CLODAGH FINN: Shocks and surprises in France don’t necessarily mean seachange

Voters attracted by Emmanuel Macron say they will back his party candidates. However, despite the grandiose claims, it’s impossible to say if Macron’s staggering success is evidence of a new electoral cycle or a mere blip.

Emmanuel Macron with wife Brigitte Macron after the handover ceremony at the Élysée Palace in Paris last month. Picture: Christophe Ena/AP

Tomorrow, the French will go to the polls in the second round of parliamentary elections which will, almost certainly, give President Emmanuel Macron’s new political party carte blanche to introduce his programme of reform.

Of course, it’s impossible to say anything with certainty in these volatile times, but it does look very likely that Mr Macron’s fledgling centrist party will sweep in with a huge majority, taking up to 450 of the 577 seats in the French National Assembly. If that happens, the fusty chamber, so used to seeing well-known faces on the political left and the right, will be shaken up by an unprecedented number of novice deputies, many of whom are making their first foray into politics. The so-called ‘Macron effect’ will also see the election of an impressive number of women, many of them previously unknown.

It’s been striking to hear people on the streets tell TV vox pops that they can’t name the candidate standing in their constituency, but they are going to vote for them because they are standing for Mr Macron’s party.

By any measure, it’s a remarkable showing for La République En Marche (Republic on the Move), a political party that didn’t exist a year ago. The En Marche (on the move) epithet neatly echoes the initials of Mr Macron, a leader who is clearly going places.

Mr Macron’s easy ascent to power in May, overcoming the far-right Marine Le Pen, made political history when, for the first time, the French elected a president who did not belong to one of the traditional parties. Now, it looks as if his party will be given an overwhelming mandate to carry out his promised “renewal of political life”.

British prime minister Theresa May must have felt something akin to raw jealousy in the pit of her stomach when she joined the ‘Jupiterian’ president, as he is known, at the Stade de France for the France-England international friendly match this week. If only she could have summoned up a bit of his celestial presence to win over voters during her recent disastrous electoral gamble.

It’s interesting that Mr Macron was the one to conjure up the Roman god of gods, Jupiter, when he spoke about the presidential office last October. He said France needed a new type of Jupiterian presidency. What he meant by that is already apparent: Mr Macron is seen as godlike and aloof, preferring to preside over a government from afar, in sharp contrast to the brash style of one of his recent predecessors, the blingy celebrity president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Some have heralded Mr Macron’s victory as a quiet revolution. Others say it marks the beginning of a new political era. More still interpret it as the end of the populist wave that brought about the political upsets that put Donald Trump in the White House and made Brexit a reality.

Can it really mean any of those things when you consider another French political first — more than one in two French people decided not to vote in the first round of elections last Sunday, the highest abstention rate ever recorded in the Fifth Republic.

That may be due to voter fatigue by a population who recently voted in a number of presidential primaries. It’s also worth highlighting again that in the first of those primaries, three in four voters did not vote for Mr Macron.

Just as it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict the outcome of elections, it is now harder to say what the results actually mean.

For instance, can we say that the rise of Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrant, heralds a sea-change in Irish society? Can we pat ourselves on the back and say we have become a tolerant, inclusive meritocracy?

It would nice to think so, but that wouldn’t be at all true. His election as taoiseach says more about a very small group of politicians in Fine Gael than it does about the state of the nation. Remember his opponent, Simon Coveney, won the grassroots vote.

All the same, now that he is taoiseach, Mr Varadkar may very well bring about that change. Let’s hope so. The point, however, is that it is often too early to proclaim electoral results — in particular shocks and surprises — as evidence of a genuine political shift.

The French media, in fairness, is reporting that it is impossible to say if Mr Macron’s staggering success is evidence of a new electoral cycle or a mere blip.

In the UK, some interpreted Labour’s unexpected success as an example of a ‘youthquake’, quoting a turn-out of up to 70% among those aged 18 to 25. But, as Charlie Beckett, professor in the London School of Economics (LSE) Media and Communications Department pointed out, that was later found to be untrue, or unverified at least.

While there seemed to be a generational divide among British voters, there was no evidence for a huge surge in first-time voters.

Prof Beckett made the point in an excellent blog on the LSE website about the need for journalists and commentators to look at the way they report on elections.

He suggests that the media might be too in thrall to opinion polls and too quick to follow the official electoral campaign, when it would be better to try to establish what is really going on at grassroots level.

He also says it’s time to take a good look at the role of social media in elections, but perhaps that shouldn’t just apply to journalists and politicians. We are trapped in our own Twitter bubble, thinking that what comes through in 140 characters reflects the reality of the world outside?

It’s a world that distorts and pits one person against the other. It is also one that is extremely volatile. No wonder the pundits are at a loss to predict what might happen next on the political landscape.

Mind you, no fear of any political earthquakes at home as the Cabinet ‘reshuffle’ has shown. Given what’s happening elsewhere, though, that doesn’t seem like an entirely bad thing.

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