"Not again?" was Brenda from Bristol's response to Theresa May's decision to announce the last round of elections in the UK. In France as well, as people went to the ballot box this last Sunday, election fatigue was all but noticeable. On first glance, the two elections could not be any more different. The British electorate delivered a hung parliament, while the French legislative elections marked the rise and rise of Emmanuel Macron's centrist wave. On the second round on 18 June, Macron's party La République en marche (LREM), which did not even exist over a year ago, is expected to win a crushing landslide of anything between 400 and 455 of the National assembly's 577 seats.
Nonetheless, these elections have one thing in common. Both campaigns, usually defined by the mathematics of winning seats, were fought as referendums on one person, whether Theresa May in Britain or Emmanuel Macron in France. While May's wobbly performance only revealed the strong and stable emperor had been naked all along, Macron has exceeded expectation.
The personalised character of the French legislatives had been expected. Even as the legislative elections are supposed to be about local party representatives, since 2000 they have in fact mostly served to validate a "presidential majority" to allow the newly elected President to enact his programme. At no point in time, however, has this majority been so transformative.
The last time such a large unknown force entered the French parliament was in 1919, when it was overrun by 369 MPs of the then National Bloc, mostly fresh veterans from the war trenches. Even after de Gaulle's takeover and launch of the new Fifth Republic in 1958, his newly formed party (UNR) "only" managed to win of 206 MPs, which sufficed to become the country's largest parliamentary force.
This time, the Macroniste wave has all but bulldozed France's traditional parties. The Socialists (PS), discredited by the Hollande presidency, are struggling for survival as a political formation. Les Républicains (LR) are set to become the second largest party, but are also expected to cooperate with LREM.
Just as interestingly, pundits and commentators did not expect this kind of Macron victory shortly after the presidential victory in May. The young centrist may have won a resounding majority against Marine Le Pen in the run-off, but the press was quick to highlight his flaws. After all, did he not just attract anti-Le Pen votes rather than gain actual support? Was he not slightly too slick and neoliberal for an angry electorate that yearns for anti-establishment fury? According to this logic, the legislative elections should have provided an opportunity for the French to impose a few checks on Macron's personal mandate by voting for other parties.
And yet, LREM's candidates, in most cases previously unknown to the public and often without any political experience of their own, easily crushed experienced candidates in most constituencies. They often prevailed after amateurish campaigns. The only reason for their victory was often the proximity to the young President's broad smile on their blurry election posters.
Indeed, Macron has been smiling since his presidential victory. Together with parts of the media, he has focused on proving that he really was a spectacularly nice guy. This began quickly after the election results, as the TV channels TF1 and France 3 both showed documentaries about Macron's campaign and celebrated the new President's general loveliness rather than, let's say, political prowess.
On the other hand, Macron put in the work to improve his image as a "presidential" character. Directly after winning on 7 May, the new President began a tour of red carpets around the world, showing his mastery of the choreography of international relations. Macron showed polite camaraderie with Angela Merkel, while popular approval increased after his televised confrontations with Trump and Putin.
Essentially, Macron's personal performance has simultaneously channelled two sentiments. On the one hand, he tapped into the need for change and renewal. As the electorate had lost faith in established parties - and the Socialist Party in particular - Macron became the promise of change. Even though he began as a mascot for educated, urban Liberals, by the end his "neither left nor right" approached seduced voters from all ranks of society. As a former minister of Hollande observed during the campaign, "people want the wave. The wave is fresh, it's new, it's beautiful... Everyone wants to become a part of something positive, to feel like their voice brings instant change".
And yet, Macron did not owe his electoral success to the politics of 'anti-establishment'. He embodies a sense of novelty with the style of the only grownup in the room. This balance can be entirely illusory and may not hold once put to the test of governance, but it was enough to win elections.
Ultimately, with some parallels to the UK, these elections tell a story of generational uncertainty. Macron's promise of 'newness' speaks to the squeezed generation of the middle, men and women in their late twenties to their early forties who have spent years fighting against a system that favoured the old and left too few opportunities for the young. So far, he has managed to represent some of the values of this generation. Not only does he advocate for European openness, but his party will usher in the highest number of women and non-white MPs in French history.
As most Macron-related article conclude, these are early days. Macron's personality is winning the elections, but the hard work is only about to begin. Will he be able to work with what may be the largest majority in the history of the French 5th Republic to alleviate some of the problems that beset France? From chronic unemployment to thorny race relations, the list is long. At the very least, however, it is refreshing to observe a French politician able to score points on cautious optimism.Suggest a correction