Five years later, have Macron’s political novices delivered the goods?

The last French legislative elections of 2017 gave substance to President Emmanuel Macron’s promise of political renewal, providing the country’s National Assembly with newcomers from the public. As their terms expire June 12-19, has the promised change materialized?

It’s been five years since Macron pulled a party out of its hat and triumphed in legislative elections, sending an army of political strangers to the National Assembly, the lower house of France’s parliament.

Macron, himself a relatively novice at the time, promised to regenerate French politics by injecting new blood into parliament. Its list of candidates included men and women in equal numbers. More than half were newcomers to politics – people in regular jobs who had never held elected office.

From this list, an impressive 308 were duly elected to the 577-seat assembly. The extraordinary result confirmed both French voters’ desire for change and their habit of giving newly elected presidents a viable majority.

French legislative elections © FRANCE 24

“In 2017, Macron succeeded in transforming a structural weakness into a communication asset,” said Étienne Ollion, a sociologist and author of a book on the last French legislature, noting that Macron’s promise of renewal and his absence from a party established rang with the protesting mood of the audience.

While Macron urged his lawmakers to “be proud to be amateurs”, his “newbies” were frequently mocked in the first months of the legislature, “often unfairly”, Ollion said, noting that gaffes and mistakes resulting from inexperience were mostly inconsequential.

“When people stutter because they’re not used to speaking in parliament, or they’re unsure about certain procedures, it’s okay,” he said. “If you want politics to be made by ordinary people, you can’t expect everything to be perfect.”

Members of the opposition have coined the phrase “Playmobil legislator” to refer to Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) MPs, mocking their unwavering loyalty to the president. The taunts were nothing new, Ollion said, describing the ‘Playmobil’ stunt as “just the latest moniker for MPs who are seen as always toeing the government line, like ‘yes-men'”.

Yet inexperience was inevitably a liability for the party’s newly elected legislators, lacking both expertise and connections. As a result, the few who knew how to navigate the National Assembly at the start faced little competition and were quickly able to access leading positions within the LREM group.

“Within LREM, those who came out of the ranks are those who already had some experience of politics, whether as elected officials or as their collaborators,” Ollion said. “It’s not a detail if you consider that Macron promised in 2017 to change politics by renewing the body politic.”

Success Stories and Casting Mistakes

While most of the early figureheads were defectors from the old right and left parties, notable exceptions included Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, a deputy from rural Haute-Vienne in central France who rose through the ranks to to become Minister Delegate for Transport, and Yaël Braun-Pivet, the new Minister for French Overseas Territories.

Things could easily have turned out differently for Braun-Pivet, a lawyer and association elected in 2017 to represent the Yvelines department south of Paris and who quickly found herself propelled to the head of the powerful law commission of the Assembly. National Assembly, a post usually given to seasoned legislators.

The political novice was ridiculed early on for mixing laws and decrees, and for comparing her fellow LREM legislators to couch potatoes, unaware that her microphone was on. But what Braun-Pivet lacked in experience, she quickly made up for in work ethic, while her position ensured her access to a large team of assistants and advisers.

“It’s an interesting case because it shows that with one or two assistants in normal times, French MPs don’t have the means to do their job effectively,” Ollion said. “If Braun-Pivet has succeeded, it is in large part due to the support she has received through her position.”

Yaël Braun-Pivet was recently appointed overseas minister in the government led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.
Yaël Braun-Pivet was recently appointed overseas minister in the government led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. © Francois Mori, AP

Inevitably, Macron’s army of newcomers has also resulted in its share of casting errors, none more spectacular than Joachim Son-Forget, the MP for French nationals residing in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, whose long list of exploits included body-shaming a fellow parliamentarian, posing with assault rifles, sharing the leaked sex video of a key Macron ally and ultimately supporting far-right candidate Éric Zemmour in the recent election presidential.

“What a chore to be a legislator!” the radiologist-turned-politician joked in a Le Monde profile two years ago, describing the MPs as “minor civil servants who are of no use”. Despite his contempt for the post, Son-Forget is seeking a new term, but this time without an LREM nomination.

So does Alsatian lawmaker Martine Wonner, so does Son-Forget a staunch supporter of controversial doctor and anti-vaxxer champion Didier Raoult. During her tumultuous tenure, she called mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 “genetically engineered junk” and accused both the government and health workers of perpetrating “crimes against humanity”.

“Just part of the decor”

While Son-Forget and Wonner are both extreme cases, talk of defections has been a recurring theme during LREM’s five years in power, underscoring the party’s difficulty in bridging the old left-right divide and keep its promise of renewal.

The policies pursued by Macron and his government have alienated many lawmakers, particularly from the left wing of the party. Others were disappointed with parliament and its relative weakness in a political system dominated by the figure of the president.

“While most of Macron’s newbies embraced their mission with enthusiasm, many felt relegated to the background,” Ollion said, pointing to widespread disappointment with parliament’s ability to pass change.

Key defectors included Matthieu Orphelin, one of the first LREM lawmakers to make a name for himself – and also one of the first to quit Macron’s party in protest at what he described as the government’s lack of ambition. government on environmental issues.

Orphelin, who supported the environmental candidate Yannick Jadot in the presidential election, is one of the 48 deputies who left the LREM group during the legislature – a record under the Fifth Republic instituted by General Charles de Gaulle. In May 2020, the unprecedented hemorrhage cost Macron’s party its absolute majority in the National Assembly.

Matthieu Orphelin photographed at the National Assembly in July 2017.
Matthieu Orphelin photographed at the National Assembly in July 2017. © AFP archive photo

Legislator Annie Chapelier, a nurse in the southern Gard department, left LREM earlier that year, castigating a party “out of touch and indifferent to the people” in which the base is supposed to “blindly obey”. She then published a vitriolic book denouncing an impotent parliament held hostage by lobbies.

“We are just part of the decor,” Chapelier told France Inter radio ahead of the upcoming legislative elections, in which she will not defend her seat.

Change the rules of the game

As France heads to the polls on June 12-19 to renew the National Assembly, Macron’s ruling party has chosen not to repeat its experience with political newcomers – rejecting any talk of a revival of French politics .

>> Explanation: How do legislative elections work in France?

Around 70 deputies elected in 2017 under the LREM banner either chose not to run for a second term or lost their investiture. These vacancies have been filled by Macron allies or people already familiar with French politics.

In retrospect, LREM’s political novices helped shed light on the nature of contemporary politics and its impact on the lives of elected officials, Ollion said, pointing to the threats made against members of the ruling party during the particularly turbulent years of Macron in power, marked by often violent violence. protests.

“It’s a world where you are no longer in control of your own life, where there is a constant dissociation between private life and public image, and where violence is constant, whether internal, by blows knife between colleagues, or external, with members of the public who insult, threaten and in some cases even attack their deputies,” he explained.

The experience of Macron’s “newbies” also revealed the limits of attempts to breathe new life into the institutions of French democracy at a time of growing voter disaffection, Ollion added.

“Political novices quickly found themselves constrained,” he said. “It is not enough to change personnel. We also have to change the rules of the game.”


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