Election preview: France, again

France goes to the polls for the third time this year on Sunday, and for the fourth time a week later. The first two occasions were the presidential election, won convincingly by centrist Emmanuel Macron. Now comes the parliamentary election, which will determine how easily Macron’s government, headed by prime minister Édouard Philippe, will be able to implement its legislative program.

Worst case for Macron would be that his opponents win a parliamentary majority, in which case they could force Philippe’s resignation and impose their own choice of a ministry. But the chance of that, never large, has dwindled to insignificance. A more realistic target is that the various parties opposed to the president on either left or right could win enough seats to oblige him to negotiate with them for passage of legislation, although that now also looks unlikely.

Past presidents have sometimes had to “cohabit” with a hostile prime minister – this is one of the peculiarities of the French system, which combines elements of parliamentary and presidential regimes. But a constitutional change in 2002 reduced the term of the presidency to five years, the same as the National Assembly, meaning that their elections would normally be aligned. And a parliamentary election held immediately after a presidential election has never yet denied the new president a majority.

Earlier this year there was much speculation that Macron could be an exception to that rule, since he had as yet no established political party of his own. But the presidential election has played such havoc with the mainstream parties of both centre-left and centre-right – the Socialists and the Republicans – that Macron’s Republic on the Move (REM) has had a pretty clear run.

While its constitutional role is unusual, the National Assembly should be familiar to Australians, because its electoral system is probably the closest in the world to our House of Representatives. It’s based on single-member districts of a similar size to ours (France is a much more populous country, so there are a lot more of them – 577 in fact), with a two-round electoral system that approximates the effect of preferential voting.

If a candidate wins a majority of the vote in the first round, they are elected. If not, the top two candidates go through to a second round. But so can any other candidate whose vote reaches 12.5% of the seat’s enrolment (which usually works out at something like 20% of the vote). And whoever gets a plurality in the second round wins the seat, even if they have less than 50% of the vote.

Candidates who qualify for the second round can choose to withdraw; sometimes one candidate is left unopposed in the second round. So there’s an opportunity for like-minded parties to consolidate their vote, and even for rivals to unite against a common enemy.

The net effect is that parties on the extremes lose out. In 2012 the Left Front (Communist Party and allies) had 6.9% of the vote, but won only ten seats. The far-right National Front had an even worse time; its 13.9% won it only two seats. The incumbent Socialist Party and its allies, however, won a substantial majority – 331 seats – for their 39.9%.

The system is a mixed blessing for centrist parties. Unless they have a strong base of support, they tend to get squeezed out by the major parties, as has happened to François Bayrou’s Democratic Movement (MoDem) in the last two elections. It’s not like a proportional system, where even a relatively small bloc of centrist votes can hold the balance between centre-left and centre-right.

But a strong centrist force is well placed, because in effect it can pick up preferences from both sides. And REM is looking very strong, with opinion polls consistently giving it (in alliance with MoDem) about 30% of the vote. The centre-right combination of the Republicans and the Union of Democrats and Independents (not necessarily a stable combo, since the UDI could well bolt to Macron) is scoring around 20%, well down from the 34.7% it had last time, while the Socialists have crashed to below 10%.

The extremes have also gained ground. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s movement, La France insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), looks like getting around 12%, with another couple of per cent for the Communists, who are running separately this time. And the National Front, coming off Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the presidential election, will be somewhere in the high teens (plus a little more for its ally, Debout la France). But the electoral system will work heavily against both of them.

There are 7,882 candidates all up, an average of nearly 14 per seat. Understandably, not many seats get decided on the first round; in 2012 there were only 36, and it will probably be fewer this time. Only two seats saw one of the presidential candidates win a majority of the first round vote (oddly enough, it was Republican François Fillon both times).

But although it’s the second round that will be decisive, Sunday will tell us a lot about the strength of the new president’s support. It will also set the parameters for the various deals and alliances that will determine not just the composition of parliament, but the shape of the French party system for the future.

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