France reins in its president a little

Although it’s the French who have the reputation for a leisurely lifestyle, their election results appear much more promptly than British ones. Earlier this month we had to wait all through the following day for the UK election to be decided, but the second round of France’s parliamentary election was clear by breakfast time today and counting was all final by about 10.30am in eastern Australia (2.30am Monday, Paris time).

And Emmanuel Macron has got the legislature he wanted. Indeed, he will probably not be unhappy with the fact that his majority is much smaller than projections from the first round suggested. Instead of about three-quarters of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, his Republic on the Move (REM) and its smaller ally MoDem have won 308 and 42 seats respectively: almost exactly 60% combined, or a majority of 123 against all opposition.

Although that’s similar to the majority the Socialist Party and its allies won last time around (they had 331 seats all up), Macron’s position will be stronger because his opposition is so divided. The centre-right Republicans and their allies have won 137 seats, the Socialists and other centre-left candidates 45, the far left 27 and the National Front eight, leaving ten seats for assorted independents, regionalists and others. (Official results are here; Le Monde has a good interactive map.)

It’s a good illustration of the advantage of a two-round voting system. Although conceptually it’s the same as Australian-style preferential voting, it gives voters the opportunity to change their minds after they’ve seen the general shape of the result. Clearly, many voters decided that it was unhealthy for the government to win such a huge majority, so they swung back to the established parties in the second round.

Many also stayed home: turnout was 42.6%, down from the already low 48.7% in the first round. In 2012 it was 55.4%.

To take an example more or less at random, look at the first district of Manche department, based on Saint-Lô. REM’s candidate led the Republican by a fairly comfortable-looking 4.5% on the first round. The National Front had 11.7%, and the various candidates of the centre-left and far left had 20.6% between them. You’d expect that REM would do a lot better out of the eliminated candidates, since leftist voters would prefer it to the Republicans.

But they didn’t. The formal vote fell by eight points, but the Republican candidate overtook REM to win by almost 2,000 votes, with 52.5%. Similar results were on show across the country. Former prime minister Manuel Valls, standing as an independent centre-leftist with REM support, scraped in against the far left by only 139 votes, despite leading by more than 2,000 in the first round.

So Macron will have to tread a bit more warily than might have been expected. If relations with MoDem deteriorate (there have already been some signs of that) and some of his multitude of new inexperienced MPs prove less than reliable, there may be troubles in parliament. Nonetheless, compared to where he started out last year – even compared to his position a couple of months ago – this is an extraordinary achievement.

Among his opponents, the Republicans have lost some 80 seats but survived as a coherent force; their day will probably come again. The Socialists have much less to look forward to. They have held off the worst of the threat from the far left, but their parliamentary group will be deeply divided and mostly ineffective. Most probably, their social-democratic wing will eventually make its peace with Macron. (That is, after all, where he started out.)

On the far right, Marine Le Pen has finally won a seat in parliament (at her fifth attempt), and will lead a small but augmented far right contingent. Her ally Nicolas Dupont-Aignan also retained his seat, despite trailing REM by three points in the first round. It is the biggest National Front presence in parliament since the 1986 election – the only one conducted under proportional representation – at which it won 35 seats.

Proportional representation will be a major issue to come. As long as there were effectively only two major parties, single-member districts could be defended as a guarantee of stable majorities. Now the unfairness is much more blatant: Macron’s 60% majority is based on less than a third of the first round vote. He is much too sensible not to realise that reform of some sort is necessary.

But before worrying about the electoral system, the president and his government need to make good on their promises to boost France’s economy – the terrain that defeated his two predecessors.


5 thoughts on “France reins in its president a little

  1. I agree that this is better than a totally impregnable super-majority for La REM. And contrary to Henry Ergas, Macron doesn’t seem filled with hubris to allow these wins or this power to go to this head; though of course there is little evidence so far.

    It is good that Le Pen is elected, but even better that FN only barely passed 50% of the 15% seat threshold for official party status in parliament. So she is there but will be very frustrated at her powerlessness. And that 1986 result is no reason for the others to be frightened of PR: history shows that these extremists are shown up by their antics in parliament as unfit to govern. There is no need, and it is counter-productive, to attempt to keep them marginalised via the electoral system.

    I disagree about the analysis of the old parties. The Republicains have their worst result in the Fifth Republic. The PS may have almost disappeared but really they have simply transformed into La REM. Much will depend on how Macron fares and how he interacts with remaining PS powerplayers (eg. Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris) but they should recognise that the PS “brand” has had its day.

    Well, perhaps with one major exception: one analysis I read said that almost all the new naif (never-before pollies) deputies were upper-middle class, and that almost 40% of the vote comprising the workers are now unrepresented. If it is that stark then it won’t persist since that is a yawning vacuum waiting to be filled by someone. Again Macron is not stupid though he may be very hard pressed to appeal to them in the short term (and even a 5 year term is pretty short w.r.t. economic changes) with his agenda (which is it really is Nordic-lite flexisecurity, and which ultimately might benefit this sector the most).

    This encourages me in my desire to return to live in France for a time. It should be interesting times! Whereas the entire Anglosphere is beyond toxic and dysfunctional, and our various systems keep the awful roadshow on the road, or up the cul-de-sac.


    1. Oops. I wrote:
      “FN only barely passed 50% of the 15% seat threshold for official party status”

      Should be “15 seat threshold”. FN won 8 seats.


    2. Yes, while I agree that REM is likely to ultimately replace the Socialist Party, it’s going to be messy in the short term. There’s really no precedent for such a huge influx of inexperienced MPs with no strong party organisation to manage them; it’s not as critical as it would be in a fully parliamentary system, but there’ll still be a lot riding on how they turn out. Also on what sort of relationship the remnant Socialists can forge with Mélenchon’s lot. Interesting times indeed. Completely understand your wish to live there!


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