There is an old saying in French politics that people vote with their hearts in the first round of a presidential election and with their heads in the second. This dictum no longer holds.
In this year’s election, French citizens voted tactically from the start, supporting the candidate from their own bloc who was most likely to win.
In the first round of the election in April, this dynamic advanced the presidential bids of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, with French President Emmanuel Macron holding the center.
Now, the pattern has been repeated in the country’s legislative elections.
In the second round, which was held on Sunday, the biggest winner was Le Pen’s National Rally, which increased its parliamentary representation from just eight seats to 89.
Never before under the French Fifth Republic has the far right’s star risen so high.
While the then-National Front won 35 seats in 1986, under the leadership of Le Pen’s father, that outcome could be dismissed as a one-off occurrence. By contrast, this year’s outcome underscores the National Rally’s increasing entrenchment in French politics and society.
The shock result — which surprised even the party’s leaders — can be explained by the French run-off system, wherein the two leaders in the first round face off against each other in the second. Faced with the prospect of having to pick between either the far left or the far right, centrist voters in many districts simply abstained. At the same time, many supporters of the far left or the far right went with the other extreme rather than voting for a centrist. Clearly, the “republican front” that once kept the far right at bay has fallen.
The National Rally is now to create a parliamentary group, which requires at least 15 seats in the French National Assembly, availing itself of additional benefits in terms of funding and access to positions of power. Until now, National Rally legislators have been known more for their absenteeism and incompetence than anything else, but that could perhaps change with the formation of a parliamentary group.
With 142 legislators, the far left can claim to be the main opposition to Macron’s administration.
It has assembled under the New Popular, Ecological, and Social Union (NUPES), a coalition of left-wing parties, including Melenchon’s France Unbowed, communists, socialists and The Greens. While these parties’ respective shares of the vote remained stable from five years ago, tactical voting by their supporters paid off, more than doubling their final seat count, which is up from 58 in 2017.
However, Melenchon fell short in his bid to become French prime minister. NUPES did not come anywhere close to the 289 seats (out of 577) needed to command an absolute majority; nor did it succeed in mobilizing young voters, who remained stubbornly absent.
Moreover, because Melenchon chose not to run for a parliamentary seat, it is an open question as to who will lead the left in parliament. With the different parties retaining their own groupings, there will be no official NUPES parliamentary faction. Will the alliance be able to sustain itself without its charismatic leader?
For his part, Macron can claim to have reached a number of “firsts” in his brief political career. In addition to being the youngest French leader since Napoleon Bonaparte and the first president to win re-election since Jacques Chirac in 2002, he is the first president since Francois Mitterrand in 1988 to have only a plurality in parliament.
Macron’s Ensemble coalition — comprising his own La Republique en Marche party, the MoDem party and the Horizons party — now have 246 seats, 43 short of an absolute majority. The question is how Macron and new French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne should go about implementing the government’s agenda.
Most immediately, Borne would need to reshuffle the government to account for the fact that three of its previous ministers were not re-elected, including former French minister for ecological transition Amelie de Montchalin, whose portfolio represented one of Macron’s top priorities.
However, Macron’s determination to push through his agenda should not be underestimated.
When he was first elected in 2017, he set two broad goals for his presidency: to reform the French economy and to increase public investment at the European level.
He has succeeded on both fronts. The French economy is one of the most dynamic in the eurozone, and the EU in 2020 adopted a COVID-19 recovery plan of 750 billion euros (US$788 billion at the current exchange rate).
To continue the progress he has made, Macron would need to find new allies in the National Assembly. Many Ensemble members are eyeing the center-right Republicans, whose 61 legislators would give Macron a majority.
However, a formal pact seems unlikely. Instead, Macron might look to strike ad hoc deals with the center left and the center right.
While there are disagreements between the parties on the retirement age (Macron and the right want to increase it to 65, whereas NUPES wants to lower it to 60), the divisions over cost-of-living issues and climate policy are matters more of degree than of kind.
For example, NUPES and the Republicans both support funding to retrofit 700,000 homes per year to improve energy efficiency and adapt to global warming.
Only time will tell whether the country can rediscover the spirit of compromise that marked the French third and fourth republics, where parliamentary democracy dominated, or face the same problems of inaction and gridlock that in 1958 led then-French president Charles de Gaulle to found the Fifth Republic, with a strong presidency.
Macron did promise a more horizontal, consensus-based approach to governance as part of his second mandate. One way to interpret the parliamentary election result is that voters took him at his word.
Hugo Drochon is an assistant professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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