France: huge defeat for the newly re-elected president in parliament elections

Published 2022-06-22 11:27:42
Assemblée Nationale à Paris - Photo by Eddie Junior on Unsplash

While polls were expecting French president Macron to get close to a majority in the new parliament, with Le Pen's far-right party collecting about 35 lawmakers, this has been a terrible surprise for many: the presidential party is not even close to any majority with only 249 seats and the far-right is welcoming 90 lawmakers . The parliament seems completely blocked as there is no other party willing to join the Macron's troupes and such a minority government seems unlikely to be able to do anything. The left parties have recovered from their scores 5 years ago and are now the main opposition alliance in the Assembly with about 160 seats.

French people were voting last Sunday for the second round of the parliamentary election. The two round system means that first, voters choose amongst all candidates in their constituencies. Then only the two candidates with most votes, or any candidate with more than 12.5% of the registered voters can qualify for the second round that happens seven days later, on the following Sunday. The aim is to renew all 577 deputies - the lawmakers of France or Members of Parliament - of the National Assembly. Each of them is elected in a constituency, which corresponds to a part of the territory. 539 constituencies are located in metropolitan France, 19 in overseas departments and regions, 8 in overseas communities and 11 for French citizens living abroad.

During the presidential election, the left-wing parties had several candidates, none of them able to get more than 5% of the votes, except Jean Luc Melenchon who received nearly 22% of the votes, just below the extreme-right Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, therefore unable to qualify for the second round (Macron was re-elected with 58,54% of the votes against Le Pen who received 41,46%, as voters rallied once again to keep the far-right out of power).

This time, Melenchon's party (La France Insoumise - LFI) made an alliance with the Greens (Europe Ecologie Les Verts - EELV), the Communists and the Socialist Party to present unique candidates called NUPES (Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale). Macron's party (La Republique En Marche - LREM) made an alliance called Ensemble (Together) with the other centrist party (Modem), a new right-wing party (Horizon) and a few others. Then, there were the Conservatives (Les Republicains - LR) and Le Pen's far-right party (Rassemblement National).

Abstention for the second round was 53.77%. Although a problematic figure, it is slightly less than in 2017 when it reached a record level of 57.36%.

A disaster for the French President short of 40 lawmakers to get a majority

In the French electoral system, the presidential election happens just before the parliament election and is meant to give a boost for the newly elected president to get a comfortable majority in parliament for the next 5 years. The change was decided in 2002 in order to stop the previous pattern of having a president elected for 7 years, a parliament for 5 years and towards the end of the mandate having a different majority, de-facto forcing a cohabitation between the president and another government (the most recent being right-winger President Jacques Chirac, who served alongside a Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin from 1997-2002).

It all worked well until... last Sunday. Already in 2017 many voters were reluctant to have to vote for Macron at the second round of the presidential election in order to avoid Le Pen. After 5 years of Jupiterian presidency (Macron named once the Roman god of gods, Jupiter, as inspiration), it looks like many French voters were not happy to have again the same situation and decided to show it during the parliament election.

In 2017, Macron's party LREM got 308 seats and 350 with its allies from the Modem (42 seats). It was well above an absolute majority of 289 seats, and therefore with the possibility to ratify any law without the need to compromise. The Conservatives had 136 seats (112 LR +18 UDI + 6 others), the left wing parties 81 (PS 30, LFI 17, Communists 10, others 24) and the remaining going between the RN and others far-right (Le Pen's party - 8 seats and 2 others).

The picture is completely different in 2022. Macron's group got only 249 seats (with all its allies together, Ensemble + 4 Centre), Melenchon's left alliance got 164 seats (142 NUPES which could be added with 10 overseas and 13 other left), the Conservatives got 74 seats (LR/UDI+ right) and Le Pen's party (RN + 1 nationalist) got 90 seats. [*]

In detail, within the group Ensemble, 121 members come from Renaissance (ex-LREM), 47 from Modem and 42 from Horizons while it was 308 lawmakers from LREM in 2017.

Comparison in seats of 2017 and 2022 parliament results

[*] NB: Calculation might varies a little bit depending where you check. Before the election there has been a polemic already as the Home Office refused to add up the left alliance NUPES as one entity while they were presenting as one group the votes for Macron's alliance Ensemble. A court decision forced them to agglomerate the results. However they are still not counting as NUPES some of the candidates supported by the left alliance, although they will be seating with them in the new assembly, especially overseas lawmakers. In order to present a simple graph, we have chosen to add the different forces into wider groups (for example, the Communist party already said that they will form a group of more than 15 lawmakers as Overseas will join them). For instance, the Home Office displays only 131 lawmakers for the NUPES, while 20 Minutes publishes 137, Le Monde shows 142, and La Croix counts 150 seats. The French daily Liberation explains also the choice to recalculate figures provided by the Home Office.

This is the first time that a newly elected president is so far from a majority in parliament just after his election. The only previous case in French history is with Francois Mitterrand in 1988 but he was only 13 short of having a majority with the socialist party only, and he was able to make alliance with the 25 communists, which gave him 300 lawmakers in total, above the majority of 288. Still the then Prime Minister had some rough time and needed to use specific legislation to pass many of the votes. It shows how the task seems impossible today.

Although Macron positioned himself as middle ground (left and right "at the same time") during his first campaign in 2017, he has moved toward the right quickly after. His two Prime Ministers have only come from the Conservatives party, and many of his policies (lowering social aids, reducing tax on high earners, extending the possibilities to lay off staff, reducing unemployment benefits... etc) are Conservatives policies.

The President's new group in parliament is already an alliance of his own troupes with center right parties and lawmakers who belonged to the Conservatives in the past. The right-wing parties (LR+UDI) have said that they are definitely in opposition and do not want to make a coalition. Even if on specific laws they could get the votes of the Conservatives, Macron's government might see some of the more right-wing members refusing to join the vote, and inside Ensemble some of the more moderate lawmakers dissatisfied with such move and leaving.

Another option would be for Macron to negotiate some votes with the far-right party, a possibility already named by some of his supporters, but that would project politics into completely unknown territory with things that were still unthinkable even a few months ago.

Chaos is often used by media in the world to describe the situation

Results from the 19th of June are deeply going to impact the future of French democracy according to many newspapers in the world. The Economist Paris Bureau Chief talks about a "disaster". The German correspondent in Paris for Der Spiegle twitted about "political earthquake in France". Il Corriere della Sera talks about a "tough defeat for the president". Another Italian daily, La Stampa, wrote: "Macron collapses, France ungovernable".

With Germany having a long tradition of parliamentary work with wide coalitions, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, writes that it is a defeat for the style of Macron's management:

"He made decisions, alone, alongside a small circle of faithful. He did not keep his election promise to strengthen the National Assembly. This leadership style has been punished."

In the United Kingdom, the BBC said:

"There are many who feel that Mr Macron has been the architect of his own problems. [...] Yes, he had won five more years - but the history of second terms in the Fifth Republic has never been a happy one. "

France is in "unknown territory" said El Pais. The Spanish daily also wrote:

"The country has an alternative: either learn the culture of consensus – exotic in its presidential system – or be condemned to ungovernable"

In the US, the Washington Post highlights "one of the worst results for a French president".

On Twitter, former US presidential candidate to the Primary, Bernie Sanders, said:

However, it seems actually that a choice has already been made.

A dangerous gamed played by Macron, with the help of the media

Since the beginning, Macron has played Le Pen's party in order to ensure him easy elections. He has been highly criticised after the first presidential round in 2017 to organise a big party with his supporters in a restaurant in Paris to celebrate the result, as if it was a victory, knowing he will win easily against Le Pen on the second round.

In February 2021, his very right-wing Home Office minister, Gérard Darmanin, called far-right Le Pen "too soft". During the parliamentary campaign, one of his most faithful Minister, Amélie de Montchalin, branded the alliance of the left as being "anarchy, disorder and submission", and linking it with "antisemitism ideas" as a reason for rejecting equally the left alliance and far-right Le Pen's candidates.

A few days before, Emmanuel Macron was inviting French people to give him a "solid" majority (i.e. absolute majority) and said "the Republic must not miss a vote", implying that no other party but his own is republican.

Christophe Castaner, former Macron's Home Office minister said that "the programme of the NUPES is all the clichés of the Soviet world" and an "extreme-left concentrate". OlivierVeran, former Macron's Health minister said : "Jean Luc Melenchon is not the left, he is far-left".

Aurore Bergé, former conservatives party member who is now leader of Macron's group in parliament, explained on 20 June that it was difficult to choose which candidate is more Republican between Melenchon's party (citing LFI MP François Ruffin, the same one who lobbied parliament two years ago with a law to improve the work conditions of housekeepers!) and far-right candidates.

Another Macron's MP, Celine Calvez, explained that "when we need a majority and if it is good for the French, we will get the votes of the Rassemblement national" (RN = far-right Le Pen's party).

Justice minister, Eric Dupont-Moretti, talked clearly about the possibility to work with far-right in parliament.

Many media have been complacent with far-right for years

Eric Zemmour, a presidential candidate with a program centred on the danger of Islam and the need to stop immigration had his own talk-show on TV until very recently. In 2021 he declared on French TV CNews about young migrants: "They have nothing to do here, they are thieves, they are murderers, they are rapists, that is all they are, they must be sent back and they must not even come [..] all of them!". The TV channel kept the future candidate for many more months on the show. The same channel is also broadcasting daily another show obsessed with Muslims, spreading scepticism about global warming, regular racism, misogyny, etc.

In addition to relaying a lot the themes of Islamophobia and anti-immigrants topics, another aspect is the undermining of the left by branding them extreme-left or hard-left. Until recently, many journalists were talking about hard-left when pointing at Melenchon, in opposition to the left of government (i.e. the socialist party) which would be much more moderate (that's to forget that Melenchon was in a Socialist government in 1997-2002 and a member of the socialist party for more than 3 decades). The problem is that most of the so called moderate left have been criticised during Francois Hollande presidency for betraying their values, which led to the socialist president renouncing to be candidate for a second term five years ago. Actually, most of the "moderate" left joined Macron in 2017 with what become really quickly a ...right wing agenda.

Therefore, when media label Melenchon as far-left or hard-left (the famous commentator Alain Duhamel, who has been interviewing most major politicians since the 70s, said "of course he is far-left!"), they are also implying that out of Macron and the Conservatives, all others are only extremes... Based on that perception the choice becomes either between a soft dictatorship of one unique party, or it means that extremes are not that dangerous and therefore why not try far-right Le Pen?

The importance of semantic: Is Melenchon far-left?

Even foreign journalist, from usually moderate newspaper, have been relaying the same propaganda. In the British newspaper Independent, Denis MacShane implies that with Macron in the middle, his opponents on the left and the right are equal and have similar values:

"Macron two main rivals – Marine Le Pen from the anti-European, pro-Putin hard right; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the anti-European, pro-Putin hard left".

Anti-European, pro-Putin and hard left are exactly the qualifications given by both his politician opponents and many right-wing media to disqualify the left-wing leader. In reality, while he was talking first about "reforming Europe, or leaving" if he does not succeed, this is no longer the case. On Putin, he gave a long interview to the Youtube media Thinkerview where he objected vehemently:

"[Media] decided that I was pro-Putin, which is just incredible. The only one who went to visit an opponent to Putin; the only one who disagreed when Putin was invited [by Macron] to Versailles. It's not me who invited him to Bregançon [a presidential residence for holidays], this is Macron. It's not me who invited him to Paris city Hall, it's Mrs Hidalgo [Paris' mayor]"

Last but not least, the "hard" qualification is used to show similarity with Le Pen's party on the far-right.

The notion of left and right is typically French as it refers to those representative who sided on the left of the chair of the Assembly on the 11 September 1789 to refuse a veto from the king. The French dictionary Larousse gives a definition of hard-left or far-left:

"Extreme left [hard left, far left]: all movements located to the left of the communist and socialist parties, challenging liberal parliamentary democracy and advocating total revolution."

Not really what is Melenchon's party, and what is now his alliance with the Communist, the Greens and the Socialist, which has always played by the democratic rules, being himself three time candidate at the presidential election, senator, European MP for nearly 30 years and eventually French MP during the last 5 years.

Lately, you can find a lot of articles explaining why this is non-sense (Huffington Post). In a detailed article, website says that Melenchon always refused to be labelled hard-left (see here and there in 2018), and writes:

"Mélenchon is not hard-left: between 1997 and 2002, he unconditionally supported the 'plural left' in power. Even though he criticized it mezzo voce, he supported it enough to become deputy Minister for Vocational Education between 2000 and 2002, defending what he considered to be 'the most left-wing government in the world'".

In 2016, Julien Charenton wrote about Melenchon's party:

"The [party] is therefore not part of the "extreme left", and this way of qualifying it that many media use is totally inadequate. It is also interesting to wonder about the impact (voluntary or not) that the term “extreme” has on citizens and on their vision of politics. A party labelled as "extreme" easily loses popularity with voters, both moderate and undecided, insofar as this qualifier quickly leads a certain number of citizens to rethink dictatorships, left or right, and their horrors, causing them to turn away from the party in question. In addition, the term "extreme" has the immediate effect of discrediting the party thus designated, as the word associates with the party the idea of not caring about "reality", of making untenable promises and of being the opposite. of a party of "pragmatic" leaders."

He explained that in 2016 already, Sarkozy and the Conservatives tried to draw similar comparison between Le Pen far-right party and Mélenchon's party.

What now?

With no majority and no official coalition with enough Conservatives to be able to pass votes, thinking even about asking the far-right to support them, it seems likely that the French government is going to stay gripped for a while.

There are two main possibilities: The French president can decide to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections but only once a year. And for now, doing it in the coming months is likely to generate a result even more disastrous for the Macron's party.

They might try, at least for a while, to push some laws with the help of the Conservatives and the far-right. In theory, reducing tax for high earners, moving up the retirement age, cutting public services and removing help from the welfare state seen as attracting migrants should please all of them.

In May 2019, Belgium needed 21 months before being able to form a new government. Will France need longer?

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Author: Cyrilexpat
French & British national
CEO Habilis Digital Ltd

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