French president Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party lost its parliamentary majority on Tuesday when 17 left-leaning, environmentalist and feminist dissidents set up a new political group in the National Assembly.
Paula Forteza, co-chair of Ecologie Démocratie Solidarité (EDS), said the new group’s proposals included a temporary wealth tax to help the country through the coronavirus crisis and universal income payments to everybody over 18 years old.
“We are at a historic turning point,” she told a news conference by video. “We want this exit from the crisis to be marked by environmental and social justice, not by a purely economic or short-termist plan.”
The split leaves Mr Macron’s liberal La République en Marche (LREM) with 288 seats in the National Assembly, one short of an absolute majority. But it does not so far threaten the government’s ability to legislate, because the ruling party can still rely on the support of 46 members of parliament from François Bayrou’s centrist Modem party.
Nor are the dissidents establishing a formal political party or a group that sees itself as part of any official opposition. “It’s a group of proposition, not of opposition,” said Matthieu Orphelin, who co-chairs it with Ms Forteza. Emilie Cariou, one of the 17, said she was “for the moment” still a member of LREM.
Although the government will retain control of the country’s legislative agenda, the creation of EDS is the latest sign of unease in the ranks of the ruling party, whose MPs were swept to power in the June 2017 legislative elections on the back of Mr Macron’s surprise victory in the presidential contest the previous month.
Those elections three years ago shattered the power of the established parties at the national level, with the centrist Mr Macron claiming that he was “neither left nor right” and would remake the political landscape.
Since then, however, some environmentalists and former Socialists in LREM have become disenchanted with Mr Macron’s economic reforms. These include the abolition of the country’s wealth tax and a contentious plan to simplify the pension system that has since been put on hold, and with what they see as his failure to champion green causes with sufficient vigour. They fear they will be punished by voters in the next round of national elections in 2022.
The latest defections would complicate Mr Macron’s efforts to reinvent himself and move “towards a more environmental, soft-left, protectionist agenda before 2022”, said Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group, a consultancy.
He said Mr Macron knew the coronavirus crisis and its economic aftermath had made his re-election in two years’ time a tougher proposition.
“His principal claims to success — labour market and other reforms which created tens of thousands of new jobs and brought unemployment sharply down — will seem meaningless if many thousands of people lose their jobs in the next six to 12 months.”
As a party newly created by Mr Macron, LREM has shallow roots in the local politics that is a crucial part of the French system of government, and its candidates did poorly in the first round of nationwide municipal elections in March. The second round has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but may be held in June.
The 17 dissidents, 11 of them women, repeatedly emphasised the importance of the “territoires” — the French regions beyond Paris — and called for more decentralisation. “None of us here is betraying their commitments of 2017,” said Hubert Julien-Laferrière. “In fact for some it will even be a matter of reconnecting with voters alienated since then.”
A 15-point manifesto released by EDS lays out a range of green and leftwing demands, including a €5bn transfer of funds over three years to local authorities for ecological and social projects, the protection of animal rights, compulsory paternity leave and the “reshoring” of industries in France and Europe.
Mr Macron, whose supporters failed to persuade the dissidents to stick with the government, made no immediate comment. But his finance minister Bruno Le Maire said he regretted the split and blamed parliamentary “wheeling and dealing”. He said: “I’m sorry that some people want to re-establish a left-right division that we tried to move beyond in 2017.”