Macron's strong start impresses the French. But will it launch his party?

Predictions ahead of the first round of French legislative elections Sunday put the neophyte president's brand new party well ahead of challengers. That's due in large part to Macron's early stalwart presence on the world stage.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron (r.) stands aboard the rescue tow vessel Abeille Bourdon during a visit off the Atlantic Ocean waters of Lorient, France, last week.

No sooner had Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency that doubts about his ability to govern clouded the victory. The real race would come in June, when a man without a political party would attempt to win legislative elections to push through his reform agenda.

But now the most improbable of French presidents, a 39-year-old never before elected to office, is poised to clinch an absolute majority in the National Assembly, according to leading pollsters in France. After two rounds of voting, on June 11 and June 18, he could capture the largest majority in the lower house of any president in the past two decades – or much farther back.

So what exactly has changed in one month?

Mr. Macron, to be sure, is still enjoying a honeymoon in which he hasn’t had to make unpopular choices at home. And the legislative elections, positioned shortly after the presidential poll, tends to favor a newly elected leader.

But his first month has also been viewed as forceful, and largely impeccable, especially on the international stage. His first trip took him to Berlin, where he positioned himself as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s equal, after France has been the weakling in the Franco-German relationship for years. When he hosted Vladimir Putin at Versailles, he lashed out at two Russian media outlets, calling them organs of “deceptive propaganda.”

The white-knuckled handshake with President Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels last month, when he refused to let up his grip and later said it was an intentional message, was a hit with Trump’s foes worldwide. And when Trump later backed out of the Paris climate agreement, Macron appealed to American scientists in English to work with France, getting a dig in while he was at it: “We all share the same responsibility: make our planet great again.”

On the heels of a volatile campaign, whose upheaval in part owes to a frustration with France’s lost influence in the global arena, Macron has brought a sense of hope that its position can be restored. And the French seem willing to continue on with their experiment in politics.

The image that he is sending, says Jérôme Fourquet, head of political surveys at pollster Ifop, is simple: “France is back on the international stage.”

In with the new

Navigating domestic waters will be his bigger challenge, with a rebel mood among the French electorate. Pro-EU globalists have looked to Mr. Macron and France for mooring in an otherwise uncertain geopolitical time, including a shock result for the Tories in Britain yesterday that complicates Brexit negotiations with Europe.

But Dominique Reynié, director of the think tank Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol), says the world seems to have forgotten what preceded his victory. In the first round of voting, 49.6 percent of voters choose candidates of “rupture,” he notes. In the second round, 57 percent of France's overall eligible voters selected far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, voted blank, or abstained. These voters are unlikely to cut Macron slack as he turns to labor reform or unemployment at home.

Still, the revolutionary mood has for now seemed to play in his favor. Macron’s République en Marche (REM) is slated to win 29.5 percent of seats in the first round, according to an Ipsos Sopra-Steria poll published Tuesday. Far behind them trail the center-right Républicains, at 23 percent. The National Front is polling at 17 percent. Meanwhile, the Socialists are expected to receive another beating by the electorate, attracting just 8.5 percent of votes. REM's advantage in the first round could set them up in the second to win more than 380 of the 577 seats at stake.

It is part of an ongoing implosion of the political status quo that pollster Édouard Lecerf of Kantar Public says started with the presidential election and will carry through beyond the legislative elections. “It will reorder the way we see and interpret the political landscape,” he says.

Macron has deftly reacted to the new political environment. He put together a cabinet from the right and left, as pledged. In doing so he not only disrupted the mainstream further, he took the political wind out of the sails of his nearest rival on the center-right, from whose party France's new prime minister, economy minister, and budget minister all hail.

The right-left makeup of his cabinet has also enchanted voters who see in French politics new possibilities. Mounir Mahjoubi, secretary of state of digital affairs in the new Macron government, says the president represents a choice to people who couldn’t find a home with either the center-right or center-left. The son of Moroccan immigrants, he uses a personal anecdote to explain it: “I am an entrepreneur but also a unionist. When you are [both] in your heart and in your mind, then you feel completely aligned with the ideals of Emmanuel Macron,” he says on the sidelines of a recent canvassing event.

Unfamiliar faces

The yearning for something new has been apparent throughout the legislative race, with candidates from all parties touting their “regular person” credentials. One candidate’s flier from a race in southern Paris notes “0 percent candidate, 100 percent citizen.”

It is REM, which started out as a social movement, that has the most legitimacy when it comes to promises of renewal. Macron kept a campaign promise to present a new political face to the nation: half all the candidates for the National Assembly are women, and half of them have never been elected to office before.

On a recent weekend, REM candidates were campaigning across Paris. There is Ilana Cicurel, who gathers a group of volunteers steps from the Arc de Triomphe. Before they hand out fliers, she first has to tell them who she is. Across town, in the multiethnic neighborhoods of northeast Paris, Delphine O, who is half-French, half-Korean, never thought she’d get involved in politics but threw her name into the ring because Macron’s party has given her a political home.

“I’m nervous, because of the responsibility it represents, of sitting at the National Assembly and being a representative of the people,” she says, as she and a group of volunteers head out to knock on doors in the 19th arrondissement.

Guillaume Liegey, a founder of the electoral technology startup Liegey Muller Pons, which designed the door-knocking tactic that’s been a hallmark of Macron’s campaign, says that it is a trend toward a return to “direct contact,” which bodes well for confidence in politics. “Being able to engage with your voters, being able to push your volunteers and get out of your circle, this is mandatory if you want to be a good politician.”

Annick Garache, a resident in the 19th, says that she is not scared about a parliament of civil society with no political experience but excited by the prospect. “We are fed up with people high up over us telling us what to do and having no knowledge of the real world,” she says.

'A hyper-presidency'

Yet for as much as the French seem to be seeking change, they are also attached to older times, analysts say. Part of the political shakeup of 2017 is simply frustration over France's loss of grandeur and a stronger leader to represent it.

That's why Macron's hints of strong leadership have been a hit. Many have placed hopes on him that he can bring back a dignified presidency to France – after the disappointments of his unpopular predecessors – and give France a strategic position on the international stage, reconfiguring the politics of Europe.

"What he has done in France is resounding elsewhere in Europe," Mr. Lecerf says. "He is becoming a reference for young politicians. Everyone will want to be the new Macron.”

Perhaps ironically, his promise of a grassroots renewal may help him become the stronger president the French seek. With so many new faces, power necessarily gravitates to the top.

“It’s shaping up as a hyper-presidency,” Mr. Reynié says. “There’s a very strong central authority and that’ll be accentuated by having many deputies who are new to politics.”

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