Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Macron and government

While he won France’s presidency, legislative elections pose a challenge Emmanuel Macron will not easily surmount, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Emmanuel Macron’s electoral victory in France may be the most important political event so far this year. It will have major repercussions on the political mood in Europe, and perhaps on the entire international map. Last week I had said that I would devote today’s column to the competition over the post of UNESCO director-general, a subject that will re-occur over the coming months until the actual election in November. However, right now, the significant results of the French presidential elections take precedence.

That I have called Macron’s victory the most important political event so far this year does not mean that I am unaware of the importance of the victory of Macron’s antithesis in the US: Donald Trump who epitomises the US ultranationalist right. Indeed, Trump’s election as US president is what makes Macron’s election so important. If this had happened five years ago, it would not be nearly as significant as it is today. But coming, as it did, this year, it can only be seen as a definitive response to the fears generated by the Trump victory that ultra-right fanaticism would sweep to power throughout the West. These fears had been augmented by the rising popularity of the National Front leader Marine Le Pen. There had, in fact, been predictions that Le Pen would win which, in turn, would have affected another electoral process in one of France’s neighbours. Germany is preparing for the Bundestag elections in September after which the party that wins the majority will form a new government in Berlin.

There are many reasons why the ultra-right, with its racist and xenophobic currents, has risen so sharply in the West. Undoubtedly one is sharp escalation in Islamist extremism and the rise in terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam. This phenomenon triggered a revival of the racist sense of superiority that has remained latent in the West since the Crusades and that resurfaced during World War II in Germany after it had appeared that the manifestations of Western civilisation had tamed such tendencies and, indeed, inculcated the sense that they are evil.

Macron scored a victory over that pernicious racist current that has reared its head again without compunction in most Western countries. That current won in the case of Trump and it was defeated in the case of Le Pen. Or perhaps we should say that it won in the US and it lost in France. What won in France was not that candidate who ran as an independent, unaffiliated with any of the previously existing political parties. What won was the set of universal humanitarian principles and civilisational ideals on which is based the Fifth Republic established by De Gaulle in 1958.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. In about a month, legislative elections will be held. All political parties, which had met defeat in the presidential elections, will be competing, including Le Pen and her National Front. En Marche! (Onwards!), the nascent party founded by Macron in order to run in the presidential elections will not have an easy time. Macron is fully aware of how divided the country is and he knows that more than a quarter of the electorate deliberately invalidated their ballots as a way to protest the lack of a candidate that they felt represented them. In addition, the ultra-right, championed by Le Pen, won an unprecedented percentage of the vote: More than 33 per cent. These factors make it very unlikely that the new French president will be able to secure a parliamentary majority that will enable him to form a government on his own, which means that he may have to accommodate to a government that will not share his political views. “Cohabitation” is the French term for this situation which existed under president Jacques Chirac, who hailed from the centre right, while the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, belonged to the Socialist Party. Will a similar situation occur again this year, bringing a liberal centrist president face-to-face with a prime minister from the ultra-right?

The political map in France shows no sign of a single party strong enough to win the parliamentary majority needed to form a government on its own. The “En Marche!” movement that carried Macron into power and that has become a political party is not strong enough. Also, it should be borne in mind that the movement was not solely responsible for his victory with such a large majority. He was backed by other parties that had been eliminated in earlier rounds and many voted for him primarily in order to keep Le Pen out of power. Most likely the only way to win the parliamentary majority required to form a government this time is to ally with one or more of the other parties. Will that coalition be the one that Macron’s party is forced to form or an opposition coalition? Will Le Pen’s party be a member of that majority coalition? I will venture to respond here that I doubt it. The parties that allied against the National Front in the presidential campaigns will do so again in the parliamentary campaigns. They would never accept Le Pen in the coalition that formed the government.

At the time of writing, people are still speculating over the person who Macron will name as prime minister until the June elections. After that we will need to keep close track of developments in order to determine whether Macron and his party really came out victorious in the presidential elections. The parliamentary elections on 11 and 12 June will be the true test of his success. If the forthcoming elections produce a government that the president can control he will be able to realise his electoral programme. If, on the other hand, the current division in French society reflects itself in the formation of the next cabinet, the forthcoming “cohabitation” could descend into an open showdown between the presidency and the government, and perhaps lead to a political paralysis.

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