Rising generation of young lawmakers stake their claim in French parliament
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The June 2022 French legislative elections have seen a new generation of young, mostly angry lawmakers angling for influence in the National Assembly. Does this spell a real break from the past or merely the rise of hung parliament theatrics for France?
As Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne delivered her first, much-awaited address to parliament on Wednesday, the head of France’s minority government faced a raucous opposition, forcing the 61-year-old politician to soldier on through chants, taunts and jeers.
Among the 577 recently elected lawmakers in the National Assembly, France’s lower house, were a crop of young parliamentarians aged below 35.
Some were new, but there were also many familiar figures in the ranks: from the feisty Adrien Quatennens, 32, from the hard-left France Unbowed; to the measured, former government spokesman Gabriel Attal, 33; to Jordan Bardella, 26, a protégé of Marine Le Pen, president of National Rally. The 30-somethings also included Mathilde Panot, 34, MP for Val-de-Marne and a familiar pugnacious figure from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party.
The rising tide of young lawmakers has been a fallout of the collapse of France’s traditional left and conservative parties, according to Hakim el Karoui, senior fellow at the Montaigne Institute.
The trend began in 2017, when Emmanuel Macron swept to victory in the presidential polls at the head of a brand new political movement-turned-party that swept votes from the two traditional parties. “When the Socialist and the Republican parties fell apart, it left room for young people to enter politics,” he explained.
Emmanuel Rivière, director of international studies at Kantar Public, attributes the phenomenon to the widespread loss of respect for politicians. “To think one has to be experienced in politics to be effective, you had to have the feeling politicians were effective, and the previous generations failed at creating a climate of trust,” he said.
Rivière however traces the trend to a decade before Macron’s first victory in 2017 polls, when Nicolas Sarkozy, at 52, won the 2007 presidential election.
“When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected, that seemed young in comparison to [his predecessor] Jacques Chirac, and when Emmanuel Macron was elected that seemed even younger. Political destinies are being decided much earlier now,” he noted.
‘Parity has grown in importance’
On Wednesday, as Borne at times struggled to be heard over the tumult in parliament, National Assembly president Yaël Braun-Pivet had to interrupt three times to bring the house back to order.
The episode highlighted another trend: the feminisation of French politics. Besides the prime minister and the president of the National Assembly, five vice-presidents out of six in the National Assembly are women.
For Rivière, there is a clear connection between women and young politicians being placed into positions of responsibility. “When the deputies from the Republicans lost their seats in the Assembly, it opened up possibilities and made room for women,” he said.
“The question of parity has grown in importance, and there are more women with the renewal that began in 2017,” agreed El Karoui.
But many experts are not sure if the crop of young lawmakers can invigorate French politics. “I’m not sure that the generational renewal will change anything. Macron was voted into power when he was only 39 years old, he promised a break from the past but his way of doing politics remained very classical. He also abused his power a little when he was in the Élysée [presidential palace] and had the majority in the National Assembly,” said Rivière.
Following Borne’s speech, Mathilde Panot, president of the France Unbowed group, took the podium and accused the prime minister of “fleeing” the traditional vote of confidence, the political tradition of the prime minister allowing deputies to accord him or her confidence through a vote, a step that Borne eschewed. Throughout the virulent speech questioning the prime minister’s legitimacy, Borne, her face covered with a black mask, remained impassive, simply raising her eyebrows from time to time.
Politics cannot be reduced to a question of age. Even so, the generation of young lawmakers in the National Assembly could infuse some excitement among young voters. Absenteeism among the 25-34 year old age group reached 71% during the first round of parliamentary elections.
Therefore, having politicians in the National Assembly who resemble and listen to young voters could help. On the other hand, warned Rivière, “If the National Assembly is an assembly of blockage, an institution that doesn’t do anything, which politicians use as the theatre for their opposition, then it can only reinforce people’s withdrawal from political life.”