La République en Panne

In early February 2017, Emmanuel Macron officially launched the campaign that led to his election as President of the Republic in Lyon. Last Saturday (18 November 2017), his party, La République en Marche (LRM), were back in town (or nearby at a conference centre in Chassieu) to formally adopt the party delegate-general and elect the bureau exécutif. I wrote in my last blog entry about Macron’s choice of Christophe Castaner to lead les marcheurs and offered an explanation as to why he, rather than Benjamin Griveaux is considered a better man for the job.

The choice, or perhaps more precisely, the way in which it was arrived at, has not been unanimously welcomed, however, by marcheurs, and last week a group of about 100 local organisers and party members announced they were leaving LRM because it had become a ‘top-down’ party with little evidence of democratic consultation of the membership – whoever they are. (I’ll come back to that in a minute.) Macron appointment of Castaner as his loyal lieutenant i/c the party appeared to them to confirm that LRM is in fact just another party like the others.

In Saturday’s Le Monde, Marc Lazar, professor at Sciences-Po in Paris, underlined the problems confronting Macron and the LRM in clarifying the role of the party and reconciling what he terms the necessary organisational verticalité and with the horizontalité promised to the grassroots. In Macron’s defence, on paper at least, LRM remains a fluid structure at the local level (see this blog entry), but the practice may be playing out in a different way to what members expected. That said, while the right-wing Le Figaro had delighted in les marcheurs’ discomfort, Le Monde presents a rather more nuanced picture of disgruntlement and disaffiliation here, set-off against enthusiasm and lively debate there. It’s a fragmented field. Put briefly, the leaders and members of a new political party are still trying to work out what it all means. What did anyone expect?

So, Castaner has his work cut out, defining his own role and relationship with the President of the Republic, with the executive, with the departmental organisers (référants) and the grassroots membership and their aspirations to influence policy. Is LRM simply an electoral machine or is it a cohesive and coherent party? And it’s worth noting that other political formations – Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise and Benoît Hamon’s M1717 – face similar questions about the role and direction of a political movement based, initially at least, around a presidential candidate.

These and other questions prompted Le Monde’s ‘Les décodeurs’ to look at the question of just how many members does LRM, or any of the other French parties, actually have? The answer is elusive. On Monday 20 November, Laure Bergé, LRM deputy for the Yvelines and party spokesperson in the National Assembly, claimed that the party still has 380,000 members. But this figure is not based on firm data, so much as signing up to the party’s website. And given that the party can offer free membership, the sky would seem to be the limit. More cautious voices within LRM suggest a ballpark of 100-150,000, while only 71,000 formally approved the party statutes in August.

Getting at firm figures for any political party is difficult, but Le Monde offers the following state of the parties:



Is La France Insoumise really the biggest party in France? It seems unlikely. The figure of 540,000 is based (again) on free clicks on the LFI website. And among the more established parties, there is also a gap between the numbers of members they claim and the card-carrying ones at a given census point. So, you can make of the figures what you want.

We will have a better idea of the number of active members of Les Républicains come December’s leadership contest, but over last weekend (18/19 November), the LR candidate at this year’s presidential election, François Fillon, confirmed his long-anticipated withdrawal from politics, a year to the day after his extraordinary triumph in the 2016 right-wing primary.

Fillon’s announcement took place at a meeting of Force Républicaine, the loyalist micro-parti  he founded in 2002. Fillon handed over the baton to Bruno Retailleau. Senator for the Vendée, where Fillon’s social conservativism and identity politics go down a storm, Retailleau is the chair of the LR group in the upper house and stood by the candidate throughout the worst moments of the presidential campaign, but it remains to be seen whether Force Républicaine will survive the retirement of its founder.

In handing the group on and without wading directly into the leadership campaign, Fillon made it clear that he believes that the political landscape cannot be left to Macron and the extremes (meaning LFI and the Front National), but that there needs to be a republican voice standing up for French identity. It is not entirely clear if Fillon means by this a vote for Laurent Wauquiez. Florence Portelli is a filloniste, whereas Wauquiez was one of Sarkozy’s protégés. For his part, Retailleau has echoed Fillon’s position, but again, without firmly committing himself to one candidate or another vote too.

All of which is good news for the LR leadership frontrunner Wauquiez and comes in response by two other heavyweights, Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, weighing into the debate. Sarkozy, Wauquiez’s political mentor expressed his concern that he needs to work harder to present himself as a future leader able to reunite  - rassembler  - a political family bitterly divided by the presidential campaign and by Macron’s victory. For his part, Juppé has made no secret of his admiration for the way Macron has conducted himself since his election. And on the left of the party, the macroncompatibles expelled from LR have announced the creation of a new party, Agir. Literally this translations as Act, but I quite like ‘Do something’.

Wauquiez’s campaign so far has been about anything but an attempt to ‘rassembler’ Les Républicains. Like his mentor in his 2007 presidential campaign and in the 2012 second round contest, Wauquiez has opted for a very clear droitisation around the issues of immigration and French identity. Either he has decided that the soft centre of his own party and the Union des Démocrates et Indépendants (UDI) are beyond redemption, or he is trying to steal the FN’s thunder. Probably both.

Until last weekend, his campaign had received very little attention at all from Marine Le Pen, who, when asked if she would seek to make any kind of electoral alliance come the 2019 European elections or for 2020’s municipals, simply refused to be drawn. That she changed her tune on RTL’s flagship politics programme on Le Grand Jury on Sunday might well suggest that Le Pen is uneasy about Wauquiez winning a large majority in the election and camping on her ground.  Above all, Le Pen floated the possibility of an LR-FN electoral alliance, which is also a tatctic to destabilise him and his reputation among the LR membership. Wauquiez has replied that, if elected, he’ll have nothing to do with her. We’ll see.

In other electoral news, this week, President Macron received all of the party leaders, one-by-one, at the Elysée this week to sound them out about a return, for the 2019 européennes  to a national ballot. European electoral law allows each country to carry out the election of MEPs as it sees fit. In 2003, Jacques Chirac and and his PM, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and interior minister Sarkozy changed the system in France from a national ballot to a series of regions, in a deliberate attempt to limit any gains the left might make in the 2004 election. Macron favours a return to a national election, but not all the parties are in agreement.

A suivre…