Macron wins the big prize but can he govern a very divided France?

France's new president Emmanuel Macron. His Government problems are just starting.

Sunday May 7, 2017 was unprecedented in the history of France’s 5th Republic. France went to the polls and selected a President who, for the first time, did not come from the traditional parties of government.

Emmanuel Macron (39) is not a political professional like all his predecessors with the exception of General De Gaulle and never before has a candidate won the most important election in France without the support of a political party machine run by veterans. Emmanuel Macron’s successful presidential bid is exceptional.

However, President Macron must now govern France. To do so he must confirm his breakthrough into the French political landscape by constituting a presidential majority.

To complete the renewal of the French political class he needs to win the two rounds of the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Yet this victory is far from assured.


An ungovernable France?

In France, the President of the Republic appoints the Prime Minister who heads the government and is accountable to Parliament. It is the Prime Minister who becomes the head of the presidential majority. Emmanuel Macron will appoint a Prime Minister who has the experience of Parliament and the authority necessary to gather a parliamentary majority.

Of the two chambers, it is the National Assembly that is key to this majority because it has the final say over the Senate on almost all draft legislation. The parliamentary elections in June will be therefore be decisive for Emmanuel Macron as they will determine the composition of the National Assembly.

However, a number of political commentators consider that France risks being ungovernable because Emmanuel Macron does not seem able to win a clear majority of the 577 seats on offer in the June parliamentary elections.

Macron must now confirm his breakthrough by obtaining an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Of the 577 deputies in the Assembly, Macron will need 289 of them to advocate under the banner of La République En Marche the new political party or as an ally for a presidential majority.

Even with an established party, transforming a good score at a presidential election to parliamentary seats is difficult.

Its organisation is not ready for this type of election as it is freshly formed and lacks locally elected representatives who would guarantee a presence on the ground. In addition, its political positioning may be too consensual, preventing it from forming a majority in a country where Parliament has always been polarised.

Moreover, traditional political forces would do anything to prevent the emergence of a political centre. François Baroin, the Republican senator-mayor of Troyes and Republican leader, strongly believes in a victory for Les Républicains and in becoming prime minister.

The Republicans seek to “cohabit” with President Macron but there is no evidence to point to a French wish for a cohabitation set-up such as in 1997 when President Chirac had to cohabit with socialist Lionel Jospin.

The rise of social liberalism

Different scenarios seem to be emerging, as the prospect of a cohabitation between Macron and a Republican prime minister appears to be an unlikely set-up.

A first scenario is of an alliance of circumstances at the Assembly. Emmanuel Macron would seek to reproduce the German grand coalition model. To achieve this, he would have to find a government agreement with a section of the outgoing socialist majority and the current opposition. The Front National and France Insoumise, the far-left, would become the two main opposition forces, followed by those socialists and republicans who do not accept the government agreement.

The second scenario consists of a profound renewal of the French political class, with a large victory for the En Marche! Movement.

President Macron would succeed in imposing his candidates, mostly from civil society and some recruits from the left and right political parties. The Socialist Party and Les Républicains would both implode, while the Front National and France Insoumise would become a new opposition force in Parliament.

The third scenario is a cohabitation between Emmanuel Macron and François Baroin. It would require a clear victory for Les Républicains in the legislative elections to obtain an absolute majority in the National Assembly. However, this scenario is becoming questionable.

First of all, the unity of the Republican Party is seriously damaged. Two factions are fighting. On the one hand, the most moderate wing that is tending  towards Macron and on the other, the more radical Republicans who are not in favour of any alliance with Macron for fear of losing their most conservative electorate.

In addition to internal divisions, Les Républicains would not have electoral momentum, unlike Emmanuel Macron after his presidential win. The French have always been more inclined to give a majority to a freshly invested President.


The battle strategy

The day after his investiture, Emmanuel Macron will appoint a government. The political composition of this government will foreshadow the strategy that Macron will choose for the battle of the legislative elections. Either he will choose the consensus solution by building a large governmental coalition with some atypical personalities or he will move towards a major renewal of the political class by introducing new personalities.

In the first case, a large section of the existing socialist political staff will remain in place, with some recruits from the centre-right. Macron would thus succeed in weakening the conservatives led by François Baroin. In the second case, Macron will seek to build a liberal-social majority with a strongly renewed political staff. Macron will radically reshape the political landscape.

The appointment of the government will therefore undoubtedly be the official trigger of the final electoral manoeuvres of the French political calendar.