Monday, 19 June 2017

Now the French too: looking for something new - or just saying none of the above

Another election. Another result. Another cry for change – or of uncertainty.

Back in May, his electorate handed Emmanuel Macron, a man with no previous experience of elective office, the top post available in French politics when they made him president. But that was only half the job. He had promised to transform the political environment, but without a parliamentary majority, he couldn’t legislate the changes necessary.

A month on, voters handed a majority to his party, a party that didn’t even exist sixteen months ago. While that majority wasn’t quite as huge as had been projected, it was nonetheless massive: his party, La République En Marche, took 319 out of 577 seats, a healthy majority; with its ally the Mouvement Démocratique, it controls 361.

Macron has the majority he needed
Two rival parties had dominated French politics for decades. The Conservative Républicains were reduced to 125 seats but the humiliation of the Socialist Party was more severe still, as it lost more than 200 seats, leaving it a rump with just 32.

In keeping with this mould-breaking, practically revolutionary change, most of Macron’s candidates were as fresh to politics as he was. The new MPs are academics or journalists or local activists – or in one notable case, a former bullfighter.

It’s hard to imagine a result that speaks more strongly of a thirst for change. France wants to renew its politics, breaking with the parties ruled the roost so long, and even with the people that ran them.

And yet, and yet. Only 43% of the electorate cast its votes, an exceptionally low turnout. Macron certainly won among the votes cast, and technically won because he’s emerged with the parliamentary majority he needed, but the popular majority went to those who sat on their hands.

Now my wife and I are French citizens. We gave up three hours on a Sunday some weeks ago, including an hour and a half in a queue that snaked around an entire block, to ensure Macron won the presidency. But there was urgency then: there was still a small chance that Marine le Pen might beat him from the far right.

This time we didn’t go, and not just out of laziness. There wasn’t the same pressure. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Macron would have his majority. Many others may have felt the same way as we did, which may account for the poor turnout.

That would feel like a possibly adequate explanation, were it not for one disturbing recent precedent: the British General Election.

That election was profoundly different from what happened in France. Far from seeing a new party come to power, it left the two main parties sharing a total of nearly 26 million votes, an unprecedented level, applying a debilitating squeeze on any minor parties. There’s nothing new or mould-breaking there – on the contrary, it’s a return to the post-World War 2 normality.

On the other hand, the only leader who improved his position in the election was Jeremy Corbyn at the head of the Labour Party. He presided over the biggest increase in Labour’s vote share since World War 2. He’s hardly a new man – he’s been a Member of Parliament for 34 years – but he represents a more radical kind of politics and, above all, a rejection of the austerity economics that has been the orthodoxy of government and business since 2010.

Paradoxically, in a reversion to the old, the election in Britain therefore also suggested a hankering for something new. In the same way as in France. And that takes us to the other key similarity of the two countries.

However much he may have advanced, Corbyn didn’t win. Theresa May’s Conservatives topped the poll; Labour came second. Neither won a majority: May had one but lost it at this very election, when her aim was to extend it. Corbyn advanced but nothing like far enough.

May came first but the electorate refused her the mandate she wanted. I’ve argued before that this was a case of choosing “none of the above”. Now that a majority of the French seem to have made the same choice, don’t we have to conclude that alongside the hankering for something different, there is also a terrible lassitude, a paralysing indifference emerging in our electorates?

Now we have to see what gets built on these foundations. Macron needs to deliver on his promises. Corbyn needs to win next time.

Then we’ll see whether the thirst for change prevails, leading where we might hope, or whether the rejection of all politics wins the day – and opens the door to something far worse.

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