Liberté, fraternité, gentrification: lessons from the French vote

June 23, 2017
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The results of the French elections are in, and the message is loud and clear. Emmanuel Macron has been given a strong majority that will allow him to implement his somewhat controversial agenda. While the result of the presidential election could be subject to interpretation (almost any candidate would have won against Marine Le Pen), there is little doubt that the vote for the parliament gave an explicit mandate to president Macron.

Since last May the success of La République En Marche was to be expected, as voters tend to confirm their vote for the president in the subsequent parliamentary elections. But zooming out one can better grasp the extraordinary result of the president’s newly formed party. The movement simply did not exist just one year ago, and in a matter of months Macron skillfully banked on the voters’ insatisfaction for traditional parties to change the political landscape. Regardless of the fate of this presidency, the French political system is disarticulated for good.

The comments following the vote focused on two main issues. Participation, and the strong role played by majority rule in giving Macron full powers.

First, the vote is tainted by a very strong abstention rate. More than half of the voters (57.4%) chose not to go to the ballots. The opposition clung to the results to challenge the legitimacy of the president. This interpretation is unwarranted. While it is true that on average each member of parliament has been chosen by 22% of the voters, in a democracy those who do not vote choose to delegate their will to others, and as such they express their preferences. Especially in the first round (in which participation was only marginally higher), “political supply” was quite varied, and abstainers therefore can only blame themselves for a result that they don’t like.

The second subject of discussion is the strong bias introduced by the majority rule. La France Insoumise, the radical left party, had more votes than the socialists, but half as many Members of parliament. More strikingly, En Marche and his allies have 60% of the seats, with around 20% of the vote in the first round, while the Front National, with just slightly less, does not go beyond 8 seats (1.4% of the assembly). There is not much to comment here. In the eternal tradeoff between representation and governability, France’s system puts much weight on the latter, and the perverse results that we observed a few days ago are just the obvious consequence of such a choice. A proportional correction may be in the pipeline, as it was promised by the candidate Macron.

A much more interesting result of the election has on the other hand gone more unnoticed. Comments underlined the strong renewal and diversity of the Assemblee: 75% of the Members will enter Parliament for the first time. The age average is down to 48 years, and closer than ever to the population average (41). Last, but not least, the 2017 Parliament, has 224 elected women (38.8%, up from 155 and 26.8% in the previous term).

Nevertheless, this renewal is more apparent than substantial, and in a very important respect the new parliament is much less diverse than its predecessor. True, the number of Members coming from civil society increased, as there are less pure politicians seating in the chamber. But their place has been taken by white collars liberal professions and executives (those that the statistical office INSEE groups into the “upper classes”), while blue collars and pensioners are less numerous than in the past, and significantly under-represent the composition of French society. While this was already a feature of the Assemblée emerged from the 2012 election, the emergence of the En Marche movement is accelerating the “gentrification” of the parliament. 57% of the new Members of parliament comes from the upper classes, which represent 18% of the country population. In short, the new parliament better represents the French society if we look at age and gender, but it is a regress concerning its socio-economic composition. And those who are less and less represented are those who were hit harder by the crisis.

This poses a serious problem for Macron’s reform program. Whether reforms will be beneficial for society as a whole, remains to be seen. But regardless of that, there is no doubt that they will leave behind some losers. Fairness, “inclusive growth” as it is fashionable to call it nowadays, will then require some redistribution of benefits. Will a parliament where the upper classes are over represented be able to do so? If it will not, the political confrontation will take place in the streets. The French have been good at this in the past.