Though Macron's party rolls up wins in France, a cautionary tale next door

The president's new party took a comfortable majority of the seats in the French Assembly Sunday. But Italy's Five Star Movement, which stormed the polls with similarly heady reformist verve, now shows that not all electoral revolutions are permanent.

Francois Mori/AP
Catherine Barbaroux (c.), the party president of La Republique En Marche! of new French President Emmanuel Macron, reacts with supporters after she delivers a speech at the party headquarters in Paris Sunday.

When elected a year ago this month, she was hailed as a youthful breath of fresh air, a powerful force for change who would shake up the ossified establishment.

Virginia Raggi, an up-and-coming poster child of the populist Five Star Movement, became Rome’s first ever female leader, after 2,500 years of Etruscan kings, Roman emperors, powerful popes, and the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

“This is a historic moment and a turning point,” she said in her victory speech. “For the first time Rome has a woman mayor. I will be a mayor for all Romans. We will work to bring back to the city legality and transparency. We’re going to change everything.”

Her words sound familiar in France, where President Emmanuel Macron rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment to clinch victory May 7, a year after starting a social movement from scratch. Defying expectations just a few months ago, he followed his presidential win with an absolute majority in the second round of parliamentary elections Sunday night. His La République en Marche! (Republic on the Move!, or REM) party and its allies won 350 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly.

But Five Star, which similarly came into office under a desire for fresh faces, may also show that even the most impressive political triumphs by newcomers do not guarantee success. In the first round of Italy's local elections last week, the party performed much worse than expected in dozens of key towns and cities, including Verona, Parma, Palermo, L’Aquila and – humiliatingly for Beppe Grillo, the stand-up comedian who founded the party in 2009 – Genoa, his home town. Ms. Raggi herself is under mounting pressure, as Rome's longstanding problems continue to dog the city.

Could Five Star’s plight stand as a cautionary tale for Macron’s REM?

Popular reform

En Marche and Five Star are, of course, not on an allied path. Mr. Grillo had harsh words after Macron’s victory in France. “Europe will see another government coming out of the banks,” he wrote in a blog post. “More precious time will be wasted to benefit this plastic formation, these dummies who are slaves of an impossible currency,” he said.

While Five Star, like En Marche, refuses to classify itself as right or left, it embraces policies on the far-right and far-left, from its anti-euro to its anti-immigration stances. Macron says his post-ideological party is not a rejection of the right or left but a plan to take the best policies of both to move France forward. In an age of anti-establishment sentiment, REM candidates say the party can reboot confidence in mainstream politics at the center.

Leading up to the race, the hype around both shared similarities, underlined by a viral comment by political analyst Christophe Barbier: “You could take a goat and give it Macron’s endorsement and it would have a good chance of being elected.”

In the end, despite its clear victory in Sunday's elections, REM did not get the overwhelming majority that the French worried would lead to an unhealthy hegemony. But it did see something as worrisome: turnout at just below 44 percent, a record low for the Fifth Republic.

Voter abstention has led to concerns that Macron, while facing a friendly parliament, could run into questions of legitimacy on the streets as he turns to making promises into policy.

It also shows that while Macron has emerged as an international sensation, the French are much more cautious – and low voting rates reveal a degree of indifference.

“All along his stupefying path to the Elysee, Emmanuel Macron has benefited from mistrust of existing structures,” argues Le Monde in its editorial today. “But these legislative elections show that neither he nor his candidates have yet begun to rebuild the trust that would engender real support beyond his circle of enthusiasts.”

'The initial fizz has gone'

Five Star, meanwhile, remains a clear protest party, even as they come under fire like the establishment before them. Nowhere is that clearer than in Rome, where Raggi’s pledges to tackle the capital’s multiple crises – poor public transport, gridlocked traffic, potholed roads, official corruption, and chaotic garbage collection – have remained unfulfilled. Much has in fact worsened. Shopkeepers resort to buying sacks of bitumen and filling in the potholes outside their premises themselves. Rubbish spills out onto the streets from uncollected plastic sacks, providing a feast for rats, pigeons, and seagulls.

In the first round of voting, Five Star lost out to a resurgence of the traditional parties of the center-left and center-right: the Democratic Party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi and a center-right coalition consisting of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and the anti-immigrant Northern League. A second vote is scheduled for June 25.

“It’s fair to say that some of the initial fizz and excitement has gone out of the party,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist from Luiss University in Rome.

Still, he warns the movement is not finished. Indeed, Five Star in recent Pew polling enjoyed the highest rating of any party in Italy, at 41 percent.

And while REM faces challenges in France, no other party came close to them last night. The center-left Socialist party lost more than 250 seats, winning just 29. The center-right Republicains, once aiming for a majority, landed in a distant second with 113 seats.

Yet the problems that have befuddled the mainstream parties remain in place. In Italy, that is slow growth and its position at the front lines of the migration crisis. In France, it’s the labor reform that Macron needs to boost employment and revitalize the economy – and its role in Europe. Such unpopular reform long eluded his predecessors.

REM "has drawn from a very large spectrum of candidates, from both the left and right, and it remains to be seen if they can stay united when voting on things like labor reform or taxing France’s wealthiest earners,” Jerome Fourquet of the polling firm IFOP told the Anglo-American Press Association ahead of the National Assembly vote. “Their biggest challenges are yet to come.”

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