Voting for the Assemblée National in France is under way and Scheenagh Harrington is keeping everything crossed that the new president’s party En Marche can get the country moving again
Last weekend, while people in the UK were still absorbing the fall-out from the snap election, French voters were being asked to brave a scorching weekend to cast their ballot in the legislatives, elections that determine the composition of French parliament.
Despite blanket coverage on French news sites, there really wasn’t much to get excited about – the participation level was a decidedly meh 20 per cent for most of the day, rising to around 50 per cent as the day began to cool down.
As an outsider I found the record low turnout surprising, but the French voting system, which happens in rounds, means that many are experiencing fatigue only a few weeks after the presidential election. And many believed that En Marche, the party of newly elected president Emmanuel Macron was a shoo-in to win.
In the event, En Marche won 32% of the voting share, with Les Republicains (the conservative party of Francois Fillon and Nicolas Sarkozy) getting 21% and Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National picking up almost 14%, according to Le Monde. The Parti Socialiste, crippled by a lack of support for outgoing president François Hollande, fared disastrously, polling less than 10% of the vote, beaten by the communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon on 11%.
That leaves Macron’s army of political neophytes set to score a stunning, historic victory, with some media outlets predicting they will secure between 400 and 440 seats in l’hemisphère – the semi-circular room where the Assemblée Nationale meets. Unlike in the UK and US, new French leaders traditionally enjoy a warm and fuzzy honeymoon, with the electorate ready to give them the best possible chance of success – and God knows, this country needs more than a little sunshine.
The stagnant economy desperately needs a new vision and more than cheeky invitations to US climate scientists to come and work in France, while high unemployment rates, especially among the young, desperately need to be tackled. Macron represents a new start, with none of the grubby scandal that tainted Fillon or Le Pen. He’s young, so he can speak to the electorate most affected by joblessness and a lack of government support. And as an educated, sophisticated centrist, he’s able to flirt with the left and right sides of the political spectrum.
The priority will be tackling the trade unions, which have the capacity to bring the country to a standstill in a heartbeat – and recently did so when a controversial law was pushed through the Assemblée that reformed France’s notoriously restrictive labour laws. (These heavily favour employees, and any reforms which are seen to erode their rights are very unwelcome indeed.) Macron has already publicly stood up to bully-boys Putin and Trump, and the unions will find a much tougher opponent in him than Hollande. If he can get them to see he has the wider country’s interests at heart, then maybe he can effect real change.
Filling the seats of the Assemblée with his representatives could mean that the much-needed reforms that will drag France out of the doldrums become a reality. But only if this weekend is as successful as the previous one. All I can do is hope.