Macron’s victory in France is certainly preferable to the alternative, Marine Le Pen. However, it shows us the reality of a president who is substantially with minority support, who after five years at the Elysée got only 27.8% of the vote in the first round.
He was saved by the French tradition of the republican pact, which is still a vital element, although showing cracks. It proved to be a bulwark against the right in the second round and gave him 58.5% -with a high rate of absenteeism.
On first analysis, Macron’s support has mostly come from the center, with inroads to the right. He got votes from the metropolitan areas and from the middle and upper-middle classes. However, he lost votes among the lowest and next-to-lowest social strata, who voted for Le Pen (the countryside) and Melenchon (young people, those living in urban suburbs, environmentalists).
The votes testify to a country that is divided, and angry. Macron himself acknowledged this in his victory speech to his supporters.
All these issues are likely to come back in the legislative elections that will follow. There is a serious possibility of a parliamentary majority that will be different from the result of the presidential elections, with Macron’s party in the minority. Cohabitation might make a comeback. This is an interesting aspect, particularly if we recall that the French used to be divided regarding the form of government, and especially regarding cohabitation.
For some, it was an unacceptable point of institutional fragility; for others, it was a useful element of the overall system of checks and balances.
A constitutional reform in 2000 (2000-964) and a law in 2001 (2001-419) closed the debate by shortening the president’s term of office from seven to five years and by placing the legislative vote immediately after the presidential one. It was thus thought that a trickle-down effect would guarantee that the newly elected president would have “their own” majority in parliament, strengthening their institutional role and improving governability.
This was certainly not the case for Macron. Having a broad parliamentary base after his first election neither strengthened him nor prevented him from suffering a progressive hemorrhage of support. One proof of this was the yellow vest movement.
In summary, we could say that Macron today is evidence of the inconclusive and ambiguous effect of the reforms of 2000 and 2001. Professional reformers in Italy should learn from this.
The French system, along with the British one, has long been presented by fans of stability and governability as a model to be imported to our country. Such a hyper-presidentialist model is presented as preferable even to the classical model of the United States, whose president is said to be too weak in relation to Congress in domestic politics. Among the main arguments in support of this position, we can recall the highlight on the unifying function of the formally or substantially direct election of the head of state or government.
This could make sense, perhaps, if it ever did, in largely homogeneous societies with a large and expanding middle class and a reasonably balanced distribution of wealth. In such societies, a majority system could support a political system that would tend to be bipartisan or bipolar, with largely similar electoral programs. The mantra according to which electoral victory is achieved by converging towards the center might have made sense in such a context.
Today’s reality is different.
In societies lacking a solid connective tissue of organized political formations, with growing fragmentation and inequality, direct elections radicalize and divide. And the majoritarian system applied to a legislative election either distorts the vote to an unacceptable degree, or – as might happen in France – confirms the division.
Those from the center-right who insist on proposing reforms with a focus on direct elections should reflect on these aspects. And this applies even more for those who are discussing a new electoral law in Parliament, something that is not easy to change, because the center-right will probably put up a roadblock. Some would like a majoritarian system with runoffs. France should be able to teach us what that looks like.
It is not useful to artificially conceal the social fault lines that generate conflict and malaise underneath the numbers of members of Parliament. A better way is to actually represent them and live out the path of politics. The best recipe for Italy is the parliamentary form of government and a good proportional electoral law that would strengthen the organizations and the political subjects that are operating within their framework.
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