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Keeping the ‘Sixth Republic’ on track

Emmanuel Macron’s objective is to expand the centrist turf as a uniting force and secure the pro-Europe platform

Even though President Emmanuel Macron won a respectable majority in the French parliamentary elections held last week with 350 seats (together with coalition partner MoDem) in the 577-member assembly, his honeymoon period is proving to be rather short-lived. The low turnout of 42.6% on June 18 has raised eyebrows, particularly when compared to the 75% turnout on May 7, when the 39-year-old Macron was swept into the Elysee, riding a political wave of change that had not been seen since the founding of the fifth republic in 1958.

Parliamentary win

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that the French Assembly reflects change. As President Macron had promised, half of his La Republique en Marche’s (LREM’s) elected members are newcomers to elected public office. They represent diverse backgrounds — academics, business, social activism, entrepreneurship, etc. Other LREM members are the centrist moderates from the traditional Socialist and Republican parties who switched platforms. The new Assembly has 223 women members, the highest number ever, with the majority from the LREM which had fielded 50% women candidates. Republicans and their allies are down from 229 to 136 seats while the Socialists and their allies have been reduced from 284 to a mere 44 seats! The far-left Le France Insoumise led by Jean-Luc Melenchon has done well by winning 17 seats while the far-right National Front has improved its standing from two seats to eight, well short of the mandated 15 seats needed for recognition as a parliamentary group.

Even though it is a handsome majority for President Macron’s 14-month-old party, the LREM, which has won 308 seats, it is less than the earlier projections that varied between 380 and 440! The resignation of MoDem partners – Justice Minister Francois Bayrou and Marielle de Sarnez, junior minister for European Affairs, on Wednesday has been a political setback. Defence Minister Sylvie Goulard, also a MoDem ally, had stepped down a day earlier, amid reports that MoDem has been placed under investigation for misuse of European Union parliamentary funds (she is a former member of the European Parliament). The MoDem resignations follow the resignation of Richard Ferrand, Minister for Territorial Cohesion and a close ally of the president, following an expose about his earlier financial impropriety in Le Canard Enchaine.

It is a harsh lesson because one of Mr. Macron’s first promises was to clean up political corruption for which Justice Minister Bayrou had introduced legislation in early June. The proposed reforms include removing the Special Courts and subjecting MPs and civil servants to normal judicial proceedings; limiting the number of elective offices that a French politician can hold at a time; and doing away with the practice of hiring family members from public funds, a disclosure that torpedoed Republican candidate Francois Fillon’s presidential bid.

These proposals are bound to face opposition from the traditionalist Socialists and Republicans in the Assembly. In addition, procedures regarding donations and contributions to political parties are to be tightened and made more transparent. MoDem’s departure from the cabinet affects Mr. Macron politically but does not impact his legislative agenda as the LREM with 308 seats has a comfortable majority on its own.

In his reshuffle announced on Wednesday, Mr. Macron has brought in Florence Parly, a former budget official, as the Defence Minister and Nicole Belloubet, a legal expert, as the Justice Minister. Nathalie Loiseau, a former diplomat, has been inducted to look after European affairs. In the 29-strong cabinet, Mr. Macron now has 14 women, in keeping with his campaign promise of maintaining gender parity.

Mr. Macron’s challenge will be to keep his liberal, pro-Europe and pro-reform agenda intact while remaining committed to fiscal prudence, in face of a vocal opposition led by Marine Le Pen on the far right and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left. Traditionally, social and cultural liberalism has been a preserve of the left-of-centre parties while right-of-centre groups tend to support liberal economic policies. By puncturing the balloon of populism that both sides were taking recourse to and exposing it as nothing more than politics as usual, Mr. Macron has successfully recreated the liberal pragmatic centre, drawing in the moderates from both left and right and infusing it with new blood. By constituting a cabinet that has Republicans (Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire), and Socialists (Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Interior Minister Gerard Collomb), he has also demonstrated his political skill and willingness to reach out and draw in talent.

Mr. Macron has promised budget savings of 60 billion euros over the next five years even as he reduces the government payroll by 120,000. Corporate taxes are to be brought down from 33% to 25%. There are no plans to tinker with the 35-hour week but he has announced his intention to bring in greater flexibility into the labour market. The biggest challenge will be tackling unemployment, running at over 10% and as high as 25% among the youth. To generate jobs, Mr. Macron has promised public investment of 50 billion euros which includes substantial outlays for job training. While promoting closer ties with EU, he has talked of higher tariffs for non-EU goods and creation of an EU border force for dealing with the growing challenge of immigration.

Macron’s real challenge

In the past six weeks that he has been in his job, Mr. Macron has also displayed confidence on the international stage that has added to his reputation. The six-second, white-knuckled handshake with U.S. President Donald Trump last month has already been the subject of considerable analysis on social media and YouTube. He expressed disappointment with the U.S. decision to pull out of the Paris Accord and tweaked Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ on Twitter to ‘Make Our Planet Great Again’.

A week later with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he was forthright in his criticism of Russian state-owned media and its attempts in election meddling. In May, the night before campaigning ended, his election team had disclosed a hacking, resulting in 9GB of data from his campaign site, mixed with fake documents, being circulated on Web-based chat rooms. He also took a firm line on Syria, particularly with regard to use of chemical weapons.

Even with the low turnout, the presidential and the parliamentary elections show that Macron has clearly captured the sentiment of the people. His objective is to keep expanding the centrist turf as a uniting force and remain pro-poor and pro-business at the same time. He has campaigned on a pro-Europe platform and, if Chancellor Angela Merkel wins in Germany in September, he will have an ally with whom he has established a good relationship. The pro-Europe future has to be reconciled with a reassertion of French identity by reviving a sense of optimism about French economy, based on technology, education and innovation.

None of these are easy challenges, but then, it is the first time since the establishment of the fifth republic in 1958 that the French people have elected a president and given him such a strong majority. Four of the five republics since the French revolution in 1789 emerged out of wars in Europe; the fifth in 1958 took shape because of the liberation movement in Algeria. Many believe that the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the euro in 2002 began a peaceful transition to the sixth French republic. The real challenge for Mr. Macron is to keep this transition on track.

(Rakesh Sood is a former Ambassador to France and currently Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Email: rakeshsood2001@yahoo.com)

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 4:50:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/keeping-the-sixth-republic-on-track/article19127769.ece

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