This week’s Canard enchaîné reports that Emmanuel Macron—along with Richard Ferrand, the president of the parliamentary group of La République en marche—are struggling to control the left-leaning members of the governing majority who are hoping to revive the social-democratic component of Macron’s politics of “et de droite, et de gauche.” Above all, it seems they are hoping to prevent the emergence within En Marche! of a group of frondeurs, as the renegade left-wing members of the Socialist Party under François Hollande were known. “The [République en marche] group … has to exist as a bloc,” Macron is reported to have instructed Ferrand to tell his troops in the National Assembly, “the general interest has never been to create clans, cliques, or sub-groups. We can have circles of debate and reflection, but there must be an absolute and total unity when it comes to the vote!”
The trouble for Macron is that even now, over six months into his presidency, it is still not completely clear what exactly his legislative program is beyond his well-known labor and tax reforms. As Art has noted in some of his recent posts, Jupiter keeps his long-term intentions largely to himself, and each new development, such as Macron’s surprisingly (at least for some) harsh stance on immigration, risks disappointing most of all members of his own movement. Some dedicated marcheurs, of course, were in it from the beginning to loosen up the code du travail. But many others were drawn to Macron for more idealistic reasons that are now easy to disappoint. They may have been committed believers in the Scandinavian “flexicurity” model that Macron claimed to support—today, we see much more flexibility in the works but not a lot of security. Or they might have rallied to Macron out of a more general taste for political rejuvenation, in the hopes of seeing some of the more conservative elements of France’s political system give way to a “start-up” culture of bold risk-taking—only to see Macron become just another Président de droite. Macron may not have completely lost his following as of today. But given the ambiguity and vagueness of what he had originally offered his supporters—both in the Assemblée and in the electorate—it is clear why Macron may be worried that they may soon slip from his grasp.
Something quite different is going on in the other major political movement that arose in French politics in 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing La France insoumise, now also a group in the Assembly, though with 17 députés far smaller than LREM. Ask nearly any insoumis.e, and he or she will tell you that when it comes to the issues, the movement is 100% unified. Not everyone may like Mélenchon’s bluster (though many love it), but almost every member will profess allegiance to the movement’s program, entitled L’Avenir en commun. Though in a sense it is a classic party line—when asked their position on a particular issue, some LFI legislative candidates have felt no need to do more than to cite the document—it was created through a collaborative process, in which anyone could submit proposals online during the early stages of Mélenchon’s presidential candidacy last year. LFI militants today remain enthusiastic about the program’s positions on socioeconomic issues, the environment, and constitutional reforms, and have pledged to maintain a “permanent campaign” to promote these positions. In contrast to LREM, whose leaders fear a splintering into various factions, LFI has had little trouble maintaining at least the appearance of unity around a common set of proposals.
Unity within a political institution is in itself neither good nor bad. It may in fact be better for LREM’s long-term existence that it learn to accommodate both the left- and right-wing versions of centrist politics that the candidate Macron had promised; as for LFI, it is of course easier to remain unified when you are only 17 députés out of 577. But what I think this contrast helps highlight a crucial difference between political parties in their more classic form and political “movements” as we have become accustomed to viewing them in recent politics.
One feature of movement politics that has been much discussed recently is their element of charisma: they are often the vehicle for a single political personality, whether Macron, Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, or Sebastian Kurz in Austria (look out for the interview with Jean-Claude Monod on this blog for more on charisma and political leadership). Some have also pointed to their tactics of grassroots engagement or the mobilization of enthusiastic young supporters. But what I think we’re seeing here is that another feature of movements is precisely this sense of unity around some common goal. Much of the frustration with the traditional parties may have to do with the fact that as large political organizations that represent very heterogeneous coalitions, they have given the impression that they have neither a program nor a general set of ideals to implement once in power. Nowhere is this probably more true than in the US, where under a two-party system the parties can hardly hope to promise more than sprinkling little favors to the various voting groups they represent (or in the case of wealthy donors, somewhat bigger favors). Macron’s movement is suffering today both from the exigencies of transitioning to governing power—and thus having to look more and more each day like a party—and also from the fact that what had unified his movement was always more ephemeral. Mélenchon, in opposition and with a committed grassroots base, can in contrast maintain the sense of a permanent movement culture. Macron probably wishes he could do the same, but if he is counting on doing so by using the likes of Ferrand to strongarm the left wing of LREM into line, well, good luck to him.
Photo Credit: MathieuMD, Meeting Mélenchon Toulouse, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.