In the second round of the French elections on June 19, President Macron’s party lost its majority by a larger margin than commentators had expected.
Some 289 MPs are needed for a majority in the French parliament. The previous parliamentary elections in 2017 saw his newly formed party, LREM (La République en Marche), gain 306 seats. Macron easily formed a majority and a relatively tame parliament, and as president he could choose the prime minister who heads up the parliamentary party. Traditional big players like the severely reduced Socialists (30 MPs) and the divided Republicans (112 MPs) had collapsed, while other parties did not have enough MPs to form powerful parliamentary groups. This year Macron’s re-branded party, Ensemble (Together), won only 245 seats, leaving it 32 seats short of a bare majority.
French parliamentary elections for the lower house (chambre des députés) consist of two rounds. In the first round, any party can stand in a constituency, but only the two (or occasionally three) candidates with the highest number of votes can go forward to the second round, which takes place a week later. Parties competing for the same kind of elector may therefore be eliminated from round 2, and some voters may lose interest in turning out again. This year the turnout in round 1 was 47.51%, and in the second 46.23%.
Can the centre hold?
So, what changed? Five years as president obviously exposed Macron to public criticism which had not really existed before 2017. Those five years included significant changes in the EU, worsening economic crises, violent demonstrations by the gilets jaunes, attempts to raise the retirement age, Covid, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to name but a few. His relatively inexperienced MPs in LREM were also exposed to the rigours of reality. Perhaps it is not so surprising that his party, now re-branded as Ensemble (Together), lost over 50 seats compared to 2017.
This year Macron cannot easily form a majority because of the unexpected performance of three big groups: (a) NUPES (a left-wing coalition) headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), (b) Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National (National Rally), and (c) the centre-right Républicains. The first two have more parliamentary rights and money than before, and greater public visibility. All three, however, have more potential to influence government policy and public opinion.
- The left-wing parties and the Greens formed an alliance NUPES (New Ecological and Social Union) in which the parties agreed not to compete against each other in the first round. Fragmentation of the left-wing parties had always existed and was exacerbated by the collapse of the Socialist Party under President Hollande. This alliance enabled NUPES to gain 131 seats compared to the 67 for similar parties in 2017. Because NUPES was hastily formed, there is some doubt about its ability to remain united.
- Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National was the biggest winner this year, moving from eight seats to 89. Pollsters had estimated after the first round that she would gain only 15–30. Le Pen had changed the old name, National Front, as part of her attempt to de-toxify the party. Political pundits think that unlike NUPES it is likely to be highly disciplined because of Le Pen’s ruthless hold on the party, her appeal to certain sections of the population, and her success in getting into the second-round run-off for president in both 2017 and 2022. (Le Pen’s father had also come second in the 2002 presidential election).
- The third group which did better than expected, with 64 seats, was the ‘Républicains’, the traditional centre-right party, which is gradually restoring its reputation after the financial scandals of Sarkozy and Fillon. Ideologically this party is closer to Macron, who may be able to peel off a few Républicains into a coalition. The party as a whole, however, may be reluctant to become associated with Macron while it is trying to re-establish its former powerbase.
Can Macron form a viable and stable coalition for five years?
Macron’s diplomatic skills and determination may lead to some pragmatic cross-party agreement, but he is faced with a new situation. Even if he sustains a parliamentary majority over five years like last time, he still has to handle two large, confident and vociferous opposition groups. He will therefore need a skillful, experienced prime minister. NUPES and National Rally may be at opposite (and often ‘hard’) ends of the political spectrum, but they are both populist and Euro-sceptic, which hardly fits with Macron’s general outlook.
Le Pen is arguably the greater danger to the position of France within the EU, having diminished Macron’s status in these elections. She is strongly anti-EU, although she was forced in 2017 to drop a policy of France leaving the Euro. She portrays the EU as the destroyer of national identity, the imposer of restrictions on French business and ordinary people. Her protectionist instincts contradict Macron’s views. Like the present British government, she disapproves of freedom of movement, using the issue of immigration in subtly inflammatory ways, especially with regard to Muslims. Le Pen’s scepticism about renewable energy and her preference for nuclear, often seen as ‘traditionally French’, also put her at odds with progressive thinking.
Although she shares a long tradition since De Gaulle of anti-US and anti-Nato sentiment, Le Pen is also usually favourable to Putin’s interpretation of the world. Her party was enabled to continue paying its debts by a Russian bank, she has frequently expressed admiration for Putin, and saw the annexation of Crimea as justified. Only since February 24 has she been forced to change her public utterances on Russia. Her party has usually voted against motions condemning Russia, and there are also links to Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
Macron beat off Le Pen’s challenge in the televised debates for the presidential election in 2017 and 2022, but the domestic challenge to him, and to Europe, will now be more sustained, vociferous and more supported by autocratic forces. We shall have to wait and see how much Le Pen will join the British government and the eastern European autocrats in subverting European security, and democratic and economic stability.