It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was both at the same time, according to the President. After a flaming hot weekend, there were thunderstorms, and the foundations of Macron’s castle were struck by lightning, This is a short primer on the results of the second round of the French parliamentary elections on 19 June, and how to understand them, and it follows on from my earlier article.
The results given by the Interior Ministry this morning are:
Ensemble! (Macron’s coalition ) 246
NUPES (Mélenchon’s coalition) 131
Rassemblement national (Le Pen) 89
Republicans (traditional Right) 61
Other Left 22
The Headlines are:
The Abstention Party won.
A stinging defeat for Macron’s coalition. Macron’s own party lost half its deputies.
A disappointment for Mélenchon’s coalition, after the feverish predictions of victory.
The RN finally broke through in a big way, and is the largest single opposition party.
The traditional Right suffered, but survived.
There is no obvious way to form a coalition government.
The overall political situation is even worse than predicted.
The Background is:
The French political system is unique in the world as far as I know. Its current form dates from 1958, when the Fourth Republic crashed and burned after a threatened military coup, related to the war in Algeria. (French politics is lively.) It consists partly of a strong executive Presidency, elected for five years after two rounds of voting, with the two highest-scoring candidates in the first round going on to the second. That happened in April, and Macron was re-elected.
Then there is the National Assembly, elected over two rounds of voting, also for five years, and that what Sunday’s elections were about. (There’s a Senate as well, not directly elected: we can leave that aside for now.) The respective powers of the President and the Government are more a matter of custom, than of exactly what the Constitution says. The French have a nice expression “regalian powers”— the powers that used to be held by rex, the King—and it’s these (basically foreign affairs, war and security) that have largely been reserved to the President, while the Government does the less glamorous stuff. But the boundaries have moved back and forth depending on individuals.
A President can appoint anyone he wishes to be Prime Minister, but that person must be able to command a majority in the National Assembly. In practice, that requires that parliamentary elections produce a majority from the President’s own party and its allies. That doesn’t always happen, and on several occasions over the last thirty years the President has been forced to appoint a Prime Minister from another political party: the French call this “cohabitation.” (There’s no official “Opposition” in France.) A government in trouble can call a confidence vote once per parliament, and if it loses, there’s another election.
The two-round system worked well enough in the days of mass political parties. The candidates who passed the threshold for surviving the first round (currently 12,5%) tended to be from the party of the Left and the party of the Right that had done best in each case. So if the Communist candidate was knocked out, they would (usually) ask their supporters to vote for the Socialist, and vice versa. Given the hopelessly binary, dualistic nature of French politics (and culture, actually), the system worked well enough. It started to break down with the decline of mass political parties in France, as elsewhere, and is now in pieces on the floor.
And finally, French politics is intensely personal and factional. The Left tends to be divided primarily by ideology, the Right mainly by personal jealousies and animosities. Apparently single “parties” often aren’t: Macron's party is actually a coalition of three parties under three strong leaders. Even within an apparently single party, there are tendencies and groupings with recognised leaders which can operate semi-independently. In the last National Assembly there were nine recognised “groups," and a couple of dozen independents.
The future is:
As clear as mud, at the moment. The French system, with its powerful executive, hasn’t been in such a position since the founding of the Fifth Republic. There is no obvious coalition from which a stable majority (289 seats) could be constructed. The Republicans, who could facilitate a small majority if they joined, are not interested. The most likely situation is that the current government will carry on, trying to scrape together ad hoc coalitions on specific laws. This is what a lot of people (including me) thought would happen, but I don’t think anyone expected Macron’s coalition to fall so far short of a bare majority. It’s unarguably a massive blow for Macron, and is going to greatly undermine his power and status.
Why was it such a massive defeat? Macron’s aim, as with the Presidency, was to bore his way back into power. He was in Kiev rather than France at the end of the campaign, and made little effort to get the vote out. He was hoping that a weary and alienated electorate would either not vote, or finally decide to vote for his party to avoid the kind of political blockage that has actually arisen. It didn’t work. Or rather, the first bit worked, because 56% of voters abstained: disproportionately, they were the young. But in the end the French people decided they didn’t want to shore up Macron’s position. Having grumpily and wearily re-elected him in April, to avoid having Le Pen, they said: enough.
Overall, the result is a strengthening of the extremes. The wider Left has done better than its disastrous performance in 2017, but NUPES is an electoral coalition, rather than an alliance, and its various members are sharply divided on most issues. Mélenchon deserves credit for having piloted the coalition, and secured probably more seats for the Left collectively than would, otherwise have been the case. Within the Left, the balance has shifted towards the more radical parties. But there’s no reason to suppose that this tactical unity will survive very long in the new Assembly.
The RN are the real victors. As the largest single Group, they can expect a variety of privileges, including probably the chair of the influential Finance Committee. They will get a great deal more visibility in parliament and the media, and Le Pen is now much better positioned to run for President in 2027. This doesn’t mean that France has “turned Right," or that Fascism is at the gates. The RN has become the party of the poor and neglected in rural areas and small towns. It has absorbed the major part of the old left-wing working class vote. No doubt we will hear calls to “stop fascism” and “form a barrier” against the RN, but such calls are falling on increasingly deaf ears.
Some sort of a setback for Macron was virtually inevitable. Never a skilful politician, aloof and arrogant, he largely neglected the National Assembly, and even the party created in his own image and after the initials of his own name. That party never really put down roots in the country, and the sort of massacre we’ve seen was always on the cards, even if it was bloodier than most people expected. By destroying the traditional parties of Left and Right, Macron hoped to clear a massive space around himself. It hasn’t worked like that, and the empty space has instead been filled by Le Pen’s RN, and to a lesser extent by Mélenchon’s LFI. The result is a political shambles. In a country where consensus is not a virtue, and no living politician has any experience of the wheeling and dealing required to construct and retain a parliamentary majority, the next few months, and probably years, are going to be bumpy indeed. And the street hasn’t spoken yet.
Thank you, Aurelien, for what I think is the best analysis, especially clear and bite sized, published in the anglophone MSM.
You are right to say that the results are disappointing for NUPES. One wonders how much of that abstention bloc could have broken for the left if mobilised. Melenchon sounded exasperated by the youth who complain about the cost of housing and access to education, but fail to turn out for candidates who want do something about it, on a France 2 interview a week ago.
You are also right to highlight that the main parties are alliances and the RN is the big winner. It's significant that Le Pen is stepping down from the party leader role, so she can concentrate on leading the RN group of deputies. Greater visibility may enhance her and her party's prospects for 2027, including a rapprochement with her niece, who has ambitions of her own, and perhaps a more professional set-up for a party that has often seemed like a family business and, like LREM, failed to organise at grass roots level.
One wonders if the former Republican elements in LREM, Lemaire, Darmanin and, if not preoccupied with other matters, Abad, can prevail upon the Republican leadership to either formally join a coalition or vote on a motion by motion basis. Jacob may be minded to do a deal, but Ciotti may be reluctant.
One result that observers can rejoice at is the election of trade union activist Rachel Keke. There are, sadly, too few workers and far too many professional politicians in western legislatures, so her election is most welcome.
You say that the next few months and years will be bumpy. That could be as early as this September and "une rentree chaude" or legislative elections within the next couple of years if the assembly seizes up and is dissolved, but the latter could also mean institutional reform, as in a sixth republic.
That bumpy ride may extend beyond France as much of NUPES, RN and what's left of the Republicans are "souverainiste" and unlikely to be impressed with further European and even NATO integration, especially as the war in Ukraine makes the cost of living crisis worse. As Putin said in St Petersburg last Friday, we are seeing the return of nation states.* If France breaks with the west, what will Italy and Germany do?
The significance of this year's French elections have yet to be appreciated elsewhere*, so thank you for this and other posts.
*Die Welt called Macron's set back the end of the Macron era, but it could well be more than that, in France and beyond.
One wonders if la Macronie will be little more than "le pays du champagne pour les riches et cacahuetes pour les pauvres" in the history books? Jupiter's aloofness and arrogrance, obsession with globalisation (really the anglophone neo-liberalism that appeals to the French elite and its wannabe "aspirants" that have no idea of or interest in what that means in communities devastated by decades of neo-liberalism) and neglect of the grass roots, his country's and his party's, and denials that France has a culture** ensured that his appearance would be fleeting.
**Can one imagine a de Gaulle, Mitterand or Chirac saying that?
Thanks, helpful clarity that appeals to me as accurate. I have a feeling that France -- perhaps together with Spain, The Netherlands, and Scotland -- will not follow the Germanics -- includes English -- Poles, Balts, and Italians into NATO's (Washington's) move against Russia via Kaliningrad. This election reinforces that feeling.