Back to the polls in France

France votes on Sunday in the first round of its parliamentary election, with the second round to follow a week later. To some extent they can be thought of as the third and fourth rounds of an electoral process that started with the two rounds of the presidential election back in April.

As you’ll recall, centrist president Emmanuel Macron won re-election quite comfortably, with 58.5% of the second round vote (down from 66.1% five years earlier) against the far right’s Marine Le Pen. The test now is whether he can also retain the parliamentary majority that he won in 2017 and so sustain his newly-appointed prime minister, Élisabeth Borne.

The precedents are certainly in his favor. All but one of the previous seven presidential elections have been immediately followed by a parliamentary election, and each time the president has secured a supportive legislature. That said, they have not had things all their own way; in 1988 and 2007, and even to some extent in 2017, the majority fell rather short of expectations.

You can read my report on the 2017 election here. Macron’s party, Republic on the Move (REM), won 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, plus another 42 for his smaller ally, the Democratic Movement. With the accretion of a few sympathetic independents and others, he finished with 361 seats; defections and resignations have since reduced that to a still-healthy 345.

Throughout his first term, Macron’s parliamentary position has been even stronger than it looks on paper because his opposition is so divided. Six parliamentary groups are opposed (in varying degrees) to the presidential majority – two centre-right, one centre-left, two far left and one miscellaneous – plus 25 ungrouped MPs (non-inscrits); the latter category includes the seven members of the far-right National Rally and its allies, who were insufficient to form a group of their own.

That now looks like changing. As we saw last month, centre-left and far-left parties have united in a new electoral alliance, called the New Popular, Ecological and Social Union (NUPES). The opinion polls show it running roughly level with the REM-led alliance, Ensemble (“Together”), each with just over a quarter of the vote. The National Rally is a few points back on about 20%, and the only other serious force, the centre-right Republicans and their allies, has a bit over 10%.

But beware of assuming that there will be a straightforward relationship between votes and seats. Five years ago, REM and MoDem won their large majority with only 32.3% of the first-round vote. The centre-right had 21.6% and 136 seats; the centre-left 9.5% and 45. The far left, on the other hand, had 14.5% but only 27 seats, while the far right’s 14.7% could win it only ten seats.

So this is not a proportional system. (Proportionality has only applied for one term in modern times, in 1986-88; the last two presidents have both promised to revisit the issue, but with no result.) MPs are elected in single-member constituencies, by a two-round system, thus approximating the effect of preferential voting.* So a strong centrist party like REM has a big advantage, because it can attract support from both sides.

In 2017, Macron’s candidates made the top two in 90% of the districts. In 281 of them they were up against the centre-right, winning 170 and losing 111 with an average of 52.4% of the second-round vote. In 135 districts the contest was centre vs far left or centre-left, and the centre won 88 of them, with a similar average (52.5%) of the second-round vote. But in the 105 districts where the runoff was against the far right, REM and its allies won 95 of them, averaging 59.1%.

So it’s extremely difficult for the far right to win seats, because it has nowhere else to draw support in a runoff. Even if it tops 20% this time, it is unlikely to pick up more than a couple of dozen seats. The problem for Macron is in the collapse of the centre-right vote – if, as some projections suggest, it is on track to lose more than half of its seats, then the large majority of the second round contests are going to pit Ensemble against NUPES.

In that case, the government will depend on a significant number of far-right and centre-right voters turning out to support it in the second round, even though they have no candidate of their own. If they just stay home instead, Macron’s majority could be in jeopardy.

But even if Ensemble dips below the 289-seat mark, that is most unlikely to make NUPES leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon prime minister. It’s impossible to see the aggregate of far-right, centre-right and miscellaneous forces falling below about 60 seats; add to that the fact that the left’s vote tends to be more geographically concentrated, with more votes wasted in safe seats, and the difficulty of NUPES putting together a majority seems insurmountable.

And if somehow it did, there is a further problem: 70 of the NUPES candidates are drawn from the Socialist Party and have little love for Mélenchon. Forced to choose between him and Macron, it’s far from inevitable that they would all stand by the new alliance.

One way or another, it seems almost certain that Borne will have the votes in parliament that she needs. But the size of her margin and the balance of forces will tell us a lot about how much Macron’s two victories have transformed the French party system – which in turn will be an important sign of what might happen after he goes in 2027.

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* It’s theoretically possible for a third and even fourth candidate to go through to the second round, but to do so they need to win 12.5% of the total enrolment in the seat; since turnout is likely to be below 50%, that is all but impossible. In 2017 it happened in just one district (involving REM, centre-right and far right). Similarly in Australia’s system: electing an MP from third place is possible, but extremely rare.

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