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Democracy at work? France’s uncertain political future [long read]

Democracy at work? France’s uncertain political future [long read]

In this series of blog posts, the historians Michael C. Behrent and Emile Chabal have teamed up with award-winning French journalist, Marion Van Renterghem to offer an in-depth look at the stakes, issues, themes, and big ideas that underpin the 2022 French electoral cycle.

In the last of our blog series, we discuss the unexpected outcome of the legislative elections and look back on the electoral cycle as a whole. What does French politics look like after a series of fractious campaigns? And do the results offer any hope for the future?

In our first blog post, we said that the outcome of this electoral cycle was a foregone conclusion. We expected outgoing president, Emmanuel Macron, to be re-elected, and we anticipated that he would subsequently get a majority in parliament. Both of these predictions were accurate. Macron will be the French president for the next five years, and his allies have a (relative, rather than absolute) majority. 

Yet it is difficult to shake the sense that, not only was this electoral cycle more volatile than we had anticipated, but it delivered some unexpected results. In the presidential election, the far-left firebrand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon came within a whisker of consigning Marine Le Pen to the first round. And, in the recent legislative elections, Le Pen’s party—the Rassemblement national (RN)—vastly exceeded the most optimistic polling estimates. Even the party faithful were astonished at their record seat haul of 89.   

So how did a predictable electoral cycle turn into what the newspaper Le Monde called, on the day after the second round of the legislative elections, a jump into the “unknown”? 

Macron’s unstable presidency

Part of the impression of disorientation in this electoral cycle has come from what might be described as a political whiplash effect. For the first time under the Fifth Republic, two consecutive national elections in the same year have focused on completely different issues and radically diverging ideologies. 

Right until a few days before the first round, the presidential election seemed to be exclusively about the different shades of right-wing politics in France. With Zemmour and Le Pen jostling for influence on the far-right, and Macron and Pécresse vying for attention on the centre-right, the entire political debate was dominated by right-wing themes. Mélenchon’s last-minute insurgency came very close to terminating Le Pen’s upward trajectory, but it was not enough. In the end, voters were faced with a second round that was firmly skewed to the right.

“How did a predictable electoral cycle turn into what the newspaper Le Monde called… a jump into the ‘unknown’?”

Almost exactly the opposite dynamic was at work in the legislative elections. The media coverage focused overwhelmingly on Mélenchon and the hastily assembled left-wing alliance, NUPES (Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale), which was made up of La France insoumise (LFI), Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), the Parti socialiste (PS), and the French Communist Party (PCF). There was talk of NUPES being the largest single entity in parliament; some even dreamed of a NUPES majority, with Mélenchon as prime minister. 

By contrast, the two winners of the presidential race were nowhere to be seen. As was the case in April, Macron hardly campaigned at all, and Le Pen was invisible. Instead of the presidential election acting as a catalyst for success, which is what normally happens, it appeared to have sapped the energy from those who had done well.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the French media—and almost the entire political class—was astonished at the RN’s progress. The party defied the predictions and the polls, to such an extent that its success has become the main talking point. This turned upside-down the lessons of the previous election. While Mélenchon had claimed the “real” victory for himself in April, so Le Pen has maintained that her party’s triumph is the “real” story this time around. 

Amidst these whirlwind changes of direction, it is easy to forget that Macron is, in fact, the elected president and his party is the single largest one in parliament. No-one can deny the discomfort with his politics and his person, but equally there seems to be no person who has a more credible claim to governing the country. Rather like the partner in an old married couple, France can’t live with Macron, but it also can’t live without him.

The big question now is how Macron interprets the events that have just taken place. He could emphasise his (almost) unprecedented re-election and call on the French to look beyond the divisive partisanship of NUPES and the RN. This would fit with his narrower and more right-leaning. Or he could recognise that his (almost) unprecedented defeat in the legislative elections is a warning of worse to come. One thing is for certain: the Macronophobia that we analysed in detail last time around has only been accentuated by the poor performance of his party in the legislative election. Whether or not he can steer an unsteady ship, he is sure to remain a deeply divisive figure.  

A segmented political landscape

While undeniably important, the “breakthrough of the far right” narrative that has dominated the election coverage since the second round of the legislative election obscures more than it illuminates. Far more striking is the segmentation of the French political landscape into three or four distinct blocs, each with its own well-defined electorate. Indeed, many commentators have noted that, despite France’s two-round first-past-the-post electoral system, the new National Assembly will look as if it were chosen by proportional representation.

“Instead of the presidential election acting as a catalyst for success… it appeared to have sapped the energy from those who had done well.”

It is not too much of a stretch to say that the new parliament broadly resembles the outcome of the first round of the 2017 presidential election. In the latter, Macron won 26% of the vote; in 2022, his coalition got 245 seats out of 577 (or 42.5% of all seats). Five years ago, the two left candidates totaled 26% of the vote; in 2022, NUPES took 131 seats (22.7% of the total). In 2017, Le Pen received 21.3% of the vote; in 2022, her party won 89 seats (15.4% of the total). And, in 2017, the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, garnered 20% of the vote; this year, the centre-right party, Les Républicains (LR), won 74 seats (13% of the total). 

Over time, this four-way bloc politics has solidified. It is notable that other factors—such as the momentum of Macron’s presidential victory or the desire to stop the RN—seem not to have prevented voters from casting ballots in this legislative election for the bloc with which they identify, low turnout notwithstanding.

On the left, NUPES managed to strengthen and (partially) reinvent the left bloc, which now consists of the urban middle class, young people, non-white voters, and non-managerial salaried employees. According to an IPSOS poll conducted immediately before the first round of the legislative election, 30% of voters who struggle to make ends meet favoured NUPES. This bloc opposes Macron’s attempts to scale back labour rights (notably by raising the retirement age) and believes the environmental crisis requires urgent action. 

Yet it is also the most fragile and divided bloc. Some supporters see themselves as anti-system; others want to engage with the current economic and political order in a constructive way. Some are enthusiastically pro-European; others see European integration as a Trojan horse for neoliberalism. Like Ernest Renan’s definition of the nation, the NUPES coalition, if its components continue to collaborate, will be a “daily plebiscite.” It is anyone’s guess as to whether the coalition will hold together for any length of time, especially as the urgency of electoral politics begin to fade.

Meanwhile, on the far-right, the RN has completed its transformation into the party of the working-classes. According to IPSOS, the RN won 45% of workers’ votes, 28% of those without a school-leaving certificate (the baccalauréat), and 31% who consider their background to be “underprivileged.” Its voters are often poorer, less educated, and less urban than those of the NUPES. While they share the latter’s suspicion of neoliberalism and globalization, they are wedded to a closed and protective idea of the nation and suspicious of the left’s attachment to progressive values. Moreover, the RN is more consistently “anti-system” than NUPES.

As for Macron, he has become the indisputable champion of the establishment bloc. Though he once wrote a book called RévolutionMacron is the voice of older and wealthier voters, as well as those who declare themselves most satisfied with their lives. If Macron presents himself as a progressive, it is because he believes that market-friendly reforms will benefit the country. This residual progressivism is perhaps what has allowed the centre-right LR to carve out a space for itself between Macron (seen as too far to the left) and Le Pen (viewed as too radical), despite having an electorate that is sociologically similar to the president’s. 

“Rather like the partner in an old married couple, France can’t live with Macron, but it also can’t live without him.”

While other democracies have experienced three or four-way segmentation before, what is distinct about the French situation—as politicians intuitively sense—is that it creates few obvious opportunities for cross-bloc coalitions, at least in the long run. While some in NUPES share the RN’s Euroscepticism, the left’s antifascism (relevant or not) and cultural progressivism make supporting Le Pen essentially unthinkable. Conversely, RN sees NUPES as soft on both Macronism and immigration, which in their view makes it “anti-system” in name only. 

Still, both RN and NUPES have staked their claims in this election cycle on denouncing Macron as the embodiment of an out-of-touch elite that is insensitive to the plight of ordinary people. Macron’s one potential advantage is that, as an avowed centrist who has insisted on the obsolescence of traditional left-right cleavages, he has few ideological obstacles to forging pragmatic alliances with his opponents. In the short run, however, all the anti-Macron blocs have an interest in ensuring that he fails. 

A changing electoral map

The changing sociology of French politics has been amplified by electoral geography. To put it simply, the country can now be divided into five zones, each of which has a particular political configuration.

First, France’s three big cities—Paris, Lyon, and Marseille—have emerged as bastions of the left. In the legislative election, NUPES claimed the majority of seats in greater Paris, some with huge majorities. Even traditionally right-wing parts of bourgeois Paris (especially in the west) are represented by Ensemble, Macron’s centrist coalition, with LR having virtually disappeared. It is a similar story in Lyon and Marseille, where NUPES and Ensemble shared the spoils, with both the LR and, in the case of Marseille, the RN picking up a handful of more suburban constituencies.

The second clearly identifiable area of political dominance is the Atlantic coast, from Brittany to Biarritz. This vast and diverse area returned a very high proportion of Ensemble candidates, both from regions that were traditionally conservative like the Vendée and regions that had, in recent decades, voted for the PS. 

The third zone, more mixed, runs through central and eastern France. This zone is characterised by small urban, peri-urban and rural constituencies. These are generally more depressed than those of western France, and—in rural parts of the Massif Central—still dominated by dynastic political families. As a result, voters in this zone divided their votes between the LR—who got most of their seats here because of their strong local implantation—and an insurgent RN—which picked up seats in places like the Yonne and the Haute-Marne. This zone shows the potential of the RN to pick up votes in areas very different to its post-industrial heartland. 

“Despite France’s two-round first-past-the-post electoral system, the new National Assembly will look as if it were chosen by proportional representation.”

The archetypal post-industrial constituencies in France can be found in the north, where the RN has now become the main player. It is here that the RN has most emphatically pursued a strategy of normalisation by gaining local power and attempting to govern like a “normal” party. For a long time, this did not seem to bear fruit, but this legislative election confirms the RN as the dominant force in the region.

Finally, the Mediterranean basin is perhaps the area that saw the most dramatic shift in political colour in this election. This has been a stomping ground of the RN since the 1970s, partly because of a high concentration of pieds-noirs (descendants of the European settler population in Algeria) and high rates of immigration in the major cities. But this is the first time that the RN has converted its popularity into seats. It did so in spectacular fashion by flipping a remarkable number of constituencies from Perpignan to Nice. Entire départements—including the Pyrénées-Orientales, the Aude, and the Var—are now represented by RN députés.

Beyond metropolitan France, the picture is fragmented. Separatists have come to dominate Corsican politics, while the Antilles and Indian Ocean territories are represented mostly by anti-system candidates (usually aligned with NUPES). By contrast, of the 13 constituencies for French citizens living abroad, 12 of them were won by Ensemble candidates, a reflection of the sociology of France’s expatriate community. 

It is worth pointing out that, despite the fact that these different regions have clearly identifiable political characteristics, some of which differ substantially from historic voting patterns, the margins of victory in this legislative election were often very narrow. Second-round results in 13 seats were decided by a margin of less than 100 votes, 32 were decided by a margin of less than 200 votes, and 96 were decided by a margin of less than 1,000 votes. In places like the Mediterranean basin, where many seats flipped from the left to the RN, these narrow margins were crucial. Combined with the unwillingness of voters to vote for parties other than their own, this allowed the RN to squeeze through the gaps. In previous legislative elections where the RN has had a similar momentum, it has fallen at the final hurdle because of tactical voting. 

A new role for parliament?

Under the Fifth Republic, not a lot happens in the National Assembly. Laws are passed, of course, and prime ministers present their political programs. But compared to the UK’s House of Commons or the US Congress, the French legislature has not been the site of memorable debate, efforts to hold the executive branch accountable, or bids to undermine its authority. Indeed, preventing such actions was the whole point of the Fifth Republic. 

“RN, NUPES, and perhaps even LR will pursue various institutionally available tactics to wage guerrilla warfare against the president and his government.”

In this new parliament, however, things are likely to be different. This time, the principle of having legislative elections follow presidential elections (in place since 2002) misfired: voters opted not to grant the newly reelected president a parliamentary majority. The last time this happened was in 1988, when President François Mitterrand’s PS won 275 seats, only 15 seats shy of a 289-seat majority. 

Still, Mitterrand at least brought the socialists back to power (after losing to the right in 1986). Macron’s party not only lost the majority it previously held, but, with 245 seats, is 55 seats from a majority. This is a daunting shortfall, which will make the passage of any controversial legislation a challenge. The intransigence of his opponents will only make matters worse. RN, NUPES, and perhaps even LR will pursue various institutionally available tactics to wage guerrilla warfare against the president and his government.

One of the first points of friction has been the chairpersonship of the Commission of Finance, General Economy, and Budgetary Control. According to the assembly’s bylaws (39:3), the chairperson must be a member of the opposition. With the RN as the single largest opposition party, it seemed as if the commission might end up under the control of the far-right. In the end, this scenario did not come to pass, but the person appointed to the position – LFI’s Éric Coquerel – is unlikely to be indulgent towards the ruling party. Not only does the Commission have considerable oversight control over the state budget and a major say in the legislation that goes before parliament, but it also has access to the tax records of individuals and companies, which are otherwise confidential. After years of denouncing Macron as a “president of the rich” and a creature of global capital, the far-left will be eager to make the most of this position.

Moreover, opposition parties are likely to have recourse to no confidence votes (motions de censure). According to article 50 of the 1958 constitution, a successful no confidence vote requires the resignation of the prime minister and the government. Even though no confidence votes are often tabledonly once under the Fifth Republic has such a motion passed. However, with the weakest parliamentary plurality since 1958, Macron will have no choice but to see no confidence votes as a credible threat. Macron will also find it riskier than his predecessors to invoke article 49-3, which allows the government to pass legislation by decree unless a no confidence vote is passed. 

“Trench warfare between obstructionist oppositions and a weakened but still powerful executive is likely to intensify in coming years.”

Because Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic’s architect, understood his compatriots’ penchant for fractious parliamentarism, Macron does have recourse to constitutional mechanisms designed to keep parliament in check. Most importantly, article 12 of the constitution gives the president the right to dissolve the assembly and call new elections. If parliament becomes too gridlocked, Macron might give voters an opportunity to renew the romance they began with him back in 2017. That said, he would need to be careful not to destroy his reputation by repeating Jacques Chirac’s disastrous mistake in 1997 (when, hoping to strengthen his majority, he wound up losing it). 

In any case, trench warfare between obstructionist oppositions and a weakened but still powerful executive is likely to intensify in coming years. And, as is often the case, the battles inside parliament will be reflected on the streets. Macron’s first term was marred by the vast gilets jaunes protest moment. Whether or not anything similar will emerge during his second term is unclear, but there is bound to be a radicalization of social conflict. France faces difficult times ahead.

Featured image by Jeremy Bezanger via Unsplash, public domain

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