A party of a new type...

One of the central features of the election of Emmanuel Macron and of his majority in the National Assembly has been the decline of the traditional party structure in France and the emergence of a new movement behind Macron, En Marche!  In this post I’ll focus on them and return to the other parties later on.

After his election in May and ahead of June’s general election, Macron’s En Marche! (with its annoying exclamation mark that sends grammar correcting features round the bend) became La République en marche, variously abbreviated to LRM, LREM or even REM. Le Monde uses LRM, and so shall I. The French media have also taken to calling LRM’s deputies and senators, as well as ordinary party members, les marcheurs, just in case you come across the term and it means nothing to you immediately. It’s certainly a much more useful shorthand than ‘members of LRM’.

LRM started, then, as a movement behind one man’s candidacy and no-one should underestimate its extraordinary achievements. For much of the election campaign, party headquarters were described by journalists rather disdainfully as resembling ‘un start-up’, whatever one of those looks like. But it delivered. There are explanations for how this was able to happen, but it is, all the same, remarkable.

Macron did a highly successful job first of drawing into his orbit figures from what we might call the ‘soft’ or social democratic left, particularly those who saw that the Parti Socialiste was heading for a traincrash or others who were repulsed by the policies of PS candidate Benoît Hamon. Since his election, Macron has turned out to be quite attractive to some on the soft right too, les macroncompatibles. Odd that.

It remains a moot point as to whether Macron would have gone through to the second round if François Fillon’s campaign had not been dogged by scandal. I have been reading François Fillon – Les coulisses d’une défaite (L’Archipel, 2017), by Matthieu Goar and Alexandre Lemarié, two Le Monde journalists embedded in the Fillon campaign. Their account gives one plenty of reasons to think that Fillon was not the shoo-in for the second round the pollsters and pundits thought.

In any case, Macron won, and the electoral logic of the Fifth Republic proved to be implacable. Winner takes (nearly) all. In June, LRM secured 309 seats in the National Assembly. Under the rules concerning state funding of political parties, LRM will receive an indemnity of roughly €36,000 per deputy, so a shade over €11 million. This does not include deputies’ salaries and other expenses, which are quite separate. LRM is cash rich and you can understand why membership is free.  

I have already mentioned in a previous blog post that the party held its inaugural congress in early July where the party membership were presented with the party statutes to take away, think about and vote on. The statutes (which you can find here) were not universally popular among les marcheurs and a small group tried to stop the process of adoption being steamrollered through the membership during the summer. They failed to halt the process altogether, but managed to get a delay.

 In the middle of August, the results were published, with 90% endorsing the document, although the disappointment for the party’s leadership was that only 72,000 of the 244,000 (32%) eligible members (i.e. having been members for more than three months bothering to vote. (It's worth noting en passant that the party's statutes themselves claim a memberhsip of more than 370,000.) If this seems a disappointing figure, it should be borne in mind that the timing was not ideal. Even if the French are no longer on the beach for the whole of August, mobilising the troops is not easy.

We know that one of Macron’s key ideas is to create a ‘new approach’ to politics, an approach that has already seen the bill on ‘remoralising’ political life pass through parliament (though not without some hiccoughs). And, in the same vein, it is intended for LRM to be a new kind of party, a party ‘pas comme les autres’. But how?

Well, I’ve read the 26-page document so that you don’t have to. It is a slightly odd document, because it reads backwards. Thus, while one might expect the party hioerarchy to be described from the top down, this begins from the bottom up. The reasons for this are obvious - to try and head off accusations of a highly centralised organisation. This is a citizens' party, it sez 'ere. We'll see how that goes.

On paper, LRM looks less like a party of a new type and more like a hybrid. In the past, when we have thought about French parties, we have tended to draw a distinction between two types. The mass party with a large, grass roots membership, organised in local federations, usually based on the structures of local politics – commune (village, town, city or urban district), département (the French equivalent of an English county, roughly speaking) and, latterly, région. But local variations in political support being what they are, these structures have not always been uniform even within a single party. Moreover, as you can imagine, local federations where support is high can sometimes become a tail wagging the dog of the party leadership.

You might think that I’m describing the parties of the left, here, but in fact the neo-Gaullist RPR, founded by Jacques Chirac in 1976, was not dissimilar. Chirac himself was a great admirer of the PCF. The alternative to the mass party (which I will willingly concede is not an entirely satisfactory description of the French Communist or Socialist parties), was in contrast to the cadre parties, mostly of the centre and right, parties that had élus, principally at the local level, relatively few card-carrying members but did have an electorate. The old Radicals, Independents and Centrists fitted this description.

Consciously or not, Macron and his immediate circle are trying to weld these two models together. There is a large membership, though whether it is really a mobilised one remains to be seen. And it will be organised into local committees. But organisation at the local level is intended to be ‘spontaneous’ if I can use that term. The LRM website calls the local committees the fundamental building brick, but the central party will not attempt to impose a pyramidal structure. It intends instead to allow members to create bodies of whatever size they think viable. So this might mean a committee within one commune, or one that groups several together, or might cover a whole department… And so it goes. Where there are issues of duplication in a locality, then the party might step in to rationalise the organisation, but the initial impetus is meant to come from LRM members themselves. In theory, it is perfectly possible that LRM structures in two neighbouring departments will look nothing like one another. Or might even be based on two departments…  And, the party makes it quite clear that no level of local organisation will have primacy over another. So a departmental committee will not be able to dictate to small committees within is local government jurisdiction.

What looks like (and is touted as) a decentralised, devolved and fluid structure, intended to empower citizens and be responsive to their demands, is also designed to prevent the creation of that salient feature of French politics, local baronnies or fiefdoms. Let’s just wait and see how long that lasts when the first LRM mayor wins a major city in 2020’s municipal elections. But of course, by keeping the local organisation fluid, the power of the centre is actually reinforced.

During his election campaign, Macron appointed a series of référants, local party agents sent out from party HQ to the departments, like later day Carolinigian missi dominici. These référants are supposed to act as conductors of information from the centre to the provinces, but also to feed information back to the centre and also to cultivate and nourish local committees. The party statues make it very clear, however, that the role of référant is entirely to do with facilitating and not at all to do with building a personal power base. To this end, the party has adopted rules limiting the length of time they (and other party officials) can be appointed and the number of terms they can serve is strictly limited. The subtext (if it is even that) is that LRM is a vehicle to win intermediate elections for Macron and prepare the way for 2022.

Then, suddenly, the statutes introduce the national Convention. However they are organised at the local level, all party members are part of the Convention, a notional meeting of the entire membership to which they can contribute either by a direct vote or through delegates. The framework for the convention has yet to be fleshed out, but you can guess what it will be like. The real direction of the party will come from it Conseil National, described in the statues as the LRM’s ‘parliament’ and by its bureau exécutif.

The Conseil National will be comprised of the party’s deputies and, should they get any in September’s partial renewal of the upper house, its senators. Any LRM maires of larger cities or the chairs of large groupings of local authorities will be ex officio members, while a proportion of maires of smaller communes will also be elected to the council. The référants will also be members de droit as they say in French.

There is also provision – and this is an innovation – for direct representation of the grass roots on the Conseil National, where the statues promise no fewer than one quarter of the seats will be for ‘ordinary’ members, drawn by lots and in such as way as to ensure gender parity.

And just as there is a party ‘parliament’ so there will be a government, the bureau exécutif. This comprises 20 members elected by the Conseil National and ten elected by those 20 from lists of ‘civilians’, i.e. women or men who are members of the party but hold no elected post. Membership of the executive is for a three-year term and can only be held three times. Atatched to, but not necessarily emanating from the bureau, the statutes also allow for the creation of délégués nationaux, specialist in a given area, who will lead the party debate over areas of policy.

In addition to these 30, the executive will include the party’s national treasurer and the final, crowning piece in the edifice, the délégue général, or indeed délégues généraux plural – the statues allow for the appointment of up to three. Now, the historically acute among you are thinking Consulate aren’t you? Well, who wouldn’t?

The title just sounds so 1792 and all that: the delegate-general. He, she, or they will be responsible for the day-to-day running of the party and are elected by the executive. They are elected for a three year term, but can only be elected twice. The choice of title is deliberate, of course. While The Republicans have a president and the Socialists have (or had) a general-secretary, LRM has gone for a new name for this party of a new type.

One final aspect of this new party that troubles me is the express will of its leaders to use it as a ‘média’, a conduit for information. We have already seen this spring and summer Macron’s apparent disdain for the mainstream media, a disdain which has cost him some of his popularity in the polls. The French might have a healthy méfiance towards the media (doesn’t everyone?), but what seemed an impressive display of presidential reserve has quickly come to be seen as haughty arrogance. The Jupiterian president indeed.

What the statutes do not and cannot explain is how the relationship between party and president, in particular between Macron and whoever the delegate(s)-general may be, will play out. But in the meantime, LRM is busy campaigning for the renouvellement partiel du Sénat at the end of the month.

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