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Macron under pressure to deliver as French turnout plummets

Jun 19 2017 09:24
Gregory Viscusi, Helene Fouquet and Mark Deen, Bloomberg

Paris - There was no public celebration from President Emmanuel Macron’s government on Sunday night as his party claimed a historic majority in the French legislature.

Macron’s Republic on the Move and its allies won 350 seats in the 577-strong National Assembly, giving them the biggest majority in 15 years. But the number of voters turned off by the political process highlighted the urgency of the job facing the country’s 39-year-old leader.

Sunday’s turnout of 42.6% was the lowest ever for a French legislative election, and more than 10 percentage points below the previous record, a reminder that almost half of the vote in April’s first round of the presidential election went to candidates opposed to the open borders and free markets of the European Union that Macron favors.

“Abstentionism is never good for democracy,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a televised statement. “The government will consider it has an obligation to succeed. Now comes the time for action.”

Macron’s majority gives him a free hand to drive through his program of liberalizing France’s labor market and push for closer European integration. He has five years to persuade those disenchanted voters that they’ll benefit from his recipe rather than more radical alternatives.

His anti-euro antagonists Marine Le Pen of the National Front and far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon both claimed seats for the first time, giving them a platform to keep promoting their more populist approaches.

The second largest group in parliament will be the center-right Republicans with 113 seats. The Socialist majority from the previous parliament was decimated, the party retaining only 29 seats.

“What’s at stake is much more than whether Macron can be re-elected,” said Jean Garrigues, a professor of history at the University of Orleans. “The entire political establishment of France will live or die by this. If Macron doesn’t succeed, then the next political response to people’s anger will come from one of the extremes.”

As is the custom after a parliamentary election, the French cabinet will resign today. Macron is expected to re-appoint basically the same cabinet later this week -- all the ministers standing in Sunday’s election won their seats, so there will be no reshuffle forced on the president.

“There may be some technical changes but on the whole it should be a confirmation,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner said on RTL Radio Monday morning. “But that’s up to the president and the prime minister.”

Labour reform

German Chancellor Angel Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker saluted Macron’s parliamentary win late Sunday.

The new parliament meets for the first time June 27, with labour-market reform at the top of the agenda, a task that has eluded French presidents for generations. Philippe has said he’ll present his plans to cabinet ministers on June 28 and in July ask parliament for permission to legislate by decree.

Macron aims to have the new rules in force by September, when Germany’s national election should establish the foundation for broader European reforms.

“We now have the means to put in place our policies, and it’s up to us to do it,” Castaner said. “But there will be some strong voices in the opposition.”

The government is being watched both domestically and internationally because France’s 3 000-page labour code is blamed for discouraging hiring and keeping French growth below the euro-area average. Unemployment in France is roughly double that of Germany and the UK, helping Le Pen to attract her party’s biggest ever vote in May’s presidential runoff.

Luckily for Macron, he’s inheriting an economy showing signs of a cyclical improvement for the first time in years, with consumer confidence at its highest in a decade.

“Firming economic growth and rising employment in France and across most of Europe provide a favorable backdrop,” Holger Schmieding, an economist at Berenberg bank in London, said in an emailed note. “Making dismissal rules more flexible in times of an economic upswing is less difficult politically than in times of crisis.”

‘Total resistance’

Yet the government also has to contend with a budget that risks overshooting its 3% target in 2018, according to the National Auditor, even before enacting the tax cuts and spending increases Macron promised during the presidential campaign.

“It won’t be easy,” Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said after winning re-election in his Normandy constituency Sunday evening. “The French voters’ decision leaves a massive responsibility on our shoulders - to deliver results.”

Melenchon, who took 19% in the first round of the presidential election, will have 17 seats in parliament, and his sometime allies the Communists another 10. He promised “total resistance” to Macron’s economic policies and said his majority had no legitimacy because of the low turnout.

The government is also promising other contentious legislation. This Wednesday the cabinet will propose making emergency counter-terrorism powers permanent, a move opposed by many human-rights groups.

On the economic front at least, Schmieding said Macron has a mandate for his reforms because he’s been straight with voters about his plans from the start, unlike his Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande, who tried to tack to the center in mid-term.

The president “has campaigned for reforms and he won the presidential and the subsequent legislative elections with convincing majorities,” Schmieding said. “Macron has proven to be a skillful and focused political operator.”

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