Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election. Not only is he the youngest French president ever elected, but he was able to create his own political party – La République En Marche! – to defeat the traditional left and right French power structures. Similar to the success in the U.S. presidential primaries of the independent Bernie Sanders and to some extent Donald Trump in the general election, Macron’s win is further evidence of the decline of historical party organizations.
Political parties are not part of constitutions. They are based on custom more than foundational laws. Their programs evolve; even their names can change. The French UMP (the Union for a Popular Movement) was formed in 2002. In May 2015, the party was renamed and succeeded by the Republicans. The United States has had many parties that no longer exist – Whigs, Federalist, Progressive, Greenback, Free Soil. In other words, political parties are ephemeral; they rise and fall.
The independent Bernie Sanders was able to win 22 states in the presidential primary against the candidate of the regular Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton. Before running for president, Donald Trump backed Democrats and Republicans.
For a candidate to be on a ballot at the national or local level in the United States, certain legal criteria must be respected. The same is true in most other countries. Although there may be many splinter parties in a country, each party must show a minimum legal basis to be on the ballot. Each country’s political process has legal requirements.
How to create or maintain a party structure when modern technology de-empasizes institutional structures? How to reconcile legal requirements to be on a ballot in a world of heightened individualism? How to squeeze into a party platform the many desires of party members?
What makes the Macron election so unique, therefore, is that he was able to create a political party in less than three years. He did not merely change a name, such as from UMP to Republican, he was able to create an entirely new entity.
His success indicates a growing fluidity in many democratic processes, but not necessarily beyond the presidential election. While Macron was able to win the presidency, it does not mean that the La République En Marche! Party will be able to govern. The legislative elections coming up in France will show how far the new party will succeed when confronted by the traditional Republicans, Socialists or the Front National. Winning a presidential election does not guarantee that citizens will vote for the candidates of the same party in the legislature, especially if the party has no historical following.
While Donald Trump won the presidential election as a Republican, that party has not shown a willingness to follow him on all legislation. For the moment, he has not been able to unite all Republicans in both chambers to agree on a healthcare bill. Trump won the November 8 election on the Republican ticket, but it was and is obvious that he does not come out of the Party apparatus.
Macron’s party creation was audacious (does that word have a familiar ring to someone else?) and his personal victory most impressive. But his ability to govern will be better evaluated on the basis of the June legislative choices. While his personal victory was decisive, he must have substantial party backing to carry out his program. Being the youngest president elected merits appreciation, but it is not the same as a victory for a new political party. As Robert Redford asks at the end of the movie The Candidate (1972) after winning an election: “What do we do now?”
Macron’s victory, much like Donald Trump’s, is more a personal statement than a party affirmation. Macron and Trump also profited from the weaknesses of their opponents. But more importantly, governing is not running for office; individual triumphs are not party successes and administrating policy programs goes beyond charismatic individuals. Modern technology and individualism work against institutional operationalization. The decline of political parties is only one manifestation of those phenomena.