Macron's Divide-and-Conquer Strategy

Can he pull off another election victory?

Emmanuel Macron leaves after the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, on May 10, 2016.
Emmanuel Macron leaves after the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, on May 10, 2016. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

In winning the French presidency in his very first run for office at any level, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron has already pulled off one political miracle. Now the question is whether he can work a second miracle by securing an absolute majority in the National Assembly—a majority he needs if he hopes to enact his ambitious program of reforms. With elections a day away, the odds of success are looking surprisingly good.

Macron chose to run as an independent rather than as a member of either of the two parties that have dominated French politics for the past 40 years, the Socialists on the left and the Republicans (as they now call themselves) on the right. Instead, he formed his own movement, En Marche!, to serve as a presidential vehicle. Since then, he has transformed that movement into a fledgling political party called La République en March (REM); polls show this new organization trouncing all other parties in the first round of the legislative elections on June 11. A recent survey by Ipsos (conducted between June 7 and 8) gives REM 31.5 percent of the first-round vote, followed by the Republicans at 22.5 percent, the far-right National Front (FN) at 17 percent, the far-left France Insoumise at 11.5 percent, and the Socialists slightly exceeding their dismal presidential performance at 8. While the ultimate complexion of the National Assembly will be determined by a second round of voting on June 18, and France’s complicated electoral rules make it difficult to predict the outcome, it seems almost certain that Macron’s REM will capture a majority or close to it.

So how did Macron—whose candidacy was opposed by three-quarters of those who voted in the first round of the presidential election and whose party is only a few months old—put himself in a position to achieve such a stunning victory? By choosing Édouard Philippe, a prominent right-wing Republican, as his prime minister, he blunted the desire of many on the right to seek revenge for the loss of an election they had believed was in their grasp. His decision to place primary responsibility for economic policy in the hands of two other Republicans further dampened any residual revanchism on the right. At the same time, he enticed a number of prominent center-leftists to join the government under a right-wing prime minister, cutting the ground out from under the Socialists, who desired to rebuild their party in the wake of the presidential debacle.

In short, Macron’s strategy has followed the classic recipe of “divide and conquer.” His nomination of Philippe, the mayor of Le Havre, to be his prime minister was his first step. At 46, Philippe, like Macron, is young for his position. Both are graduates of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, the training ground for France’s elite. Both boast private and public experience and have been politically ambidextrous: As a student, Philippe was briefly a member of the Socialist Party, while Macron played a key role in an important reform commission under Republican President Nicolas Sarkozy before joining the government of Socialist President François Hollande.

For Macron’s purposes, however, Philippe’s most-important asset is his close association with Republican stalwart Alain Juppé. A year ago, most observers expected that Juppé would be sitting where Macron is today. As the leader of the centrist faction of the Republicans, he was the odds-on favorite to win the party’s presidential nomination and then the presidency, which seemed all but certain to fall to the Republicans because of Hollande’s unprecedented unpopularity. But the party base—the kinds of people who turn out to vote in a primary, which the Republicans used this year for the first time to choose their candidate—chose the more conservative François Fillon, who failed to qualify for the second round of the presidential.

Many of Juppé’s followers preferred Macron’s program of market-friendly economic reforms, strong support for the European Union, and liberal positions on social issues to Fillon’s religiously tinged social conservatism and Thatcherite urge to slash 500,000 public-sector jobs. Some, even among Juppé’s lieutenants, called openly for Republicans to support Macron after both Juppé and Fillon were eliminated. Macron’s choice of Philippe as prime minister thus deepened the fissure that had already opened in the Republican ranks before the presidential vote.

This move was expected, but Macron’s next step was less predictable. In concert with his selection of Philippe, he chose two more Republicans, Bruno Le Maire and Gérald Darmanin, a former aide to Nicolas Sarkozy, to spearhead the economic reforms that will form the centerpiece of his presidency. Le Maire, a smart, youngish, literate technocrat, is cut from the same cloth as Macron and Philippe. As a candidate for the Republican nomination, however, he sought to appeal to the party’s more conservative base, but his wonkish approach to campaigning produced a disappointing fifth-place finish. This poor showing may have convinced him that he had no future in a party whose center-of-gravity seemed to be moving rapidly to the right, if not all the way to the extreme right—a bridge too far for the conservative but cosmopolitan, German-speaking Le Maire.

When it comes to splitting the right, Macron clearly has his eye on more than one of the many fissures in the Republican edifice. That there are so many cracks in what once seemed a solid blue wall is evidence of the damage done by the rise of the FN and Marine Le Pen. While her presidential bid fell short, her nativist nationalism has siphoned off support from the mainstream right, plunging the Republicans into disarray.

The defeat of Fillon, following the elimination of Juppé and Sarkozy in the primary, leaves the Republicans rudderless. Those who have not already thrown in their lot with the new president now have three options. Some, like Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, another failed presidential hopeful, and former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, favor a selective approach, supporting Macron on some issues, opposing him on others. François Baroin, who has the unenviable task of coordinating his fractured party’s legislative campaign, wants to reconstitute the Republicans as the implacable opposition to “Macronism,” just as its predecessor, the UMP, was the scourge of the Socialists. Finally, Laurent Wauquiez, who will probably become the party’s next leader, is tempted by a more radical third option: to transform the Republicans into a party built around hostility to immigration and a defense of France’s supposedly threatened national identity, with the aim of winning back voters who have defected to the FN.

Meanwhile, the FN is itself beset by internal dissension. Le Pen followed the advice of one of her lieutenants, Florian Philippot, to build her campaign around staunch opposition to the euro and the European Union. Until the final weeks, she remained true to that program but then seemed to hedge as it became clear that many voters sympathetic to her anti-immigrant stance shrank from the prospect of abandoning the euro. Now Philippot has launched his own “Patriots” movement and threatens to quit the FN if the party drops its anti-EU stance.

Further complicating the picture on the far right, Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, has said that there might be “things to be done” with a Republican party under Wauquiez’s leadership. For the time being, however, the younger Le Pen has withdrawn from politics, so the budding romance between the far right and the erstwhile “respectable right” may be nipped in the bud.

On the left, Macron’s divide-and-conquer strategy has split the Socialist Party even more effectively than it split the Republicans. There are four Socialists in the Philippe government, with Gérard Collomb in the key post of interior minister and Jean-Yves Le Drian in charge of foreign affairs. As for the Socialist party proper, polls suggest that it will at best do only slightly better in the legislative election than in the presidential, where it garnered barely more than 6 percent.

Macron’s government, which also includes three ministers from the centrist MoDem, thus carefully balances ministers of left, right, and center. In addition, it contains equal numbers of men and women and mixes career politicians with personalities who made their mark outside government, such as the very popular journalist, environmental activist, and television star Nicolas Hulot.

For the moment, 62 percent of the French say they are pleased with Macron’s initial steps. But his first real test will come when the freshly elected deputies are asked to authorize the government to reform the labor code under a process that allows changes to be pushed through on an expedited timetable. This maneuver will provoke strenuous opposition, especially from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left France Insoumise. Macron’s success has split Mélenchon’s party as it has split all the other parties: The Communists, who allied with Mélenchon in the presidential campaign, have abandoned him in the legislative race. But Macron has thus far proceeded with remarkable skill for a political novice, and it looks as though he will enter the battles that are sure to come in a much stronger position than seemed possible as recently as a month ago.

With his artfully composed cabinet, Macron hopes not only to win a majority in the National Assembly but also to reign as the ultimate arbiter in controversial matters. The French presidency was conceived by Charles de Gaulle as an office that would bestow great power on an individual with the prestige, shrewdness, and cunning, to play contending forces against one another. No president played the game more effectively than de Gaulle himself. Macron imagines himself in de Gaulle’s image—a man of destiny who will be able to outmaneuver all factions and place himself at the center of every crucial decision.