Wanted: diverse National Assembly to counter domination of the presidency

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Through the havoc it wreaked on the established political system, the recent French presidential election showed the hunger that exists for democratic renewal. But if the Parliamentary elections later this month give Emmanuel Macron's government an absolute majority it would be a retrograde step to presidential supremacy and a compliant Parliament, argues Mediapart’s publishing editor and co-founder Edwy Plenel. That is why, he says, we need a pluralist National Assembly encompassing a diverse, democratic, social and environmental opposition.

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Emmanuel Macron is a minority president, having won the second round of the election thanks to a tactical or principled vote to keep out the far right. Now, through the leveraging effect of a Parliamentary election system in France that is both unfair and archaic, and which helps presidential government suppress pluralistic politics, he wants not just a majority but political domination after the two rounds of voting in the legislative elections on June 11th and June 18th. If he achieves his aim, for which his prime minister Édouard Philippe from the Alain Juppé wing of the French Right is actively campaigning, it would be bad news for French democracy and all those citizens who want to see it reinvigorated. That includes those who want to give the new government a chance.

Pluralism is part and parcel of a living, deliberative and participatory democracy. It allows ideas to hold sway, ideas that emerge from discussion, rational debate and an attentive listening to others. It leads to opposition that is stimulating because it is constructive and intelligent, bringing forward undervalued interests and little known causes. It forces a fragile ruling majority to do deals with active, acknowledged and respected minority groups. In summary, it is the inverse of those automatic Parliamentary majorities which, obtained through party discipline and the authoritarianism of the executive, have consistently harmed the country's deep yearning for a reinvigorated democracy, one that listens to the people's hopes and builds trust.

To limit the expression of such pluralism to the actions of a government made up of a mixture of partisan individuals, career politicians and competent professionals – none of which excludes them from being sincere and wanting to act and serve – is to increase the presidential dominance of our public life. By dint of becoming president of the Republic, a single man thus becomes the sole architect and guarantor of political, social, cultural and ideological diversity of a nation that is profoundly divided after a succession of missed opportunities over the last 15 years that have torn its social fabric apart. But who cannot see that it is this very obsessive search for a “presidential majority” that is the cause of those divisions, handing all power to a single individual rather than giving it back to the diversity of all? What did presidents Jacques Chirac (elected 2002), Nicolas Sarkozy (2007) and François Hollande (2012) do with their absolute majorities if not increase the feeling of democratic dispossession to the point they divided, broke and ruined their own political families?

For thirty years a blind and stubborn determination to continue with this outdated institutional vision has led to the far right being an impediment on our political life. The system's apparent authoritarian effectiveness – immense power is placed in the hands of the head of state, who is cast as the sacred guardian of national life – is just short term. It is simply built on sand, forcing the beneficiary of this power to continually play the game, like Sisyphus pushing his rock in vain. We can all see where this has led in the past and if the newly-elected president, carried away by his unexpected victory, forgets this then there is little doubt that he, too, will be forced to pay the price. In the second round of the 2002 presidential election the far right's Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jacques Chirac's opponent, received 5.5 million votes. Fifteen years later, the far right's vote in the second round of the 2017 election on May 10th had almost doubled to 10.6 million votes, despite a television debate performance by Marine Le Pen which laid bare the Front National's own brand of political violence. The figure is a testament to the disastrous presidencies of Sarkozy and Hollande.

As a beneficiary of what had gone before, Emmanuel Macron cannot claim to own the votes that voters cast in his favour to ward off the far right while not for a moment renouncing their own convictions in all their diversity. Having attracted just 18.19% of registered voters in the first round of the election (24.01% of those who actually voted), his original manifesto clearly does not attract majority support. His score in the second round represented just 43.61% of registered voters, which is less than half of the electorate, as more than 16 million people chose to abstain, spoil their ballot paper or leave it blank. This last figure represents a third of all those registered to vote, who themselves make up no more than 90% of all citizens of voting age. To oppose handing full Parliamentary powers to this new presidency, through the domination of an obedient majority in the National Assembly, is consistent with Mediapart's firm stance between the two rounds of voting, a refusal to confuse the advent of an authoritarian presidency with the prolonging of an incomplete democracy (see 'Saying no to disaster').

Having avoided the worst, the task of deepening democracy now means resisting the presidential fait accompli which supporters of Emmanuel Macron are seeking to achieve in this June's Parliamentary elections under the label of 'La République en marche' (LER). Their desire for domination stems precisely from this form of 'old politics' they claim to have broken with. It's no coincidence that the main architects of the movement come from the two parties who have practised this old politics for a long time, the left-wing Socialist Party (PS), in particular, but also the right-wing UMP (now Les Républicains), who have both mercilessly stifled the nation's political diversity.

Beneath the self-proclaimed novelty of Emmanuel Macron there lingers an old world that intends to save itself and which is being revealed by this legislative campaign. On top of the various compromises made in relation to the promised moral rectitude, of which the affair involving ex-PS member and key En Marche! figure Richard Ferrand is symptomatic even if it has not been established that it involves any legal wrongdoing, there also is the decision to spare key figures from the previous presidency. Former prime minister Manuel Valls and employment minister Myrian El Khomri, who was responsible for the controversial new labour law under President Hollande, and who between them represent the worst symbols of the previous presidency and are synonymous with humiliation and brutal politics, are thus facing no challenge in their constituencies from LER candidates in these Parliamentary elections.

Democracy cannot be reduced simply to the institutions that are associated with it. It implies a common culture, in other words concrete practices. In January 2017, speaking in the context of the coming presidential election, a seasoned observer of the decaying French political scene, this loss of confidence in an ideal which is running out of steam, made a plea for “faith” in Parliamentary “representation”. Insisting on Parliament's role as a “monitor of the executive to avoid excesses, failures and abuses of power” he concluded with the demand that “the main strands that make up democratic opinion should be represented inside it, so that no one can suppress and stop debate and no one can destroy the monitoring”.

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