“The antithesis of what France’s 1985 Constitution was designed to stifle” –this is how we can describe the unprecedented situation which France’s legislative elections gave rise to: a semi-parliamentary system with no parliamentary majority where chaos and standoff are potential scenarios.
In principle, De Gaulle’s constitution aimed at establishing a strong executive backed by a comfortable parliamentary majority. The legislator introduced a two-round single-member districts system, which, in a country like France, reduces the opportunities of forces –mostly extremist ones– that are struggling to forge alliances. Failure to build alliances means these forces will not be able to get votes of a rival candidate who lost the first round. In contrast, this system makes it easy to constitute a comfortable parliamentary majority without enjoying the support of the majority of the people. For example, a candidate who can get one-third of the votes in the first round and makes it to the second round can win because voters of the parties that did not qualify vote for him. One disadvantage of this constitutional and electoral system is that it isn’t indicative of the balance of power in the street, which perhaps explains the semi-permanent unrest and protests.
Take for example, Le Pen’s party that gets the support of at least one-fifth of the electorate yet managed to gain only six seats in Parliament out of 577 and sometimes it fails to get one seat. So, no matter what the party achieves in the first round of the legislative elections, it ends nowhere except to a dead end where it rarely manages to get the votes of candidates of other parties.
If we set results of the first round of the 2017 Presidential elections against the formation of the National Assembly after the legislative elections that followed Macron’s winning a first term, we find that Macron received a little more than 24 percent of the votes where his party won 351, Marine Le Pen received 21 percent of the votes whereas her party got only 6 seats, and the Republicans won 20 percent of the votes and got 136 seats. The point is clear. Voters recognize these considerations; so, they usually don’t give their votes to a candidate that doesn’t have a reasonable chance to win the seat in the second round and tend to give their votes to the candidates of the President’s party to enable the President to rule (e.g. in the legislative elections, a Leftist voter may vote for a left-wing president coming from another left-wing party to empower this president).
This long prelude is integral to understand how severe is the earthquake that hit the political life in France with the announcement of the results of the second round of the legislative elections. On the one hand, Macron failed to obtain an absolute majority or even approached it. The pro-Macron parties managed to get only 245 seats (289 seats are needed for absolute majority). It is hard to imagine how it would be possible to form a strong coalition that guarantees a substantial majority for the president. The Republicans, the party ideologically close to the President, has justifiable rancor (Macron sought destroying it by all means) and has no interest in facilitating the President’s task for nothing. Furthermore, it forces the President to regress in some portfolios. On the other hand, negotiating with the President is supposedly based on the existence of a leadership that can speak on behalf of everyone and the Republican Party is without a Republican leadership now. Observers see that the call to work with the President does not enjoy acceptance within the party. Overall, while forms of alliance could possibly be developed in the medium or long term, the situation is much more complicated in the short term.
On the other hand, Marine Le Pen’s party achieved a great success, winning 89 seats compared to six seats in the previous Parliament. This was a roaring success not only in terms of “quantity” but also in terms of the significance of the collapse of the wall that limits obtaining votes of other parties. While the seats it gained still do not reflect its political weight on the street, this success represents a quantum leap and wasn’t expected although everyone noticed the increase of its voters since the first round. In the day that followed the elections, the president’s bloc and the leftist coalition threw plates at each other over the responsibility for “the collapse of the wall.” Observers believe that Mélenchon’s voters, motivated by their disapproval of the president, elected Le Pen’s candidates in the second round. They add that the party’s representatives are mostly of young and inexperienced women, but they are keen on the party’s image and reputation. They are courteous, humble, adept at concealing their extremism, and their different professions and social origins are a mirror of society (except the immigrant component). Speculations arise as their future path between maturity and extremism.
Despite the tact of French hard-left leader Mélenchon, the results of the elections were frustrating for voters of the left. The left-wing alliance’s share of votes did not increase. It gained 131 seats: 72 for La France Insoumise party (of Mélenchon), 24 for the Socialist Party, 23 for The Greens, and 12 for French Communist Party. There is a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the alliance. According to the alliance’s constituent agreement, each party is supposed to form its own parliamentary group. So, the question is: will there be one parliamentary group comprising the four of four groups? No sophistry here. The Leader of Opposition title as well as other titles are at stake. Which takes precedence: the alliance or Le Pen’s party? While the alliance’s seats outnumbers those of Le Pen’s party, the latter have leverage over each of the alliance’s separate components. Anyway, on the day following the elections, Mélenchon suggested the fusion of all these the components into one group but his suggestion was met by rejection.
Notably, The Republicans party, despite its candidate losing the election, managed to capitalize on its strong presence in some regions to win 61 seats, a reasonable number that gives it greater weight than that of its mass electorate. Perhaps Macron’s party may be in need of their support, even partially.
Here there is a need to emphasize that France is distinct from Germany and the United States. In Germany, power is distributed among several actors and there is a culture and mechanisms that value forging alliances, achieving consensus, and working out compromises. In France, powers are concentrated, the State is unitary and powerful, and the executive branch has substantial resources and capabilities. Therefore, whoever assumes presidency enjoys advantages that others do not, rendering those allying with the President no more than “servants”, notwithstanding their favors to the President. Additionally, there is no culture of compromise, even among traditional parties even in normal times. Beyond that, the country is experiencing an exceptional time: a president loathed by the public only elected because of being “the better of evils”, high visibility of two hardline parties (even by French standards), and a very critical financial, economic, and social situation. By contrast, in the United States, there are only two major parties to be reckoned with, the constitution established mechanisms that create balances, and there is a reasonable consensus on major issues, notwithstanding the drastic polarization.
The point here is that the situation brought about by the legislative elections in France is not similar to that of Germany. In Germany, the different political actors realize they have to forge alliances with one another and they are experienced at negotiating. In France, there are three major actors, each one hating the other two and the cake can’t be split fairly given the presidency’s weight. Speaking of Macron, his temperament, obstinacy, perceptions of his powers, and authoritarian and monopolistic tendencies are a major part of the problem.
This does not mean the situation is hopeless. Members of Macron’s party believe that they can make the grade and pass laws and legislation by negotiating either with the right or the wise left, on a case-by-case basis. This may take place in the running but it will wear actors out and disrupt government work. Some observers believe that allying with the right is possible and others see that the right-wing parties that have joined the pro-Macron bloc may manage to build a large right-wing bloc by allying with the Republicans, so that the right’s weight increases in a way that enhances its negotiating position. As far as I judge, this is currently unlikely, or too early to judge.
From a constitutional perspective, Macron has the right to dissolve the parliament, but psychologically he cannot do it now because the voters’ punishment would be cruel. Politically, he cannot do it before he could prove that the parliamentarians’ action is destructive, disruptive, and devastating. Perhaps, the dissolution threat may push the far right, the Republican right, Socialists, and the Greens to take responsibility but may also prove insufficient to restrain their desire to defeat and humiliate a hated president and may not also be enough to bring the actors’ positions closer, with each of them having a distinct vision on the future of France, globalization and the European project.
There would be no room for a detailed discussion of the reasons for the failure of Macron and the La République En Marche party, given the enormity and proliferation of mistakes of Macron and his government. Here, few examples would suffice. First, the French people were dissatisfied with his unilateral decision-making, his monopoly on the political scene, his arrogance, and authoritarian tendencies. After winning a second term, all opinion polls indicated that the French people do not want the President to have a parliamentary majority because he would misuse it but Macron overlooked these warning signs. Second, he spent three weeks reflecting on the formation of the cabinet and deciding the names of the candidates in his bloc, ensuring curbing and ruffling the feathers of his allies, which left a bad impact on them and on the public opinion. Then, he choose a competent technocrat prime minister who lacks the political experience, which created the impression that the president wants to reinforce the unilateral decision making and that the prime minister will be no more than his assistant. The formation of the government suggested that he was flirting with the radical left in a way that provoked the right. He appointed an efficient and honorable Minister of Education but he belongs to intellectual currents the right is not fond of. Events made it clear that flirting with the left was a grave mistake that caused him to lose a large amount of votes. Macron’s government management of the chaos that marred the Champions League and its insistence on a narrative full of lies enhanced Le Pen’s chances. Worse, Macron did not seem to care about supervising the electoral campaign, and this might have been commendable if the prime minister filled the void, which never happened. Although the date of the elections was known in advance, he went on a foreign tour the days preceding the second round, which strengthened the impression that he is ignoring his people.
Mélenchon’s mistakes played in the hand of Le Pen. He harshly criticized the police, heedless of the fact that it enjoys a good reputation in France and that the French see it as the last bulwark against crime. He also called on what he named the “fascist voters” to vote for him, a tongue slip that was revealing of his opinion of Le Pen’s voters.
Was the election just a mishap brought about by the poor management of the ruling team or a major milestone and a starting point for the rise of the extremists and the receding of the moderates given their inability to address the factions affected by globalization? Will the new situation urge actors to learn the art of negotiation and reach compromise or will it be a gateway to more polarization and chaos? We don’t know.
Will Macron be able to manage this new situation?
The answer is yet unknown.