The French people have spoken.
But what did they say, exactly?
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.