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As Macron's Strength Grows In France, May's Popularity Wanes In Britain

Jun 18, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to start the program today across the Atlantic, where we'll check in on two cities, London and Paris. For newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, it's the best of times. Exit polls show his party is poised to claim a strong majority in the lower house of Parliament.

But across the English Channel, it is a very different story. British Prime Minister Theresa May's party not only lost its majority in the most recent elections, her response to a deadly fire at an apartment block has caused her standing with the public to fall even further. And all of that happened before she's set to begin negotiations for the Brexit, the U.K.'s departure from the European Union.

To help us understand all this, we've called NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thanks so much for joining us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: And NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who is in France. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: And we're going to start with you. Tell us about the latest election results today. How big a victory is this for President Macron?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it's big. It's a solid majority in the 577-seat lower house of Parliament called the National Assembly. Macron's party needed to get 289 seats and it got 315. However, Michel, it's not the tidal wave that many were predicting after last week's first round of voting. Some talked about, you know, as many as 450 seats. The French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, just spoke. Here he is.

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PRIME MINISTER EDOUARD PHILIPPE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Now, Philippe said, "we have a clear victory, and it's clear the French chose optimism and hope over pessimism and anger." He says one year ago - and that's about when the party was created - no one imagined such political renewal in the country.

MARTIN: You know, I do want to point out though that Macron recruited a lot of non-politicians for this new party. And as I understand it, the turnout was low. Do we have that right?

BEARDSLEY: It was low. It was a historic low, 57 percent, they're saying, abstention rate.

MARTIN: So could those factors, the fact that he has brought a number of political novices to the scene and the fact that turnout was low, could those factors hurt his ability to advance his agenda?

BEARDSLEY: Well, low turnout is never a good thing. And then the prime minister spoke to that. But he said, this gives us, you know, an ardent - even more ardent desire to succeed. But, Michel, the fact that these are non-politicians, the French are delighted to see representatives who are regular working people and have no idea how to be a professional politician, so that won't hurt him at all.

MARTIN: So let's go to London now with Frank. The elections in the U.K. did not go nearly as well for Prime Minister Theresa May's party. Two months, ago she called a snap election, looked like she was headed for a landslide. Now, she's lost her parliamentary majority. So what's been going wrong for her?

LANGFITT: Pretty much everything, Michel. She ran a terrible - an epically terrible campaign by all assessments here. Last week, things got a lot worse with that tower fire that you mentioned, the numbers so far - 58 people dead. The day after the fire, Theresa May went to the neighborhood, talked to firefighters but not to residents because apparently there were security concerns. But people in the neighborhood were furious with her for not coming to see them, some called her a coward.

The residents have also been deeply critical of the relief effort there. You've got to keep in mind, this is Kensington and Chelsea. This is the richest borough in the entire country. Here's one of the volunteers who was helping out at one of the community centers. Her name is Nisha Parti. She's a film producer. And she was speaking on ITV today.

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NISHA PARTI: Victims were going to hotels with no one from the council to greet them, to check them in, to look after them, to give them clothes and food. Volunteers are now going to hotels with food packages, with cash that they're trying to find because they have nothing.

MARTIN: Obviously, you know, politics isn't, you know, top of the mind at a time like that. But, Frank, even having said that, can she form a government? Can Theresa May form of government? And does it appear that she will survive?

LANGFITT: Yes and yes. Yes to the government. She's talking with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Irelands (ph) - she's got - Northern Ireland. She's got a couple of days now until Wednesday's queen's speech, where she's going to basically lay out her legislative agenda. But the Democratic Unionist Party only has 10 seats in the House of Commons. And this is seen as a very unstable alliance.

In terms of survival, probably for a while. And the reason, even though her - basically people are very unhappy with her, there are two main reasons. One reason she could survive is if the Conservative Party were to drop her, it trigger another election which the Conservatives are almost certain to lose to the Labour Party.

And the other thing is nobody really wants this job right now. Going into Brexit, this is seen as a poisoned chalice. And I think, frankly, the political calculation of her rivals in the party would be to let her, frankly, get into trouble and then kind of swoop in and try to save the day.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of Brexit, the negotiations open tomorrow in Brussels. So, Frank, what does all this mean for the U.K. - the plans for the U.K. to leave the European Union?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, she lost that majority, so she just doesn't have the political clout that she had before to drive - what she wanted was a sharp break with the European Union. People think what we're going to see is something softer. And it's not clear exactly what it will be, but generally speaking, it'll be an effort to basically put preserving jobs in the economy over slashing immigration.

And this should be somewhat interesting for Americans because President Trump, of course, has made immigration and trade deals very much at the forefront of his agenda. The United Kingdom is further along in this process, so what's going to be interesting to see is how they untangle themselves from the European Union. And what is the impact economically on Great Britain?

MARTIN: So, Eleanor, before we let you go, how is France looking at Britain right now? Do other EU members see an opportunity to take advantage of the situation as the U.K.'s weakened government starts these negotiations?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Michel, there was genuine sadness and regret on the continent when Britain pulled out of the EU. And President Macron told the prime minister, Theresa May, last week when she visited Paris that the door was still open. So there's not a desire to take advantage of Britain or anything, but there is - clearly, the Europeans are not going to let Britain have a free ride. You know, you cannot have all the benefits of this 500 million market - person market without the obligations.

And the EU is going to want to send a clear signal as well to any other countries who are perhaps thinking of leaving the EU that it's not an easy thing to do. And you have heard talk of excitement over many companies who would leave London, international companies, and maybe come to Paris or Amsterdam or Berlin. So there is talk about that, too.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.