France Rediscovers Parliamentary Politics | The Nation
“We beat him,” boasted left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “He has no majority. And since he has no principles, he’s already starting to belly dance in front of anyone who wants to help him govern. You will see that he’ll end up polishing Madam Le Pen’s shoes.” The results of France’s parliamentary elections made for a jubilant and punchy Mélenchon, who was basking in the crowd of supporters gathered outside the Parisian concert hall where France’s new left-wing alliance celebrated the June 19 runoff vote.
An hour earlier, President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition failed to secure an absolute majority in the National Assembly. This marks a major departure from the president’s first term, when the Macronists held total control over the lower house of France’s parliament, turning the latter into an echo chamber for the president’s priorities. This setback comes just two months after the president’s reelection over far-right rival Marine Le Pen, and Macron’s second term is already being bogged down in the messy work of parliamentary negotiation and coalition building.
For Macron—who in 2017 expressed his exalted view of broad executive power by referring to his presidency as “Jupiterian”—this will be a hard reality to swallow. On June 21, during one of the meetings between Macron and representatives of the National Assembly’s official party caucuses, Socialist Party General Secretary Olivier Faure told the president, “Jupiter is finished.” Governing France will now require some form of cooperation with opposition deputies, who will be looking for every opportunity to pull Macron in their direction on policy.
The defeat even hit Macron’s inner circle. Key early allies of the president, like Richard Ferrand and Christophe Castaner, the outgoing president of the National Assembly and one of Macron’s first-term interior ministers, respectively, were defeated by left-wing candidates. Figures slated to be second-term ministers like Brigitte Bourguignon and Amélie de Montchalin were likewise rejected by voters, and will now be forced to leave their governmental posts.
Elisabeth Borne, tapped as prime minister in early May, narrowly won election in the Normandy district assigned to her, edging out a 22-year-old political novice by just over 2,000 votes. Macron has reaffirmed his confidence in Borne, who will deliver her highly anticipated “general policy” speech on July 5. But many think her days are numbered, as the president may be forced to find a figure more amenable to opposition support (likely from the right), and better positioned to fend off potential votes of no confidence. In a breach of normal etiquette, Borne and the government have up to this point wavered on whether her July 5 speech will be followed by a vote of confidence.
Macron’s stumble this June was primarily the work of the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES), an alliance formed in the aftermath of April’s presidential vote by France’s crowded field of left-wing forces. The NUPES brings together the center-left Socialist Party, the Greens, the French Communist Party, and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, whose dominant lead among left-wing parties in the April vote put it in a commanding position in unity negotiations and district allocations. The NUPES strategy proved to be remarkably successful: The coalition secured 142 seats in the National Assembly, up from the combined total of 58 of 555 seats held by the same member parties in the outgoing legislature. Taken together, the NUPES is the largest parliamentary coalition after the Macronist force.
“This was a major accomplishment,” the newly elected Greens deputy Sandrine Rousseau told me. “Without the NUPES, we would have won many fewer [seats], even if you take the sum of all the left-wing parties. That being said, we didn’t reach the number to be in the majority.”
In order to deny the president a full parliamentary mandate, the left raised the stakes of the legislative elections. Mélenchon made a direct bid to be elected as prime minister. Macron didn’t get his majority, but the alliance fell far short of being able to impose a governing “cohabitation” on the president. The NUPES campaign was also not able to significantly reverse abstention, which totaled nearly 54 percent of the June 19 electorate, compared to 57 percent in 2017’s second-round vote.
NUPES figures, and left-wing voters, still hope that the alliance can serve as the foundation for a durable left-wing front, both inside and outside of parliament. “The common foundation that unites us,” Rousseau said, “is the fierce conviction that we need to reorient the political debate toward the left and around ecology.”
With only 246 seats in the new National Assembly (short of the 289-vote absolute majority threshold), the president’s main policy initiatives are now in limbo. Scenarios involving specific “governing pacts” with opposition groups, or the more far-fetched possibility of a national unity government, were sidelined in the week following the June 19 vote. In order to pass laws, the Macronist coalition’s weak relative majority will therefore engage in piecemeal, case-by-case negotiations with the opposing parliamentary groups of the left and right.
A French president has not been without an absolute majority since the so-called “plural left” alliance imposed a governing cohabitation on conservative President Jacques Chirac between 1997 and 2002. A constitutional reform in the early 2000s shortened presidential terms from seven to five years, synchronizing presidential and parliamentary elections in the hope of reducing the likelihood of a majority-less head of state. Macron is the first president since François Mitterrand in 1988 to not win an absolute majority on the heels of the presidential elections, which are usually followed by the election of a friendly National Assembly. Michel Rocard, Mitterand’s prime minister at the time, was only 14 votes short of the rubber-stamp majority threshold—a far cry from the 43 missing seats that Borne, or whoever will replace her, will have to track down.
The balance of power in parliament closely mirrors the tripolar political field that has entrenched itself in France since 2017, with Macron’s centrist coalition the largest in a field of minority groupings. Le Pen’s National Rally has seen its delegation surge, going from eight to 89 deputies in the new legislature. This is a record-breaking success for the far right, towering above the 35 seats it held in the mid-1980s. It is especially impressive given that Le Pen and the far right initially were only hoping to get at least 15 deputies, enough to form an official parliamentary caucus.
In fact, the politicization of this June’s parliamentary elections was a choice of the NUPES coalition, a concerted effort to bring parliament back to the center of political life in France. In contrast, and to the dismay of many figures in his party, Macron largely ignored the vote, waiting several weeks after his own reelection to appoint a new government. He’d apparently hoped keeping quiet about the campaign would reinforce the sense of inevitability that he would earn a majority.
As the NUPES coalition dominated the news cycle in the final weeks of the race, emerging from the June 12 first round vote in first place, the president’s allies scuttled whatever remained of the historical “republican front” opposing all far-right political forces. In many of the June 19 run-off contests between the left and Le Pen’s National Rally, Macronists refused to call on their voters to support NUPES. Upward of 70 percent of first-round Macronist voters are estimated to have abstained in run-off contests between the far right and the NUPES, Brice Teinturier of the IPSOS polling institute estimated on election night.
“Reparlementarization” has become a central goal of France’s left-wing forces in recent years. Mélenchon’s long-held proposition for a Sixth Republic was largely ratified by the NUPES, whose political platform calls for a “stable parliamentary regime.” The current Fifth Republic, founded by a Gaullist coup in 1958, was designed to favor executive power and contain the excessive parliamentary horse-trading of the Fourth Republic blamed as responsible for France’s difficulty in repressing the Algerian independence movement. June’s election is a small step toward some form of reinvigorated parliamentary politics, if only by hobbling the Macronists by forcing them to engage with some form of debate and negotiation.
But where that may take France is another question. “We don’t really know how to handle this situation,” constitutional scholar Bastien François acknowledged, pointing out that the current Constitution nonetheless “was drafted in 1958 with the purpose of making sure that one can govern without a stable and coherent majority.” The executive disposes of significant powers like the constitution’s infamous Article 49 Section 3, which gives the government the chance to decree a law without a vote of parliament, which can only intervene by approving a vote of no confidence in the government.
The highly risky maneuver can only be used once per year on non-finance-related laws, however. A dissolution of parliament by the executive, forcing snap elections, could be just as perilous, exposing the president to accusations of executive overreach. Many now take it to only be a matter of time before that happens, as much of the political jockeying going on today is about not appearing as the force responsible for France’s impending political paralysis.
“Nobody really wants a crisis,” François said. “In six months, we’ll see, but nobody wants a crisis right now. People are tired, and nobody can be sure to politically benefit from one. Will the left-wing alliance hold together? The National Rally doesn’t want new elections. Nobody wants new elections. I think this will calm things for the time being. In six, eight months, a year—that’s a different story.”
Until then, the balance of power in the National Assembly is tipped strongly to the right. The potential kingmakers of Macron’s legislative agenda, and the force most amenable to ultimately working with the president are the old center-right party The Republicans (LR), who exceeded expectations by winning 64 seats, down from the 112 held in the outgoing National Assembly, when they were the leading opposition group.
In the long run, the strategic reading that has won out in the party appears to be that its interests are best served by Macron’s failure. Macron may still pick off some support, and the two will likely be able to come to some form of cooperation on fiscal policy and upcoming negotiations on an anti-inflation package, but those who’ve remained in the old center-right party see its salvation in the crack-up of Macron’s coalition.
Little separates these forces besides party egoism. Many of Macron’s most powerful cabinet ministers are former LR officials like minister of the interior Gérald Darmanin and economy minister Bruno Le Maire. Currently embroiled in a sprawling sexual violence scandal, Damien Abad was the LR caucus leader in the outgoing National Assembly before joining the government as minister of solidarity in May. On tax cuts, deregulation, and slashing labor law protections, the two forces could drag France into a race to the bottom: One of the recurring attacks launched by The Republicans during the presidential campaign was that Macron stole their candidate Valérie Pécresse’s plan to raise the retirement age to 65.
Tellingly, the red line that Macron established in his June 23 speech following the string of meetings with parliamentary leaders was austerity and budget orthodoxy. Claiming a “clear legitimacy” from his reelection, Macron declared that any consensual bill to emerge from the divided National Assembly would be based “neither on more taxes, nor more budgetary debt,” adding “ecological” debt as well for good measure.
The official line coming from the government, meanwhile, is a willingness to work with any and all “constructive” parties. This is a wink toward the National Rally, whom government officials have expressed a readiness to partner with. Having proposed a governing coalition with the Communist Party of the NUPES, Macron is likewise said to have alluded to the same offer with Le Pen during her visit to the Elysée Palace on June 21. She later confirmed this to the press. Stirring dissent from the left and parts of his own coalition, Macron has backpedaled to the position that both the RN and Mélenchon’s LFI represent comparably beyond-the-pale threats.
But for Macron, there is no real equivalence. His chief strategic priority is essentially to divide up the NUPES and ease the far right’s search for credibility. Normally mundane selections, the divvying up of parliamentary positions has occupied an unprecedented level of attention since June 19. Chief among this debate is the selection of the president of the National Assembly Finance Committee, set to be decided on June 30. The Constitution stipulates that the commission is presided over by a member of the opposition, and by tradition the governing majority abstains from this vote, meaning the position falls to the largest opposition group. But given that the NUPES forces are formally divided among separate caucus groups, the far right’s 89 MPs make it technically the largest caucus. With the LR’s caucus likely to ultimately support the National Rally’s candidate, the latter could win control of the institution.
“All the NUPES groups are going to vote for an LFI member to preside over the finance committee,” Rousseau said, denying the charge that what’s blocking the NUPES from controlling the committee is the Ecologist, Socialist, and Communist deputies wanting to retain caucus autonomy in the National Assembly. “The only possibility that the left doesn’t hold its presidency is if the government supports the National Rally.”
“We need to create order in a context of disorder” leading Macronist deputy and minister of public service Stanislas Guerini said to Le Monde. “To summarize, be anti-NUPES, and very unified among the three groups of the presidential majority.” Between Le Pen and the parliamentary left, the Macronists seem to have chosen.