BERLIN – Since 2002, when France’s parliamentary elections were moved to a few months after the vote for president, the just-elected head of state’s party has never failed to gain a majority. The vote to elect the National Assembly, which was previously in the middle of presidential terms, has accordingly been treated as little more than a formality. The political debate was settled in the presidential election, and the assumption was that voters would not fail to grant the president they had only just elected a working majority (at least 289 seats) in parliament.
The second round of this year’s legislative election, due to be held on 19 June, could very much break that pattern. According to a Le Monde analysis of the results of the first round on June 12, the New Popular, Ecological and Social Union (Nupes), an electoral alliance led by the veteran left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, came fractionally ahead of Ensemble, the party of Emmanuel Macron, who has just won a second term as president. However, official results have Ensemble just ahead of Nupes, based on a different categorisation of individual candidates, particularly in overseas territories. The Nupes electoral pact was agreed days after the presidential election in April, and is composed of Mélenchon’s France Unbowed, the Socialist party, the Green party, and the Communist party.
An Ifop-Fiducial projection now has Ensemble winning 265-300 seats, which at the lower end would be 30 seats below a majority. Nupes could not win a majority, according to the projection, but would succeed in about tripling the number of parliamentary seats held by its constituent parties, which collectively won around 60 MPs in the 2017 election. The centre-right Republicans will be further weakened, with 40-65 seats. The far-right National Rally will for the first time in decades be able to form a substantial parliamentary group with its 20-40 MPs.
The real prospect of losing his majority clearly worries the incumbent president. Days ahead of the second round, before a trip to Romania on 14 June, Macron called for French voters to grant his party “a solid majority” in the name of “the superior interest of the nation”. It was a rare foray into the campaign for the parliamentary elections, of which he has largely steered clear.
What would Nupes denying Macron a parliamentary majority mean for France? Were Ensemble to come up to a few dozen seats short, the president would have two options. The first would be to enter into negotiations with MPs from smaller parties, most likely the Republicans, to entice them into joining the governing majority. The success of the left could have the effect of forcing Macron right.
The president’s second option would be to form a minority government, making ad hoc deals with smaller parties to pass legislation. If the government was unable to secure a majority, it could in extremis resort to article 49-3 of the French constitution, which allows the government to pass legislation without a vote while opening it up to a vote of confidence. The measure can be used once per parliamentary session.
In both eventualities, factions of MPs on the right and left of the governing coalition would suddenly find themselves kingmakers. On the right, these include the Republicans and Horizons, the centre-right party founded by Macron’s first prime minister, Édouard Philippe, which is expected to win 21-26 seats as part of the Ensemble alliance.
It is also possible that disgruntled MPs on the left of Ensemble could organise to try to force the president into a more social-democratic orientation, in an echo of the former Socialist president François Hollande’s troubles with a bloc of around 50 left-wing frondeurs (dissident MPs from the president’s party unhappy with his rightwards shift). Hollande’s government resorted to article 49-3 several times because of this faction’s obstructionism.
There is little culture of parliamentarianism in the politics of a country used to being ruled by exceedingly powerful presidents who have for over two decades only rarely had to negotiate with parliament. The Jupiterian Macron having to learn to compromise and negotiate may not be such a bad thing.
“This republican monarchy, vertical and imperious, would be forced to learn what is the rule in every European democracy except France: a culture of compromise,” Laurent Joffin and Hervé Gattegno wrote in l’Opinion. “In order to muster a majority, the executive would be forced to negotiate – yes! – with such and such faction of the opposition.”
The united left, which has in its programme the abolition of France’s presidential system and its replacement with a parliamentary democracy, will probably not succeed in winning enough MPs to form a government, but if it denies Macron a majority it could well manage to grant parliament a more meaningful role than it has had for a long time and bring a little of the Sixth Republic it proposes to the institutions of the Fifth.
[See also: Macron’s win can’t hide a fractured France]