What democratic renewal looks like?



Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, is about to achieve something extraordinary: His brand-new centrist party, Republic on the Move, is on track to win a sweeping, unprecedented majority in the French parliament, notes analyst Anne Applebaum.

“One year ago no one would have imagined such a political renewal,” said Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

For the time being, Mr. Macron is benefiting from a kind of honeymoon period. Many French are basking in the new sense of optimism he has ushered in, and a latent desire for their country to get unstuck, after years of relative economic and political malaise. Enough people are sufficiently discouraged by the status quo that they are willing to try something new, The New York Times reports:

“There is a sort of change in the culture,” said Marc Abélès, a professor of political anthropology at the academic institution École Des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. “There was an atmosphere that was a bit deadening, the impression that one couldn’t get out, that one was cornered,” he said. “And I think against that backdrop something was pushed. We were completely looking at things negatively, and now people have a tendency to see things more positively.”

Macron’s new administration described itself as “a government of renewal,” which should attract the attention of pro-democracy advocates and analysts calling for a democratic renaissance – most recently at the Prague launch of the Coalition for Democratic Renewal.

France is no stranger to electoral landslides: François Mitterrand scored one for the Socialists in 1981; Jacques Chirac did the same for the center-right Républicains in 2002. But not in modern French history has an independent candidate with relatively little political experience so quickly assembled such a strong mandate to govern, The Washington Post adds:

During the election campaign, extremist candidates such as Marine Le Pen on the far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far-left drew support by promising to throw out the existing political elite. Although Macron, as an outspoken advocate of the European Union and of certain market reforms, is not exactly a populist, he effectively used elements of that anti-system pitch during the campaign …

“Behind his success was always the idea that he was going to renew not just the presidency, but also the political elite on the whole,” said Sudhir Hazareesingh, a professor of French politics at Oxford University. “And when you look at the parliamentary candidates he’s chosen, it is a spectacular renewal.”

“What is extraordinary is the speed with which it’s happened,” Hazareesingh said. “What’s also extraordinary is that both traditional parties are being swept away.”

In both the presidential and legislative elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far right, has suffered a blow so devastating that her National Front is in total disarray, as are all the traditional mainstream parties, notes Sylvie Kauffmann, a former editor in chief of Le Monde. Ideological lines have become confused in a major political realignment, she writes for The Times. Although it would be another leap into the unknown, the French now seem ready for all kinds of experimentation to replace a broken system.

Macron’s centrist political platform is not that new, but gives genuine hope for democratic renewal, notes Aline-Florence Manent, a lecturer in twentieth century political thought at Queen Mary, University of London. Yet it is successful because the categories of Left and Right, intellectually and practically, are no longer doing the work they are supposed to, she writes for Open Democracy:

These labels have become inadequate shorthand to capture the real nature of political antagonisms today. By holding on to them in their current form we are unable to correctly diagnose the problems at stake and address them effectively. The decisive questions under democratic scrutiny no longer correspond to a binary antagonism between liberal capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other. These elections, are required instead to provide a long-overdue articulation of liberal social democracy in France.

While the Macron coalition has mobilized a plethora of activists previously alienated by politics, En Marche’s social base may prove to be too restricted, observers suggest.

They “represent the upper-middle class, largely those with degrees, and the problem in France is that the popular classes, the workers, the blue-collar workers, they are not represented there,” said Luc Rouban, a researcher at the Center for the Study of French Political Life at Sciences Po in Paris. “Yet the working class represent 40 percent of the French population,” he said.

Macron’s success has exposed the hubris of commentators who derided ‘Old Europe’ and elevated the ‘Anglo-Saxon democracies,’ adds Applebaum (left), a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

Both Britain — or rather, England — and the United States remain convinced of their own exceptionalism. A significant part of each country’s political classes — the “America firsters,” some of the Brexiteers — still believes it can “go it alone” and live happily without allies. French and German voters have the opposite historical experience. Most still want to be part of economic and military alliances. The older generation in particular fears extremism and is more cautious than its Anglo-Saxon equivalents.

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