The election to the French National Assembly on 12 and 19 June resulted in Emmanuel Macron’s party losing its majority (down from plus 123 to minus 113), an increase in support for the combined forces of the left and big gains – in terms of seats – for the far right. Most foreign observers seem to be agreed that this is pretty much the end of civilisation as we know it. What they have homed in on is the increase in seats for Marine Le Pen’s far right party from eight to 89. But the breakthrough by the left wing grouping, NUPES, is more striking.
The National Assembly election followed on from the presidential election in April: the second round saw a straight fight between Macron and Le Pen, with the former winning by 58.6% to 41.4%. At the time people threw up their hands in horror at the thought of the French electorate being ‘polarised’. But, let’s face it, any binary contest (X versus Y) inevitably means polarisation. So one shouldn’t read too much – or anything, really – into this. The last time I looked there was no sign of shooting in the streets and I live only 24km from the French border.
Fragmented party landscape
The French party landscape is sui generis (in a class of its own). Parties come and go and merge with others at an amazing speed. Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) was only founded on 6 April 2016 and appears to have come from nowhere. It accepts globalisation and wants to ‘modernise and moralise’ French politics, combining social and economic liberalism. The party has been a member of the European parliamentary group Renew Europe (successor to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE) since June 2019. On 5 May 2022 LREM changed its name to Renaissance ahead of the National Assembly election – although this news was sparsely reported in the media. Just to make it even more confusing their National Coalition was called ‘Ensemble’ (together).
On the left there was a lightbulb moment when the main progressive parties realised that there is a lot to be said for the expression ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. NUPES (Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (New Ecological and Social People’s Union) was founded on May Day 2022. It includes Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI), the Socialists (PS), the Communists, the Greens as well as their respective smaller allies. LFI is itself a coalition of seven groups: the Ecologists an umbrella grouping of four organisations, the Socialist party has 3 minor allies, and the Communists another three. To use a word I have been dying to use for 50 years or so, the French party landscape is fairly fissiparous. So bringing together all these groupings was a major achievement, although this didn’t stop dissident Socialists and Greens from standing, too.
The groups participating in NUPES are agreed on increasing the minimum wage after tax to €1,500 per month, the return to retirement at 60, freezing the prices of basic necessities, ecological development, and the establishment of a Sixth Republic (France being in its Fifth Republic). Some PS members regard participation in the European Union as a ‘red line’ and a compromise was reached, with the coalition embracing a ‘common goal’ of changing the European Union from a ‘liberal and productivist’ project to one ‘in the service of … ecology and solidarity’. What’s not to like?
Then there are the mainstream conservatives: the UDC (Union of the Right and Centre)and LR (Les Républicains).
A long, long way further to the right on the political landscape is Le Pen and her RN (Rassemblement National – National Rally) which has, understandably, had problems shedding its xenophobic, fascistic image.
In the run-up to the election Macron seemed to go out of his way to make himself unpopular, by raising the retirement age. He has also come across as rather detached, by giving empty foreign policy adventures priority over domestic policies (ring any bells?). There was that embarrassing photo op in Moscow showing Macron and Putin at opposite ends of what must be the world’s longest table. Macron came away empty-handed, of course. Then there was his extraordinary suggestion that Ukraine and other countries could be included in a much looser version of the EU. He omitted to say how this would tie in with the EU’s goal of ‘an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe’ as stated in the preamble to the Treaty on European Union, the ‘Lisbon Treaty’.
Then NUPES came along. In the first round of the election, NUPES finished second, slightly behind Macron’s Ensemble.
After the presidential election Macron announced a new cabinet. This seems odd – why not wait for the new parliament to be elected? – but perfectly natural in a presidential, rather than parliamentary, system. After the first round of the National Assembly election, in a sop to parliamentary sovereignty, Macron announced that any minister failing to get elected in the second round would cease to be a minister. This has affected a few ministers.
The French electoral system
This takes us to the French parliamentary – not ‘legislative’ (whatever that might mean) – electoral system.
The 577 members of the National Assembly are elected in a two-round system from single-member constituencies. To be elected in the first round, a candidate has to win an absolute majority of votes cast, and also to secure votes equal to at least 25% of eligible voters in their constituency. Should none of the candidates satisfy these conditions there is a second round. Only first-round candidates with the support of at least 12.5% of eligible voters are allowed to participate, but if only one candidate meets that standard the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first round may continue to the second round. In the second round, the candidate with a plurality is elected. Of the 577 constituencies, 539 are in metropolitan France, 27 are in overseas departments and territories and 11 are for French citizens living abroad.
This, then, is a First Past The Post (FPTP) system, despite the fact that French voters can waste their votes twice. Quelle joie! Proportional representation (PR) has been used in the past in France: for example, in the Fourth Republic (the elections of 1946, 1951 and 1956) but was abolished by Charles De Gaulle. In 1986, François Mitterrand introduced a system of PR (akin to the system the UK used for electing MEPs in 2019) but this was abandoned for subsequent elections. Probably because it was doing its job of electing a representative parliament.
Fun with figures
When discussing FPTP elections it always helps to look at the facts. A comparison of the last National Assembly election scores and the latest ones – with the 2022 presidential election thrown in for good measure – shows.
If we look at changes in the share of the popular vote from the first round in 2017 to the second round in 2022 we see: an increase in support for Macronisme (bizarrely reflected in a loss of seats), a collapse in support for the Conservatives and ‘others’ plus respectable increases in support for NUPES and the RN. What these figures show is not so much a seismic shift in the French political landscape – although the three largest groups have increased their total support from about 70% to about 87% – but a largish shift in representation. This will come as no surprise to anyone used to FPTP elections. But what might have happened if France had had a grown-up electoral system?
On the day after the second round of voting, Le Monde had an article on the very low turnout – only 52.5% – with alarming scores for those aged 18–24 (31%) and 25–34 (29%). The author, Mariama Darame, says:
“It’s not a mystery. Political scientists have shown there is a correlation between voting system and voter participation… the majoritarian system stifles freedom of expression… What’s the point of voting if your ballot paper will be the victim of the distorting effect of FPTP?”
The editorial (by Alexandra Schwartzbrod) in Libération of 22 June is clear as to where the fault lies for the surge in representation for the RN:
“Macron’s responsibility cannot be stressed often enough. He pressured the left to vote for him in the second round of the presidential election, but failed to urge his supporters to back NUPES in the second round of the Assembly election against the RN. By lumping NUPES and the extreme Right together, Macron blurred the lines between them without thinking this might rebound on him… The feeling of uncertainty, of not being understood or listened to at a time of crisis caused a lot of French people to vote for a party which claimed to understand their suffering”.
L’État … ce n’est plus moi
Where does Macron go from here? He is faced with the choice of calling fresh elections (this is a serious suggestion, believe it or not) – which would probably see his party severely punished – or creating ad hoc alliances to steer certain pieces of legislation through the Assembly. The mainstream conservatives have won 74 seats which, when added to Ensemble’s 250, gives a comfortable majority. However, the conservatives are split as to what to do, opinions varying from ‘You’re on your own, Mac’ to ‘It’s our duty to save the Republic’. It is hard to see Nupes and the fascists uniting to defeat the centre.
And it is by no means certain that Nupes will continue to act as a 100% united force. There is already talk of the Socialists and possibly the Greens, too, sitting as separate parliamentary groups. To qualify as a parliamentary group requires 60 MPs, and groups – as opposed to individual MPs – can table motions of censure and can request rulings from the Constitutional Court. Le Pen will not hesitate to use these powers now that she has an official ‘group’.
The voting figures show, firstly, that France is no more polarised than, say, the UK. Secondly, we can now all agree that France uses FPTP and not PR and that FPTP is a terrible way of electing a representative parliament. However, we can also see that even under FPTP parties and groups that co-operate can perform better than those that don’t. This is an obvious lesson which UK progressive parties need to learn.