French see no one to counter Macron

Elaine Ganley
Associated Press

Paris — Candidates in the runoff of French parliamentary elections hit the campaign trail on Monday, shaken by a record abstention rate in the first round and the prospect of a sweep by President Emmanuel Macron’s new party which would shatter the political landscape.

Less than half of registered voters cast ballots on Sunday, the Interior Ministry said in its final count the morning after. Those who did gave Macron’s the Republic on the Move party over 28 percent of the vote — more than 12 points ahead of the closest rival, the mainstream conservatives.

If the sweep holds as expected, lawmakers for Macron’s party, many of them new to politics, could take more than 400 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house — unprecedented in the Fifth Republic, like the 48.7 percent participation rate.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front fell flat with 13 percent of the vote. Le Pen, who had Europe on edge until she lost the May 7 presidential race, was trying to save herself and her party in the legislative contests. She moved to the second round in her northern bastion of Henin-Beaumont. But some ranking party members were eliminated outright, notably campaign director Nicolas Bay, the party’s secretary-general.

“Lots of voters thought that (the election result) was played out in advance,” Bay said Monday on CNews television, reflecting a sense expressed by others that the huge presidential win by Macron demotivated many potential voters. Macron, an upstart centrist, formed his On the Move movement less than 14 months ago then turned it into a political party, promising to return politics to the people.

Now, Macron’s rivals fear the elections will eliminate any effective opposition to counter an all-powerful president. He wants, within weeks, to start reforming French labor laws to make hiring and firing easier, and legislate a code of ethics in politics to end the scandals that over decades have eroded voter trust in the political class.

The Socialist Party of the deeply unpopular former President Francois Hollande was shredded in the first round, with its leader, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis eliminated along with Benoit Hamon, the party’s presidential candidate. The party took less than 7.5 percent of the vote.

Francois Fezeau, a 29-year-old Parisian, said the results so far “fill me with enthusiasm.”

“We had a recent (presidential) election which shook up the classic parties and I think that the legislative elections give Macron the possibility to show what he is able to do.”