LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - French voters are handing President Emmanuel Macron a flawed mandate to overhaul the economy. His party, La Republique En Marche!, pulled off a stunning coup on Sunday by topping the first round of polls little more than a year after it was founded. It looks set to win a big parliamentary majority after the second-round vote on June 18. But this is not quite the ringing endorsement of his economic reform proposals that it appears.
Macron has been straight with voters about his reform plans and unveiled proposed changes to labour laws before the first round of elections for the 577-seat National Assembly. That’s a contrast with his predecessor Francois Hollande. The Socialist declared the world of finance was his enemy during the 2012 campaign but changed course part-way through his tenure, embracing labour reforms that were opposed by some within his own party, let alone trade unions.
Macron’s government is therefore likely to have a stronger hand when it comes to negotiating contentious changes to the labour code, such as expanding the range of issues that can be decided at company level rather than sector by sector, or limiting compensation awards in unfair dismissal cases.
But there’s no easy ride ahead. The surest indication of this is the abstention rate in the first round, which was more than half, according to Interior Ministry figures based on a partial count of votes. That’s partly because of a lack of real mainstream alternatives.
The mainstream Socialists and the centre-right Les Republicains have been in disarray since their candidates were knocked out in the first round of the presidential elections in April. Chaos in the two parties was compounded after Macron raided their ranks to form his government. Adding to the electoral confusion, some candidates are running in the legislatives under the banner of a mainstream party but say they are willing to cooperate with the new one.
This may explain why so many people abstained and leaves Macron with a potential problem. Those who stayed away from the ballot box may be more willing to express their views on the streets once he starts rolling out his reforms. That is when he will discover how many of his new allies are really fair-weather friends.