Mr Macron’s alliance with Francois Bayrou’s MoDem has a commanding majority, with at least 350 seats out of 577. But if Mr Hollande broke records for the lowest approval ratings in the history of the Fifth Republic, Mr Macron’s parliamentary victory has been won through another record – for the lowest turnout in legislative elections in the same period.
In the first round only 45 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots which, as Foreign Policy also notes, means that REM’s 32 per cent translated to “less than 15 per cent of France’s registered voters” endorsing the party En Marche as their first choice.
In the second round the turnout was even lower, at 43 per cent. It may have been that the Socialists performed abysmally, and the right wing Republicans lost almost half their deputies. But if Mr Macron was truly the great unifying force for change his boosters say, then surely huge numbers of people would have rushed to the polls to vote for him. Instead, they stayed at home.
Early indications are that among that majority of non-voters were the large working class constituency who supported populists of left and right – Jean-Luc Melenchon as well as Ms Le Pen – in the presidential election, but who subsequently felt so disenfranchised and that the “system” was so rigged against them, that they gave up. This is deeply troubling and augurs trouble ahead for Mr Macron, his government and the French state itself; for those who lose trust in the ballot box are more likely to turn to direct action and challenge the legitimacy of democratic institutions.
The two points taken together also point to any suggestion that this vote means the tide of Trumpery has been turned being dangerous nonsense. One could argue that the legislative elections should lead one to conclude instead that the Macron miracle has in fact dissipated in a remarkably short time.
So disruption is still the new norm. Expect the unexpected. Anyone who is taking false comfort from this result is sadly deluded. For after the people have spoken, it turns out that the majority were so unenthused by the candidates on offer that they preferred to condemn them with silence. That does not sound like a man who can walk on water to me.
Despite all this, if Mr Macron can indeed deliver salvation for France and Europe, he will have earned both his mandate and the laurels that have been prematurely bestowed upon him. Until then, it would be perverse to see hope in a verdict that indicates the hopelessness of most of the French people.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia