There’s a week to go until the second round of the French presidential election, in which – barring some unimaginable disaster – centrist Emmanuel Macron will beat the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. (Read about the first round here.) But that’s still really only the half way mark. There are another two rounds after that, on 11 and 18 June.
The third and fourth rounds, of course, are not really part of the presidential election: they are when France will elect its new National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. But they are critical to the fortunes of the presidency. A president with a hostile parliament is, while not quite a powerless figurehead, certainly a much less powerful figure.
This is the peculiarity of the French system, devised by General de Gaulle and not shared by any other major democracy. (Russia has the same system, but it would be misleading to describe it as a democracy.) When there is a sympathetic parliament, which is most of the time, the president is the effective head of government, with a prime minister who acts as his lieutenant. When there isn’t, things get interesting.
On one occasion, back in 1962, parliament has voted no confidence in a prime minister. The president dissolved parliament, as is his right, and his party won a majority at the ensuing election.
On another three occasions – in 1986, 1993 and 1997 – voters elected a parliament with a majority hostile to the president’s party. In each case the president appointed a prime minister from the opposing party, who then became the real head of government, with the president performing a more ceremonial role, although remaining influential in defence and foreign policy.
In 2000 a constitutional amendment reduced the presidential term from seven years to five (the same as the National Assembly) in order to try to stop this from happening again. Since then, legislative elections have been held regularly just after the presidential election, and every time the president’s party has won a majority.
And that may happen next month. But it will be very difficult, because Macron has no party in the conventional sense. He left the Socialist Party in 2015 and last year founded his own movement, En Marche! (“Forward!”). For it to put together from scratch a full slate of candidates for the 577 seats in the National Assembly is a mammoth task.
In fact, the En Marche! website lists only 14 candidates and a promise that the “methodical work” of a selection committee will choose the other 563 – plus a button where you can volunteer yourself. “Be a candidate in your district to engage, you too, in our democratic revolution.” Media reports say that the nine-member selection committee is indeed working hard, and that 420 candidates have already been chosen, although sensitive decisions are reserved for Macron in person.
The National Assembly is elected from single-member districts, each by a two-round system. But in addition to the two front-runners, a third or even a fourth candidate can advance to the second round if their vote exceeds 12.5% of the district’s enrolment. Since turnout is fairly low, that usually equates to 20% or more of the formal vote.
For the last few elections, most districts have been straight left-right contests – the Socialists and their allies versus the Republicans (formerly the UMP) and theirs. But in a multi-party environment, which France now most certainly has, there is ample scope for tactical voting and for tactical withdrawal (or non-withdrawal) of candidates.
Broadly speaking, each district reproduces the dynamic of the presidential race. Provided a centrist candidate (from En Marche! or elsewhere) can reach the second round, they should be well placed. The Socialists and the Republicans will have a much harder time than in the past – particularly the former, given the deep division in their party. And both the far right and far left are likely to win many fewer seats than their share of the vote would suggest.
Last time around the Socialists won 280 seats, with another 51 for their allies (Greens, Left Radicals and independent leftists), mostly elected due to the Socialists not running against them. The UMP had 194, plus 35 for its allies, now mostly organised into a centrist party, the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI). The remaining 17 seats were spread widely: ten for the Left Front (mostly Communists), two for the centrist Democratic Movement, two regionalists, two National Front and one independent on the far right.
As is usual with single-member districts, the relationship between votes and seats is pretty arbitrary. The Socialists and their allies won a solid majority with just 39.9% of the vote, while the Left Front needed 6.9% to win ten seats and the National Front with 13.6% could only manage two.
The French interior ministry has released figures that break down last week’s presidential vote by legislative district (for the 566 districts in France and its territories; the eleven seats for expatriates are not included). According to them, Macron placed first in 230 districts, with more than a third of the vote in 21. Le Pen was first in 216, but had more than a third of the vote in 31 of those. Jean-Luc Mélenchon led in 67, with 17 over a third, and for François Fillon the numbers were 53 and 12.
Remarkably, there were only two districts where a presidential candidate polled more than 50% – Fillon both times. But there were 159 where the third placegetter had more than 20%, meaning a large number of potential three-cornered contests, or triangulaires.
So Macron’s task is simple. He needs to maintain the enthusiasm from his presidential win and translate it into votes for his preferred candidates – either those he has recruited for En Marche!, or other centrists (UDI, Left Radicals and MoDem) who might sign up to a new presidential majority. As he said last week, “I will not be asking those who join me where they come from, but whether they’re in agreement.”
The Republicans are the only other force with the ability to get anywhere close to a majority. If their underlying support is a lot stronger than Fillon’s 20% first-round result – perhaps more like the 31.7% that they and their allies got in the regional elections a year and a half ago – they might hope to be the dominant force in the new parliament.
But at this stage that looks unlikely; the Republicans’ own internal projections are said to put them at more like 100 seats. And even if they do better than that, they are divided over what strategy to pursue. The centrist wing of Alain Juppé wants to co-operate with Macron, while the right wing associated with Nicolas Sarkozy has ambitions to impose its own prime minister, as it did to François Mitterand back in 1993.
The Socialists, in a state of near civil war between those who backed Macron and those who were loyal to their own nominee, Benoît Hamon, know that they will lose their majority for sure. Their best hope is to maintain a large enough contingent to deny power to the centre-right and to oblige Macron to rely on them. But that may just accelerate the split between the party’s centrists and its hard left.
Out on the extremes, the strong support for Le Pen and Mélenchon is bound to lead to more seats for their parties. But the voting system will ensure that it will still be a lot less than their proportion of the vote.
Most of the seats will again be clustered in the mainstream. Exactly how they cluster will go a long way to determining the shape of Macron’s presidency.