Making parliamentarism work in France

France was one of the top electoral stories of the first half of this year: a presidential election in April, in which Emmanuel Macron won a second term, followed by the parliamentary election in June, in which his party was returned as the largest force but failed to win a majority. Events this week provide an opportunity to look at how that’s working out.

France’s system is only semi-presidential. Although the presidency is more than ceremonial, it is less than the fully executive office we’re used to in the United States and Latin America. The president governs mostly through a prime minister and cabinet, and the prime minister is responsible to parliament, just as in a Westminster system: the lack of a parliamentary majority can be a serious problem.

Previous presidents have sometimes been forced to appoint a prime minister from an opposing party when their opponents won an election – the last time was in 1997. Only once has a government fallen on a vote of confidence, and that was back in 1962, in the early days of the system: General de Gaulle, the president, promptly dissolved parliament, and his supporters won the subsequent election.

The advantage that Macron and his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, have is that although they are well short of a parliamentary majority, with 251 seats in a lower house of 577, their opponents are deeply divided. After the election, the 326 non-government MPs sorted themselves into parliamentary groups as follows:

  • 151 on the left, in four separate groups (La France Insoumise, Socialists, Greens and Communists), but co-operating in a broad alliance called NUPES;
  • 89 with the far-right National Rally;
  • 62 with the centre-right Republicans;
  • 20 in an independent group of mostly regionalists and centrists, called LIOT;
  • four non-aligned members – three on the far right and one pro-government Socialist.

The first vote held in the new parliament was for election of a speaker. It demonstrated the strength of the groups: the government’s candidate, Yaël Braun-Pivet, had 238 votes in the first round; NUPES’s candidate was second with 146, followed by National Rally’s with 90, the Republicans’ 61 and LIOT’s 18. The far right’s candidate then withdrew, and with its MPs not voting Braun-Pivet won a majority in the second round (becoming, incidentally, the first woman to hold the job).

It’s customary for a government to move for a vote of confidence when it meets a new parliament, but there’s no requirement for it to do so, so Borne did not. Instead the left moved a vote of no confidence in July: that requires an absolute majority of MPs (289) to be carried. It got only 146, attracting no votes from outside NUPES except for one of the non-aligned far-right members. Six MPs from the Socialist group, the closest to Macron of the four left groups, failed to support it.

The government survived the rest of the summer session. It even got a major piece of legislation through, putting an end to the Covid state of emergency, although it had to be extensively amended to win over the Republicans, who dominate the Senate. Parliament then went into recess for two months, from early August to early October.

Now it’s back. The main business of this session is the government’s budget. The constitution allows it to treat financial measures as matters of confidence; that means that legislation can be taken to be approved unless a motion of no confidence is moved and carried against it.* So this week, both the left and the far right moved such motions to try to prevent the first reading of the budget.

National Rally’s motion got only 90 votes. But in a break from their usually hostile relationship, it also supported the NUPES motion, which therefore received a much more respectable 239 votes (this time including all of the Socialists): still fifty short of the necessary majority, but a serious warning shot across the bows of the government. Its dependence on the tolerance of the centre-right has been dramatically exposed.

That said, there is an element of theatre in the no confidence motion. The parties supporting it knew that it would not be passed; they were making a statement (including a statement about their willingness to co-operate with one another) rather than genuinely trying to force an election. If a fresh election actually loomed as a real prospect, it’s possible that they would be much less enthusiastic.

Since, as Borne pointed out, no-one thinks that left and far right could actually govern together, a fresh election would only make sense if it were likely to lead to some substantial shift in the balance of forces. So far there is no sign of that. And if in the future public opinion should tilt Macron’s way, he does not have to wait for a vote of confidence – he can dissolve parliament on his own initiative.

But voters have a habit of taking revenge on parties that force unnecessary elections, a fact that all sides are likely to keep in mind.

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* It can use the same procedure to pass ordinary legislation as well, but only once per session.

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