Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party has begun to crumble at the edges in a sign of the domestic difficulties piling up for the French president as his popularity ebbs.
Members of parliament are abandoning La République en Marche (LREM) ahead of local elections next month, when Mr Macron’s followers are expected to do poorly nationwide. After three defections last week the party now has 300 members of the National Assembly, down from 314 at the start of its term and falling towards the 289 representing an absolute majority in the lower house of parliament.
Recent opinion polls show less than one-third of the French now view Mr Macron favourably, and voters in the municipal elections are expected to hand unprecedented gains to Marine Le Pen and her extreme right Rassemblement National as well as to the greens on the ecological left.
LREM scored a landslide parliamentary victory in 2017 in the wake of Mr Macron’s remarkable rise to the presidency in his first campaign for elected office. The liberal party’s rise left France’s more established political parties in tatters.
But now some of those who embraced Mr Macron and his political revolution have lost faith in the president’s party.
Frédérique Tuffnell, elected in Charente-Maritime on the west coast three years ago, said as she quit the party last week that she had reached a “point of no return”. She expressed frustration over the way the government was forcing through its radical reform of the pension system and failing to address environmental issues.
“There have been many defections,” said Matthieu Orphelin, who was one of the first MPs to leave a year ago, citing environmental concerns in the aftermath of the resignation of Mr Macron’s environment minister Nicolas Hulot.
“There was a syndrome of us all being very well behaved because we didn’t want to cause problems for the government, but today there are lots of members of parliament who don’t want to play that role.”
The ability of Mr Macron’s government to pass vital legislation is so far not seriously at risk, political analysts say. LREM can rely on the votes of a smaller party — François Bayrou’s Modem — while most of those who have quit remain broadly sympathetic to Mr Macron’s liberal agenda.
But the exodus of disgruntled MPs ahead of the municipal polls illustrates the political storm clouds gathering for Mr Macron and LREM’s leaders as they contemplate the next presidential and legislative elections of 2022.
More than 15 months of demonstrations by the gilets jaunes — the movement began with motorists complaining about a green tax on fuel, but later developed into broader anti-government protests — have been followed since December by disruptive public sector strikes and marches against Mr Macron’s pension reform. Trade unions have announced another big strike day for Paris on Monday.
The perception among leftwing demonstrators that Mr Macron is a neoliberal “president of the rich” has sapped the confidence of the large number of Socialists who abandoned their political home and lent their support to his “neither left nor right” movement back in 2017 as the popularity of the traditional parties collapsed.
“LREM is a movement that revolves around its leader and whose political positions are very unclear, except that it’s liberal,” said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist. “A whole current in the party thinks it’s going too far . . . They thought Macron represented continuity for [former Socialist president] François Hollande’s social democracy — and it’s not that at all.”
Mr Macron’s party and its local election prospects have been further weakened by the ambitions of some of its most prominent members as they seek office in town hall contests across France.
Cédric Villani, the MP and flamboyant mathematician who failed to win an internal party contest to stand as LREM’s candidate for mayor of Paris, defied Mr Macron to launch his own campaign, sapping the chances of Benjamin Griveaux, the officially anointed candidate and former government spokesman. Mr Villani has been expelled from the party while insisting this week that he remained “completely faithful to the spirit of En Marche”.
Even Edouard Philippe, Mr Macron’s prime minister, has joined with his former centre-right colleagues of Les Républicains to run for mayor of his home town, the industrial port of Le Havre.
For Mr Philippe the post would be an insurance policy in case he suffers the traditional fate of French prime ministers fired by their presidents as scapegoats for government failings.
Some LREM MPs, who joined the movement in the wave of enthusiasm for a new style of politics that accompanied Mr Macron’s rise, are uncomfortable with party discipline on unpopular laws. As hostility to the president has grown, they are also facing harsh realities of day-to-day political life — including personal abuse in the streets and attacks by militants and vandals on MPs’ constituency offices.
Bruno Bonnell, an entrepreneur and MP for Villeurbanne near Lyon who is campaigning there in the municipal elections, said it was clear that some people “literally hate” the president and transferred that feeling to his candidates — though he said most voters in the municipal elections were concerned with local, not national, issues.
Looking ahead three years, however, he warned that even if Mr Macron were re-elected president, LREM was unlikely to match its 2017 landslide.
“The biggest risk is that while we would have Macron leading the country in 2022, it would be with a completely different make-up of the National Assembly and the Senate,” Mr Bonnell said. “But that is the price to be paid for the development of democracy.”