Weeks after Emmanuel Macron entered the Elysée for a second five-year term of office, French voters could decide to hamstring their newly re-elected leader by forcing him into a political “cohabitation” that would paralyse the country.
The first round of legislative elections opens on Sunday to decide who will fill the 577 seats in the Assemblée Nationale.
Most of the political sound and fury in France was concentrated on April’s presidential elections, but Macron now needs a parliamentary majority to push through his programme over the next five years.
Cohabitation – a situation in which the president is faced with an opposition majority in parliament – would force compromises over legislation and effectively halt any attempts to carry out his most controversial reforms, including raising the retirement age.
The biggest threat to Macron comes from a coalition of groups from France’s fractured left, named Nupes – La Nouvelle Union Popular, Ecologique et Sociale (the New Popular Ecological and Social Union) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the anti-Nato, anti-European Union La France Insoumise (LFI – Unbowed France).
The polls suggest Ensemble, Macron’s centrist coalition, is on a par with Nupes, and while political analysts suggest the radical left alliance is unlikely to win a majority, it could deprive Macron of up to 40 seats and control of the lower house.
In the past, when France has elected a president it has logically gone on to elect a government that supports him with a working majority. However, Mélenchon, the third man in April’s presidential vote, has breathed new life into the French left with his coalition of greens, communists and socialists that is drawing support from the urban young; surveys suggest 44% of those aged 18-24 support Nupes.
Manon Aubry, a member of the European party for La France Insoumise, said Mélenchon’s “make me PM” campaign has been effective.
“For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic [since 1958] the elected president is not certain of having an absolute majority. We have created huge interest around Nupes; the campaign has revolved around us. We are considered a bad thing or a good thing, but it’s been about us,” Aubry told the Observer.
“The panic this has caused, the caricature and slander we’ve been subjected to, shows the uncertainty and fear on the other side. They are very afraid.”
Political scientist Pascal Perrineau, director of political research at SciencesPo, said there had been no “honeymoon period” for Macron after April’s presidential election, and no real parliamentary campaign by his party.
“Apart from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has made it a show, nobody has succeeded in campaigning,” Perrineau told Le Parisien.
Narrowly knocked out of the presidential election on 10 April, Mélenchon, 70, conceded defeat and hinted he was ready to step back and let a new generation take over. “We were so close but … the younger ones will say to me, ‘We still didn’t win, but we weren’t far, eh? Do better,’ ” he said at the time. Nine days later, Mélenchon was back in fighting mood, describing the legislative vote as a “third round” and demanding voters elect him prime minister.
Mélenchon is not standing for election, and constitutional rules state it is the president’s prerogative, not parliament or the people, to decide who runs the government, but he could still be named PM if Nupes, which has the support of leftwing economists including Thomas Piketty, has a majority.
It is unclear how this would work in practice, as the pair disagree on almost everything. Mélenchon has promised to unpick Macron’s first-term changes and reduce the pension age to 60, restore the wealth tax and increase pensions and the minimum wage.
Three constitutional law experts writing in a legal magazine last week suggested with admirable understatement that Macron and Mélenchon would operate in a “conflictual manner”. “It would certainly be paradoxical to see the people make two opposing political choices two months apart and deny the new head of state the means to govern,” they wrote, adding: “In these uncertain times of loss of reference points and random electoral mobilisation, the hypothesis cannot be ruled out.”
“We have had cohabitation before and it does not mean chaos,” Aubry said. “The president is responsible for foreign affairs, but with a majority in the Assemblée Nationale we would choose the government and run the country,” Aubry added.
If no party achieves an absolute majority, each proposed legislative change submitted to the lower house would require the forging of alliances. Perrineau believes an absolute majority for Nupes is “completely impossible”. “Mélenchon pretends to believe it, he only hopes to be the first opposition group. Macron has just been chosen, the French aren’t so strategic as to deprive him the possibility of applying his policy,” he told French journalists.
Abstention is another unknown factor, with polls showing it could be as high as 54%.
On Thursday Macron called on voters to give him a “clear and strong majority” and warned the “extremes”, meaning Nupes and the far-right Rassemblement National, seek to “break alliances like Nato … and call into question Europe”. Of Mélenchon, he said last week, “It’s rare to win an election when one isn’t even standing,” adding: “The president chooses the person he names the prime minister from parliament. No political party can impose a name on the president.”
Unfortunately, his political canvassers say they have found voters are “very little motivated, even completely lost”.
Any candidate who gets an absolute majority of votes and at least one quarter of registered voters is immediately elected. If not, candidates with at least 12.5% of the vote go through to the second round next Sunday. Early results based on votes counted at polling stations considered representative of France will be released at 8pm on Sunday. Final results will be announced early on Monday morning.
Nupes needs at least 289 seats to win a parliamentary majority. The last period of “cohabitation” in France was 1997-2002, when the centre-right president Jacques Chirac was forced to appoint the socialist leader Lionel Jospin as prime minister after losing his parliamentary majority. .
The odds on a Nupes majority are nevertheless long. The last Ifop-Fiducial poll suggests the alliance will obtain up to 205 seats. This would fall well short of a majority but establish it as the main opposition party and eligible for a number of key administrative posts in the house. The same poll suggests Macron’s Ensemble will finish with 250-290 seats.
The left wing groups in Nupes collectively won about 60 seats in the 2017 election, compared with around 350 for Macron’s allies. If Macron’s Ensemble fails to win an absolute majority it will need support from the mainstream right Les Républicains or moderates from the Parti Socialiste.
Since 2002, when the timetable was modified so presidential and parliamentary elections would be held the same year, the French have never failed to give their presidents a parliamentary majority. The question is, will it hold true this time around?
Source : The Guardian