A look at the French figures

Remarkably enough, figures from France’s parliamentary election, which concluded on Sunday, are more complete than those from Australia’s, held four weeks earlier. So we’ll look at France first, and get back to Australia later in the week.

The tone of most media coverage of the French result has been that it’s a major defeat for president Emmanuel Macron – “chastened and greatly weakened,” as per the BBC headline, was typical. That’s certainly part of the story, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Last week I pointed out that if you just took the leaders in each seat in the first round, the totals would come out at 207 centre, 201 left, 112 far right, 50 centre-right and seven others.* Taking that as the baseline, Macron has done pretty well; there will actually be 255 centrists in the parliament, as against 152 left, 91 far right, 72 centre-right and seven others.

In other words, the centre and centre-right were able to improve on their first-round performance by attracting voters from elsewhere; the far right and (even more so) the left were not.

So, for example, in 296 of the 577 districts the top two candidates were from centre and left, each leading in exactly half of those. But the left came from behind to win in only ten of them, whereas the centre did so in 48. In seats where the centre-right made the runoff, it did even better: it won all but one of the 50 seats where it finished first, but also overtook the leaders in 23 of the 37 where it was placed second.

The far right had a lot fewer wins from second place (11 out of 96), but it was better able to hold off the left than either the centre or centre-right. In 79 seats it had a first-round lead over centre or centre-right, but it lost 27 of them in the runoff. But in the 33 seats where it was leading the left, it was only overtaken in five.

There’s also some evidence, although far from conclusive, that within the left it was the more moderate candidates who did better. A total of 64 first-round leaders from the left were beaten in the second round; that included 42 of the 113 from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI and 12 of the 27 Greens, but only five of the 31 Socialists.

In any case, it’s clear that there will not be much of a common approach among the different left groups, which disagree on some of the major fault lines of French politics. The Socialists, Greens and Communists have already rejected Mélenchon’s call to form a single parliamentary group, and no doubt they will respond in different ways to the president’s overtures for co-operation.

The division on the left mirrors that on the right – not just the still massive gulf between the far-right National Rally and the centre-right Republicans, but also the split within the latter group over how close they are willing to get to Macron. The Republicans’ 61 seats are the most obvious target for the government to reach a majority, so they will soon have to decide whether they are willing to make a deal, and if so, what their price will be.

The centre-right’s second-round revival, allied to the unprecedented strength of the far right, has returned Macron to the position of balance that seemed to be threatened by the first round; he again faces approximately equal strength on each side. He therefore also faces a choice: he could pick a single prospective ally (presumably the Republicans) and aim to build a stable coalition, or he could again stick to the centre, playing off left and right against each other and winning support on a case by case basis when he needs it.

Macron’s instinct seems to be to pursue the second option, but it remains to be seen how viable it will be in the new parliamentary situation. It’s also not clear what it will mean for the succession to Macron, which currently looks wide open. A successful second term could open the way for a new centrist candidate such as former prime minister Édouard Philippe; conversely, legislative gridlock could doom such chances.

The president does, however, have another weapon up his sleeve. The last five parliaments have all run their full five-year term, but dissolution is an option at any time after the first 12 months. It’s not an option to be taken lightly – the last president who used it, Jacques Chirac in 1997, was heavily defeated – but at a carefully chosen moment against divided opposition a fresh election could well seem attractive.


* Technical note: You can find the official figures here; Le Monde has nice colored maps and tables. I have classified all the second-round candidates into one of the four broad ideological groups, with just a few (mostly regionalists) left over, so my totals are all a bit larger than those of the official party labels. A handful of the classifications could be disputed, but not so as to change the basic arithmetic.

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