‘Ungovernable’ parliament to stymie Macron’s reform drive

“Ungovernable!” read Le Parisien’s front page on the state of France the morning after the country held its second and final round of legislative elections.

The popular daily newspaper captured the mood after President Emmanuel Macron lost his majority in the National Assembly and found himself facing leftwing and far-right parliamentary blocs determined to scupper his economic reforms, including an overhaul of the pension system.

“It’s the worst-case scenario for Macron,” said Vincent Martigny, politics professor at the University of Nice. “French political culture is not in favour of hung parliaments . . . We are not used to compromise.” 

This is the first time since 1988 that elections have failed to generate an absolute majority in the assembly. Macron will be forced to strike deals with political rivals — most likely the conservative Les Républicains (LR) — if he wants to push through laws such as the one he would need to enact his unpopular plan to increase the official retirement age from 62 to 65.

But analysts doubt Macron will be able to make much progress with the current parliament. He could replace his prime minister Élisabeth Borne in a nod to his party’s poor results, and will be tempted to dissolve the assembly and call new elections in a year or two, as the constitution allows.

Whatever his choices, the leader is unlikely to rekindle the liberal reformist enthusiasm that marked the start of his first term after his ascent to power in 2017.

Élisabeth Borne, prime minister, is facing pressure after disappointing election results © Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

“Macron will not be able to pursue the economic policy goals he promised during the campaign, because he has to make too many compromises,” said Armin Steinbach, professor of law and economics at HEC Paris. “His reform agenda will be far less ambitious than envisaged.”

Even the pension reform will probably be watered down, said Steinbach, while the easiest policies to push through will be those involving more spending rather than less — investing in renewable energy, say, or subsidising consumers hit by inflation — because they are more likely to be approved by opposition parties.

For the tougher reforms, Macron could try to find an arrangement with LR, which has secured 61 seats, to command a working majority in the assembly. The president’s Ensemble alliance, which won 245 seats, and LR are both pro-business and agree on policies such as cutting the production taxes that irk French industry.

“I don’t think we can say that nothing will happen,” said Xavier Jaravel, economics professor at London School of Economics. “There will be measures to counter the [inflation] crisis, for instance. But the concern is whether we can change things for the long run.”

Some see a silver lining for France’s democracy — plagued by high abstention by voters — if not for its economy. The election of hundreds of new MPs from parties that previously complained of under-representation may show hitherto disillusioned voters that they can have a voice even in a voting system without proportional representation.

“Contrary to what lots of people say, this is a demonstration that the two-round majoritarian [winner takes all] system doesn’t necessarily produce results that fail to reflect public opinion,” said Anne Levade, an expert in constitutional law at Sorbonne university. “Will the opposition parties systematically oppose everything and make it impossible to govern the country, or will they take positions that allow the country to be governed? Their credibility is at stake.”

In the 2017 legislative elections, the far-right Rassemblement National won eight of the 577 seats in the National Assembly despite Marine Le Pen securing 34 per cent of votes in the presidential runoff that year. This time it won 89.

As for the left, its support in previous elections has been split between different parties, leaving it with few MPs. This time, the far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon forged a left-green alliance that has become the largest opposition group.

Rachel Kéké, a hard-left candidate, campaigns in Paris: the left-green alliance has become the largest opposition group © Thibault Camus/AP

The new intake of MPs from the right and left comes from a more diverse background, analysts also say. While Macron’s cohort of new MPs in 2017 included many women and were mostly highly educated and middle class, the new contingent include workers such as Rachel Kéké, a hotel chambermaid. The member of Melenchon’s France Unbowed party led a long trade union strike over working conditions at an Ibis hotel on the outskirts of Paris. One of her colleagues is 21-year-old student Louis Boyard, one of the two youngest MPs in French history.

“I think the French have been asking for a big renewal of their democracy,” said Martigny. “It will be a brand new parliament. What is new is the amazing social renewal . . . Macron called his [campaign] book Revolution but what we saw was actually very conservative.”

Macron himself, who has so far managed to recover from political setbacks, now risks falling victim to the curse of the struggling second-term president that afflicted Charles de Gaulle, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, Martigny adds: “It’s the beginning of his term and it looks like the end already. It’s very hard to see how he will rebound.”

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