French revolution set to give Parliament new look

Macron's expected win will mean many MPs are non-politicians, of minority origin, women

ST-JACUT-DE-LA-MER (France) • The unmistakable candidate stood out during a campaign stop in a traditional Breton seaside village.

"Ah, it's you!" a middle-aged woman called out excitedly as he worked potential voters at the market - as if he could be anybody else.

Mr Herve Berville - tall, gaunt and of African descent - survived Rwanda's genocide, was adopted by a Breton couple and studied at the London School of Economics. Just 27, he was snapped up last month by President Emmanuel Macron's political movement, La Republique en Marche, to run for a seat in Parliament from this north-western region.

Mr Berville is the face of a new type of citizen-candidate in France: One with no political experience, no allegiance to the traditional parties and an undefined, if firmly held, belief that France needs to change. Surprisingly, opinion polls before today's first round of national voting show that a majority of French voters may agree.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

Candidates like Mr Berville are part of a wave that Mr Macron hopes will complete the thorough transformation of France's political landscape. The young President has so far had few missteps, from the founding of his upstart non-party movement 14 months ago to his upset election victory last month.

A month ago, there were doubts about whether Mr Macron could come up with enough candidates, let alone win a majority. But a widely acknowledged strong beginning by Mr Macron has swept away the scepticism.

That showing has helped Mr Macron recruit dozens of non-politicians to run for him across the country: a famous female former bullfighter, a renowned mathematician, a fighter pilot, a former top paramilitary police commander, a handball champion, and lots of owners of small and medium-sized businesses. Many, exceptionally for France, are also minorities, and 50 per cent are women.

After the last election, one researcher found a mere 12 Members of Parliament of minority origin, barely 2 per cent of the legislature - hardly representative of France's diverse population.

Said Mr Berville, as he hurtled through the Breton countryside in a tiny subcompact driven by his campaign manager-friend: "That they took me, it's really a very strong symbol. It's a symbol of renewal. The citizens are waiting. They need to be heard."

Candidates like Mr Berville are expected to deliver a large majority to Mr Macron, according to pollsters. If so, they will most likely remake Parliament in an amateur mould to a degree never previously seen in the Fifth Republic.

Like Mr Berville, over 50 per cent have never held political office (only 5 per cent are incumbents), and their average age is under 50. Mr Berville is not even the youngest.

Mr Macron will need a big majority to push his reformist agenda - friendly to markets and France's social protections - through the Palais Bourbon in Paris, where Parliament meets.

But even more significant: The predicted majority for Mr Macron, 39, would put the finishing touches on the new President's dismantling of the parties that held power in France for 50 years until he came along.

Both right and left will wind up with small fractions of Mr Macron's total, if the polls hold. The far-right National Front - Mr Macron's run-off opponent last month - is now predicted to gain a mere handful of seats, perhaps including one for its defeated leader, Ms Marine Le Pen, in the far north.

So the traditional parties, discredited by years of low growth and corruption scandals, will have to do business with Mr Macron in Parliament if they are not to wind up merely yelling from the aisles. But with a potential 425 seats for La Republique en Marche in the 577-seat Parliament, he will most likely not need them at all.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'French revolution set to give Parliament new look'. Print Edition | Subscribe