"A Masterstroke," "A Tsunami," "The Takeover." Newspapers in France summoned their best metaphors this morning to describe what already looks like a landslide — yes, another favorite electoral metaphor — in favor of Emmanuel Macron's party in yesterday’s first round of legislative voting.
Ahead of next Sunday’s second and final round, the new president’s party looks on target to have between 400 and 440 seats in the 577-member National Assembly. That would hand the 39-year-old president the largest majority enjoyed by a French leader under the current Fifth Republic, founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.
The remaining members in the parliament will likely be split between the three major remaining parties: center-right Les Républicains, far-right National Front, and far-left France Unbowed, while the Socialist Party that ruled for the past five years has been largely annihilated. At first glance, it seems as though an overwhelming majority of the French electorate has rallied behind Macron — a bold and talented newcomer — to give him carte blanche to push forward a sweeping series of reforms of the country’s economic and political system that many agree are long overdue.
Dig a bit deeper, however, and we see a less rosy picture for the state of French democracy: a record-high 51.3% of the electorate did not turn out to vote yesterday, the highest abstention rate in memory. The cold hard reality is that Macron will likely govern with an unprecedented majority based on the support of less than one in every five voters.
As Le Figaro notes in its editorial this morning, Macron has "dynamited it all." But beyond the questions about the democratic legitimacy of such a majority, the expected result raises concerns about how the unrepresented opposition will make its voice heard over the next five years. Especially when Macron is planning to use executive decrees to swiftly pass a labor reform that goes well beyond the one passed just over a year ago, and which had protesters bringing the country to a standstill for weeks.
A healthy democracy is more than freely elected rulers — it also must be nourished by a real opposition. On the other side of the European continent, this is a fact that Russians will express today, in the streets. All things being relative, President Vladimir Putin is a popular leader who was voted into office. But his ruling majority has long remained unchallenged in the halls of the country’s institutions. But today, on Russia Day, thousands are expected to take to the streets of major Russian cities in anti-government demonstrations, to show that when their voice can't be heard in the halls of power, opponents will always find other ways to speak out. The movement is led by Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption activist, who himself has reportedly already been arrested this morning, as he was in March during another nationwide protest.
Like everything that's man-made, democracy is imperfect. It requires finding a subtle balance between determination and care, action and patience, majority and opposition. Stifle your rivals and, sooner or later, they'll come back to haunt you. At that point, the temptation for either side is to take aim at democracy itself. Both French and Russian history have textbook examples of both.