As the dust settles following the second and last round of voting in France’s parliamentary elections on Sunday 19 June, H+K’s Guillaume Klossa and George Candon pick out five top takeaways on the upset that was the election results.
- Macron’s ability to govern in question
Being 44 seats short of an absolute majority, President Macron will have a hard time getting his political agenda through the national assembly. This is the first time a sitting president has not enjoyed an absolutely majority in the lower house since the five-year presidential term was introduced at the turn of the century.
The old trick of relying on an arcane article of the constitution to push through legislation bypassing the chamber used during previous periods of ‘co-habitation’ won’t work anymore. The use of article 49.3 has since been circumscribed to just once per parliamentary session. What’s more, in 2017 Macron’s own party (then En Marche !, now Renaissance) enjoyed an absolute majority, alone; today the centrist Ensemble ! bloc is a coalition of Renaissance, François Bayrou’s Modem and former prime minister Edouard Philippe’s Horizon.
- An electorate fragmented and polarised as never before
A clearly fragmented and polarised public has ushered in an unprecedented rebalancing of power:
- The largest but much-reduced centrist bloc Ensemble ! is a coalition of Macron’s wounded Renaissance with two minor partners.
- The ‘opposition’ vote has been sucked out to the poles of the radical left and right.
- The traditional big beasts of the left and right, the Socialists and Gaullist parties, have been emasculated.
The fracturing of the political landscape reflected by the vote is visible amongst the politicians themselves. Securing far fewer seats than they had hoped (131 of the targeted 200), the leftist NUPES electoral pact started disintegrating almost as soon as the results were finalised. The Green, Socialist and Communist parties were almost tripping over themselves to be first to say they would sit ‘alone’ in the house, in response to NUPES nominal leader La France Insoumise’s (LFI) Jean-Luc Mélenchon calling for their consolidation into a formal coalition.
Formalising that coalition would have made NUPES the second biggest political grouping in the assembly, affording them the accolade of main opposition. That mantle now goes to Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), which with its 89 seats increased its parliamentary representation more than tenfold. The famed ‘cordon sanitaire republican’ (safety cordon) that was used to keep the far right from power is in tatters.
- A possible risk on France budget which could impact the euro
To the winner go the spoils, goes the adage, and French political tradition awards the chair of the prestigious Commission of the Finances to the largest opposition grouping. If that tradition is respected Marine Le Pen’s RN will hold the chair. This would give them significant power to slow down budget approval and push for the inclusion of key manifesto pledges – like the reduction of VAT on vehicle fuel from 20 to 5.5%. The risk is a budgetary crisis which exacerbates a European economic crisis of inflation and pressure on the euro.
The French constitution says only that the presidency of the commission must be chaired by a representative of the opposition. While it wouldn’t quite be fair play, other alternatives are theoretically possible: if Ensemble ! won’t stomach a representative of the hard-left LFI chairing, it could potentially be attributed to a Green, a Socialist or Républicain instead of RN. If such a move would reassure financial markets and France’s European partners, it would also infuriate both RN and LFI and cause political turmoil.
- Weakened French leadership in the EU
With no clear mandate or absolute majority at home, Macron’s political leadership on the European stage is weakened. This could in turn damage France’s capacity to influence the European agenda. Macron will in some ways be in a position analogous to that of Germany’s Chancellor Schölz, having to carefully and constantly manœuvre to keep political partners on board. Some major political proposals supported by Macron such as a European convention to reform the Treaties could be stillborn in the face of domestic opposition.
- No easy solutions in the short term
In the days since the election Macron has been engaging in a series of one-to-one meetings with the leaders of all parties represented in the Assemblée Nationale.
An alliance with Les Républicains, whose 61 seats would give a resulting coalition an absolute majority, would require Macron to revisit his political programme in depth and would place him and his party more firmly on the right in the French political spectrum – a perception he had tried to counter ahead of the elections with the appointment of left-of-centre Elisabeth Borne as prime minister. In any case it’s highly unlikely as its leader Christian Jacob has repeatedly ruled it out.
Another option could be to call new elections but even if it were possible, it would be too much of a political gamble for the president, which would risk NUPES and the RN romping back with an even greater share of the hemicycle.
The other solution, which requires a strong culture of negotiation, is a case-by-case approach to search majority on specific issues. That means getting laws passed by making opportunistic, ad-hoc, issue-by-issue alliances. This will require much more horse-trading and compromise than Macron will have wanted, and will complicate law-making in a way not previously seen in the fifth republic. It means developing a parliamentary culture much more akin to some of France’s European neighbours in what will be a real shift in French political culture.
There have been mutterings of a grande coalition, a government of national unity, but aligning such disparate forces would require quite some political wizardry. Macron was lauded when he swept the boards five years ago – but perhaps the next five years will be the real test of his political prowess.
Guillaume Klossa & George Candon