Why Macron’s supremacy could spell problems for both France and the president

There are reasons why a resounding victory in the parliamentary elections for Emmanuel Macron's party could spell bad news for France and the president himself.

Why Macron's supremacy could spell problems for both France and the president
Photo: AFP

Macron's mandate is hardly the strongest

“It's a muted, incomplete victory because he does not enjoy the backing of a majority of the French people,” pollster Gael Sliman told AFP.

The low turnout could be explained partly by election fatigue, but also by “those who may not agree with Macron but do not want to block his path,” said Sliman, of the Odoxa polling institute.

Political scientist Jerome Sainte-Marie noted that only one in three potential voters actually cast ballots for REM candidates, given the 49 percent turnout in Sunday's first-round parliamentary vote, in addition to eligible voters who did not register and those who cast blank or spoilt ballots.

Remember this comes after 16 million voters abstained in the second round of the presidential election when Macron was up against Marine Le Pen, added to that are the 10 or so million voters who said they only backed Macron to keep Le Pen out.

“The abstention reflects the disaffection (with politics) of part of the French electorate, notably the working class,” Sainte-Marie said, adding: “Young people… were especially demoralised by the presidential election.”

The record-low turnout — the lowest in six decades — “reveals a pretty weak sociological and political foundation for the new administration,” said Sainte-Marie, of the PollingVox institute.

The Macron team itself recognised the liability, with spokesman Christophe Castaner calling the low turnout “a failure of this election” and emphasising the need to reach out to those who stayed away.

Bad for a healthy democracy?

French President Emmanuel Macron's rivals on Monday warned against handing him an overwhelming parliamentary majority that would stifle debate, after his party cruised to victory in the opening round of elections to the National Assembly.

Macron's year-old centrist Republic on the Move (REM) party and its allies are tipped to clean up in the 577-member lower house of parliament, winning up to 445 seats — an unprecedented total for a post-war president.

The opposition and French press expressed concern over what the left-wing Liberation daily called the “quasi-Stalinist result”.

The leader of the rightwing Republicans in the Paris area, Valerie Pecresse, appealed for a “civic surge”, warning of the risk of “groupthink”.

Ex-prime minister and party grandee Alain Juppe said, urging voters to get behind the opposition “The stakes of the second round are clear,” . “Having a monochrome parliament is never good for democratic debate,” he added.


No credible opposition

Macron made the most of weakness and scandals to blow apart France's traditional political parties in the presidential election and he continues to do the same in the parliamentary elections.

“What is new about this election is that opposition forces have crumbled,” said Martial Foucault, director of the Cevipof research centre.

“We don't know who will really embody the opposition, and that is the gamble Emmanuel Macron took and won — spreading his political tent as widely as possible to the left and right,” Foucault told French radio.

Political scientist Jerome Sainte-Marie told AFP “today there is no credible opposition” to the 39-year-old former investment banker.

The Macron juggernaut left behind an opposition made up of “irreconcilable parts” — the radical left, the far right and the traditional left and right, Sainte-Marie said.

That's hardly Macron's fault of course.

But while many in France, even Macron's opponents are keen for him to be given a chance to govern and reform the country, the lack of necessary checks and balances that a strong opposition in parliament would provide, may prompt opposition in other forms.

Dissent will be on the streets not in the Assembly

Sunday's results show Macron will have a relatively free hand to push through the ambitious labour, economic and social reforms he promised on the campaign trail.

He will also have succeeded in ushering in a younger and more diverse parliament with more women and ethnic minorities.

But with many of the new lawmakers owing him their seats, analysts have warned that the next parliament could be unusually submissive.

Macron's opponents have already warned that they will take the fight to the streets.

A group of trade unions and NGOs opposed to his proposals to loosen the country's strict labour laws have called for demonstrations in several cities on June 19.

With Macron planning to pass his labour reforms through decrees we can expect the street protests to be particularly lively.

Macron's novice and unpredictable MPs

Martial Foucault, director of the Cevipof research centre warned that with scores of REM lawmakers taking elective office for the first time, “there will be a learning curve, a period of discovery that may lead to a kind of disillusionment.”

Furthermore, “these new lawmakers will want to do well, to succeed on a political programme that in my view is not yet totally clear. We don't know really what targets they have. We have some economic details but it's very vague regarding social benefits,” Foucault told French radio.

What is more, Sliman said, the new MPs owe their political life to Macron, who launched his movement barely a year ago. “Never have there been so many lawmakers so beholden to their leader,” he said. “They owe absolutely everything to him.”

Macron runs the risk of believing “that just because everyone around him agrees with him, all the French do,” Sliman said. “He'd be wrong.”

Pascal Perrineau, a researcher at Cevipof told AFP: “Within this gigantic parliamentary party there could be internal difficulties. At first this (majority) will seem like a gift from heaven, but it will eventually be seen as a difficulty.”

In other words Macron's new pop-up party will at some point be beset by the same problems that afflicted his opponents and enabled him to take power.




German Greens’ chancellor candidate Baerbock targeted by fake news

With Germany's Green party leading the polls ahead of September's general elections, the ecologists' would-be successor to Angela Merkel has become increasingly targeted by internet trolls and fake news in recent weeks.

German Greens' chancellor candidate Baerbock targeted by fake news
The Greens chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock on April 26th. Photo: DPA

From wild claims about CO2-emitting cats and dogs to George Soros photo collages, 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock has been the subject of a dizzying array of fake news, conspiracy theories and online attacks since she was announced as the Greens’ chancellor candidate in mid-April.

The latest polls have the Greens either ahead of or level with Merkel’s ruling conservatives, as the once fringe party further establishes itself as a leading electoral force in Europe’s biggest economy.

Baerbock herself also consistently polls higher than her conservative and centre-left rivals in the race to succeed Merkel, who will leave office after 16 years this autumn.

Yet her popularity has also brought about unwanted attention and a glut of fake news stories aimed at discrediting Baerbock as she bids to become Germany’s first Green chancellor.


False claims

Among the false stories circulating about Baerbock is the bizarre claim that she wants to ban household pets in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Another fake story firmly denied by the party claimed that she defied rules on mask-wearing and social-distancing by embracing colleagues upon her nomination earlier this month.

Baerbock has also been presented as a “model student” of Hungarian billionaire George Soros – a hate figure for the European far-right and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists – in a mocked-up social media graphic shared among others by a far-right MP.

More serious online attacks include a purported photo of Baerbock which in fact shows a similar-looking naked model.

The Greens’ campaign manager Michael Kellner said that the attempts to discredit Baerbock had “taken on a new dimension”, that “women are targeted more heavily by online attacks than men, and that is also true of our candidate”.

Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock earlier this month. Photo: DPA

Other false claims about the party include reports of a proposed ban on barbecues, as well as plans to disarm the police and enforce the teaching of the Quran in schools.

While such reports are patently absurd, they are potentially damaging to Baerbock and her party as they bid to spring a surprise victory in September.

“She has a very real chance, but the coming weeks are going to be very important because Baerbock’s public image is still taking shape,” Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University told AFP.

In a bid to fight back against the flood of false information, the party has launched a new “online fire service” to report fake news stories.

READ ALSO: Greens become ‘most popular political party’ in Germany

Russian disinformation

Yet stemming the tide is no easy job, with many of those who peddle disinformation now using private messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram rather than public platforms such as Facebook.

The pandemic and ongoing restrictions on public life will also make it harder for the campaign to push through their own narratives at public events.

Miro Dittrich of Germany’s Amadeu-Antonio anti-racism foundation claims that lockdown has “played a role” in the spread of fake news.

“People are isolated from their social environment and are spending a lot more time online,” he said.

Another factor is Russia, which has made Germany a primary target of its efforts to spread disinformation in Europe.

According to the European anti-disinformation platform EUvsDisinfo, Germany has been the target of 700 Russian disinformation cases since 2015, compared to 300 aimed at France and 170 at Italy.

As an outspoken critic of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, Baerbock may well become a target of such attacks during the election campaign.

By Mathieu FOULKES