The end of parties?
Napoleon deplored the existence of parties. Citizens should be unanimously with the leader of the nation, not divided into warring groups. When De Gaulle took power in 1958, launching the 5th Republic, he did not do so as the head of a party.
Macron is de facto in this line. He is above parties. He has a party, but it’s a party, only just born, that has no existence apart from him. His government is made up of members of all previously existing parties and members of no party. His manoeuvring has brought about the collapse of previous existing parties. Members of the old parties defected to him en masse, the Socialist Prime minister first among them (he wasn’t accepted). He chose his new prime minister among the Republicans, his Home Office minister among the Socialists, he kept Hollande’s minister for Foreign Affairs in post. His other ministers belonged to other parties or none.
This disabled the parties for the elections. Voters had been asked to vote for Macron in the presidential elections (to avoid Marine Le Pen). Then for the general elections they were asked this time not to vote for Macron, by the traditional parties, some of whose leaders had joined Macron!
No wonder the winner was abstention: 57% in the second round; plus 6.93% blank votes and 2.94% spoiled votes, amounting to 67% of people on the electoral register who supported none of the candidates on offer. This is without counting all those who are not on the electoral register.
The Macron-supporters party won 49% of votes, the Republicans 27, the National Front 8.75, the Socialist Party 7.49, Melanchon’s party (plus the Communist Party) 6%.
The first two parties and the Socialist party’s figures are compounded with those of parties allied to them. This means that of 577 seats in the Chambre des Députés Macron’s group has 308, the Republicans 112, the National Front 8, the Socialists 30, Melanchon 17 and the CP 10.
Macron is not the only one to distance himself from the party system. Marine Le Pen, on the eve of the presidential elections, made a point of relinquishing the leadership of the National Front, to present herself as above parties. Jean-Luc Melanchon tried a similar coup to Macron. He founded a new ‘party’ in 2016, open to all; 60% of members of his ‘La France Insoumise’ had not previously belonged to a party. He put up 50% women candidates, like Macron. Like Macron he appealed to the young and called for renewal. Popular figures collaborated with him, such as the journalist and film maker Francois Ruffin. His candidates came from a much more varied background than Macron’s and included many from the non-privileged. He did not have the support of business or of the media. Some eccentricities of his did not help: the name of his party with revolutionary and sexual overtones (‘unsubmissive France’) together with his emblem, the Greek letter phi, seem like juvenal fancies.
Macron has an absolute majority and a free hand. What will he do with it? On the home front his priority is the reform of the Labour code. The two main aims are making it easier to sack employees, and to amend pay and conditions at local level on an ad hoc basis. This means a cap on amounts paid out for unfair dismissal, and the inclusion of the greatest possible number of domains that can be negotiated at firm level.
Macron has decided not to have a Parliamentary debate followed by a vote on these measures. Instead he will ask Parliament to give him powers to do this by decree, this is the so-called ‘habilitation’ law, which will authorise the executive ‘to take measures for social renovation’.
These measures will also be negotiated by ‘the executive’ with the unions; these discussions will take place in the summer, the traditionally dormant period for political and industrial action.
Even if these reforms are adopted, the result is questionable. The hope is that it will make France more attractive to investors and entrepreneurs, both French and foreign. The risk is destabilisation. When things work well, a secure workforce is more likely to be productive; and employers are more likely to train a workforce that will stay with them. The danger is a destabilised workforce that is less productive while still not being cheap enough to compete with cheap labour overseas.
In foreign policy, things seems more hopeful. Macron said in an interview with eight European newspapers on 21 June:
“The new perspective that I have had on this subject is that I have not stated that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is a pre-condition for everything because nobody has shown me a legitimate successor.” French policy towards Syria is now more aligned with Russian objectives in the country according to Macron. “My lines are clear: Firstly, a complete fight against all the terrorist groups. They are our enemies,” he said. “We need everybody’s cooperation, especially Russia, to eradicate them.”
Macron said he will not allow US “neo-conservatism” to seep into France, and that the focus of French policy will be aimed at achieving “stability” in Syria, rather than getting dragged into a Libya-style conflict. “What was the outcome of these interventions? Failed states in which terrorist groups flourished. I do not want that in Syria,” the French leader said.
Macron here departs from Hollande’s policy of demanding Assad step down; he is however careful to insist that he supports the United States. ‘If it is proven that chemical weapons are used on the ground and we can trace their provenance,” Macron said France will conduct unilateral strikes “to destroy the stocks of identified chemical weapons.” “France will, therefore, be completely aligned with the United States on this.”
Macron did state his support for Putin, but he was careful to throw in a remark about Ukraine. “I respect Vladimir Putin. I had a constructive exchange with him. We have real disagreements, on Ukraine in particular, but he has seen my position,”
These remarks about the US and about Ukraine are remarks he must make to keep his own position strong. Time will tell how Macron’s schemes work out. Introducing his main policies with a trick behind the back of holidaymakers is not very statesmanlike. Napoleon and De Gaulle wouldn’t have resorted to that.