The Straits Times says

Time for France to march forward

Asked to show up at polling booths for the fourth time in six weeks, French voters registered their fatigue with a turnout of just under 43 per cent, the lowest in the history of the Fifth Republic. Nevertheless, the tide flowing towards President Emmanuel Macron and his La Republique en Marche party was unabated. Together with its ally, the party took no fewer than 350 seats in the 577-strong National Assembly - the biggest majority in 15 years. About 40 per cent of the seats will be held by women, up from a quarter. As befits a party led by a 39-year-old, a good many of his legislators are parliamentary first-timers. Going by market sentiments, the parliamentary elections have been a mood-lifter for France and, in some ways, Europe.

With the waffling Socialists decimated and the parliamentary numbers he has amassed, Mr Macron is in a good position to effect changes. His unambiguous positions on the economy and towards Europe, from the start of the presidential campaign, will help him to move speedily to free up France's sclerotic labour market as well as to drive European integration. The new Parliament will have its first sitting next Tuesday and Mr Macron has promised to place labour market reform at the top of his agenda. A jobless rate double that of Germany and Britain demands urgent action, even if a labour code of more than 3,000 pages makes reform no easy task.

The European project also warrants attention. On June 11, Ukraine's 45 million people were permitted visa-free travel to the 27 European nations covered by the Schengen Agreement. With this move, Europe has not only thumbed its nose at Russia, which is keen to keep Kiev under its sphere of influence, but also drawn the continent's largest nation (by land mass) closer to the European Union. This could well be a watershed moment in Europe's political evolution. What is more, Britain's putative exit gives Europe an opportunity to regroup. Undoubtedly, Mr Macron will want his nation to stay in the centre of things. After all, it was French vision that seeded the European project in the first place.

Why must Mr Macron hurry? Reform, especially of the sort he contemplates, is best accomplished when a new leader is enjoying a honeymoon period with the electorate, and when the opposition is in disarray. Mr Macron is fortunate too that he inherited an economy in the midst of a cyclical upturn - helpful to make tough measures politically more acceptable. Finally, the anti-EU figures he bested in the presidential poll - Ms Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far left - have both entered Parliament for the first time. Their attacks will soon begin. Already, Mr Melenchon has questioned his legitimacy, citing the low voter turnout. Surely, Ms Le Pen cannot be far behind.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline 'Time for France to march forward'. Print Edition | Subscribe