The French president's movement of upper-middle-class amateurs is having trouble reviving national politics.
On May 7, French voters chose Emmanuel Macron as their new president. His victory — soon followed by the legislative victory of his newly created “Republic on the Move” party, En Marche — seemed to promise a renewal, perhaps even a revolution of French politics, society, and economy. This, at least, was the message of Macron’s campaign book, aptly titled “Révolution,” in which he chided the French for “wanting change, without truly wanting it.”
One hundred days later, the bloom is off the revolutionary rose. In fact, the polls reveal the petals are already falling. In July, according to the Institut français de l’opinion publiqe (IFOP), Macron’s approval rating shed 10 percentage points, falling from 64 percent to 54 percent. A more recent YouGov poll registers an even greater decline, from 43 percent to 36 percent. While every presidential honeymoon ends sooner or later, Macron’s has ended sooner and with greater thud than most. As Jérôme Fourquet, the director of IFOP, notes, Macron’s descent in the polls — the most dramatic in more than 20 years — is “unusual.” There is, he remarked, a growing “sentiment of suspicion” concerning the true nature of Macron’s promised revolution. And rightfully so.
The source of Macron’s vaunted “democratic revolution” was civil society. The French, he declared, were fed up with the traditional parties on the left and right. Like his nemeses on the hard left and right, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, Macron offered a kind of “dégagisme” — tossing out the bums. In his book, he blasted “the same faces and same men” who continued to apply “recipes from the previous century” to meet this century’s great challenges. By voting for his newly formed party, the voters would send professional politicians packing, their place taken by amateurs who represented the best and brightest of civil society.
But since they took office, the Macronistas have aroused deepening doubts about the virtues of amateurism claimed on their behalf — and Macron’s own. During the short summer parliamentary session, stretching from June 27 to August 9, En Marche deputies made the headlines less for their accomplishments than their couacs, or missteps. Rapped on the knuckles for applauding too faintly during Macron’s opening address at Versailles, they applauded too frantically when Prime Minister Édouard Philippe spoke the following day. (Philippe was interrupted by clapping 55 times, once after citing the high failure rate of university students.) Some members arrived too late to cast votes, others arrived in time to (mistakenly) vote against their party’s own proposals. When their parliamentary leader, François de Rugy, was not busy dissing his own deputies, he was dissing a Communist member of parliament as chiant, or pain in the ass. (Rugy was the victim of a microphone he thought was off.) Contemplating this sorry cascade of smash-ups, the government’s spokesman, Christophe Castaner, sighed that the deputies at least now “have the summer to hit the books.”
Of course, Castaner also pointed to his party’s legislative successes. The controversial revision of the Labor Code was launched — a project that risks, come September, crashing into the reefs of worker unrest and street protests. There was, as well, a much-heralded revision of political mores. Despite its oddly puritanical phrasing — the “law for the moralization of political life” — its substance is rather modest. Most notably, the legislation forbids senators and National Assembly representatives from hiring family members to staff positions — a nod to last winter’s revelation that ex-prime minister and ex-presidential candidate François Fillon had, for several years, paid his wife a lavish salary for opening his mail. (Less remarked, though, was the legislation’s failure to prevent elected officials from working as corporate consultants while also serving, at least in principle, the commonweal.)
The rookie mistakes committed by the Macronistas slowed the party’s legislative agenda but did not sabotage it. But beyond the procedural problems involved in Macron’s vaunted “return to civil society” reside a couple of larger, and more troubling, truths about the new political dispensation in France. In a recent study, political scientist Luc Rouban carefully dissected the composition of the En Marche deputies. Befitting rookies, they represent a significant generational change; averaging 46 years of age, the Macronistas are dramatically younger than the representatives from the traditional parties. (The average age of Socialist deputies is nearly 55, topping by two years those from the centrist Democratic Movement and far-right National Front.)
As for the percentage of rookies, Rouban notes that they “constitute the heart of this renewal.” Slightly more than half of En Marche deputies has never served — a striking contrast to Socialists, where only 7 percent are newcomers, and the conservative Republicans, where they count less than 2 percent. Equally striking are the gender differences: Women fill nearly 47 percent of the En Marche deputies are women, while slightly less than 40 percent of Socialist deputies and 23 percent of Republican and Frontist deputies are women.
But the most dramatic difference lies elsewhere. Like a seismograph, the legislative elections registered what has been a slow, but seismic shift among the nation’s socioeconomic classes. Since the 1980s, members of France’s middle class, many of whom had worked in the public sector, had dominated parliament. But an overwhelming majority of En Marche deputies — slightly more than 70 percent — issue from the rarefied ranks of the upper-middle class. Tellingly, while state employees still dominate the traditional parties, they barely sprinkle the En Marche ranks, whose résumés bristle with master’s degrees and startup experiences.
In effect, the En Marche-dominated National Assembly represents a particularly insidious form of what Rouban calls “democracy without the people.” One bitter irony is that the traditional parties had been organizations that themselves served as socioeconomic elevators for working-class and lower-middle-class men and women. Among En Marche deputies, however, the elevator is mostly empty: Fewer than 10 percent have working-class backgrounds.
Not surprisingly, the En Marche legislative agenda reflects its members’ professional socioeconomic backgrounds. Just as the revision of the Labor Code seeks to give employers greater leeway in hiring and firing workers, the promised tax reforms seek to lessen the fiscal burden on their businesses. Moreover, the vast amounts Macron seeks to invest in the French economy — 50 billion euros over five years — with particular attention paid to innovative industries, mirror the worldview of the REM rank and file. “I am only passing through,” observed one En Marche MP, Sylvain Mallard, about his new job as parliamentary deputy. “I was an entrepreneur before, and I’ll be an entrepreneur after.”
Compounding these ironies is the widespread misconception that “the people” fueled the rise of En Marche. As Rouban’s analysis reveals, Macron’s promised revolution, it turns out, is also missing the people. In the second round of the presidential election, nearly half of those who voted for Macron — 43 percent according to an Ipsos poll — did so because his competitor, Marine Le Pen, terrified them. Moreover, a significant number of eligible voters did not bother to vote: Roughly 25 percent of the electorate stayed home — the highest level of abstentions since 1969 — while another 10 percent made the trip in order to register a blank ballot. The results of the legislative election revealed a similar ambivalence. Not only did the predicted “tidal wave” of 440 to 470 National Assembly seats never materialize — En Marche ultimately won 308 seats — but the abstention rate hit a record 57 percent. The voters who did make it to the polls did not live in the post-industrial wastelands, but instead were professionals from large cities.
Slightly more than a century ago, the Franco-Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto offered an important insight that casts light on the REM phenomenon. In essence, Pareto argued that elites always rule, but that they also change. Or, more precisely, elites always circulate; when one elite begins to wane, another starts to wax. The true tension is not between different social classes, but instead between groups within the same social classes. In the case of the French ruling class, the fonctionnaires who identified with French statism are now giving way to entrepreneurs who are inspired by liberalism of a Silicon Valley variety.
But it was a full-blooded Italian from the early 20th century, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who best captured the phenomenon that is Macron’s self-described revolution. In his celebrated novel The Leopard, Lampedusa tells the story of a Sicilian aristocrat, Don Fabrizio, who confronts an earlier kind of revolution — the unification of Italy, or Risorgimento — which threatens to turn his world upside down. But as his nephew Tancredi explains, this will not be the case if they make room at the top for those leading the revolution. In the end, his words to Don Fabrizio mirror the En Marche worldview: If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
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