The French have been going to the polls once again (as if our nerves aren’t sufficiently shattered from the last round), this time the parliamentary election was up.
If you’re not familiar with the French electoral process: the voters first elect a president, usually over two rounds of voting. This president becomes the head of state. The president then chooses a prime minister, who becomes the head of government. This prime minister will propose the composition of the ministers of government to the president.
This time, France elected its National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament. This election process is similar to the presidential election system, where if no candidate achieved an outright majority, a second round of voting is held for the top 2 candidates. In the parliamentary election process, a second round of voting is held in constituencies where no candidate has achieved a majority. All candidates who achieved more than 12,5 % of the votes in the first round will then move on to the second round.
Newly elected President Emmanuel Macron has chosen Édouard Philippe as his prime minister. Philippe is currently a member of the centre-right Republicans. Phillippe started off his political career as part of the centre-left Socialist party some 20 years ago, but later joined the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (the predecessor to the Republicans). Macron, himself a former Socialist and later independent, and current leader of the newly formed centrist party En Marche! has therefore continued his familiar style of broad-reaching political appeal. The recent election of the National Assembly has therefore been revealing of whether his transpolitical approach has worked.
Considering the extent of the proposals made by Macron as part of his presidential campaign, it was crucial for him to be able to achieve sufficient support in parliament in order to allow him to carry out these changes. The party has been campaigning under the name La République En Marche! (LREM), having allied itself with the Mouvement démocrate (MoDem) party. The polls had been suggesting that the parties were all set to win a majority in the National Assembly, with percentage estimates in the high ’20s.
The first round of voting took place on June 11, and the second round was held on June 18. In the first round, LREM did, as the polls had foreseen, crush all opposition, achieving, together with MoDem, 32,2 % of the votes (of which MoDem accounted for around 4%), and a majority in the National Assembly. The prediction at the time was that after the voting on June 18, LREM and MoDem might stand to achieve as much as 445 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. Although the total tally ended up being 351, this is still an absolute majority, and it absolutely enables Macron to start his overhaul of the French political landscape.
The results of the election have prompted headlines to include wordings like “King Jong Macron?”. Still, it’s difficult to call the win a genuine landslide, as voter turnout was extremely low, at less than 49% for the first round, and just over 43% for the second round. This puts the abstention rate for both rounds at more than half the eligible population. For comparison, the last 3 parliamentary elections have each had turnouts of around 61%.
There are three main reasons why:
Firstly, that Macron has managed to rocket to the political sky at the pace he has, is because there has been an overall feeling of discontent with the established political scene in France. People have rejected the usual range of candidates, which led to relative underdogs Macron and Marine Le Pen rising to the top of the bill for the presidential election. Now, Macron has arguably reinvigorated French politics, at least to some extent, but the general political discontent can’t be brushed off over the course of one election, and although many have enthusiastically boarded the LREM train, many just can’t be bothered anymore.
Secondly, Macron and LREM’s total dominance in French politics has also been dissuading for other parties. The Socialist party for example, who won 280 seats in the last parliamentary election in 2012, was predicted to attain between 20 and 35 seats in this election, with its allies. After Sunday’s votes were tallied, the Socialists had scored 30 candidates on their own. The Republicans likewise lost a significant part of their parliamentary representation. This kind of plummeting interest hardly lays the foundation for an exciting campaign for either party.
Finally, certain voters, perhaps not as fed up with the establishment as others, or at least not sufficiently fed up that they’re willing to ditch all familiar political structures, may arguably have lost interest in the election process, as polls have given such clear indications of LREM’s total domination. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leftist presidential candidate, announced that “The French people are now engaged in a sort of civic general strike”, referring to the unusually high abstention rate.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Marine Le Pen, who reached the second round of the presidential election, won her first ever parliamentary seat. In spite of the momentum she achieved as a presidential candidate, her Front National party only achieved 8 parliamentary seats. As she was the runner-up president, this is hardly an inspiring result, and it has been referred to in the media as a “decimation” of the French far-right. Although Le Pen dreams of strengthened Front National representation in the National Assembly were crushed, it’s important to consider that the French electoral system is based on the election of a single representative in each constituency, meaning only the candidate with the highest number of votes achieves parliamentary representation. This means a candidate can have achieved 49% of the votes in his or her constituency, but will still not achieve the right to represent anybody if another candidate attains 51%. Although Le Pen and her Front National are popular, Macron and RLEM are usually more popular in most constituencies. This means their chances of achieving the parliamentary representation of that constituency are better, but it doesn’t decimate the political sentiments shared by Le Pen’s fans.
Although the results of the election are uplifting for moderates and Europhiles, it is dangerous to start considering far-right populism as having been beaten and “decimated” already. The long-standing disregard for voters of this persuasion is part of the reason why their anger has grown and spread the way that it has, and it’ll take a lot more than an election with a higher abstention rate than participation rate to contain and remedy that.
Still, let’s not be overly pessimistic, and let’s at least breathe a sigh of relief, maybe drink some champagne and eat a baguette, at this step in the right direction in maybe, hopefully, decimating the far-right sooner than what seemed possible just earlier this year. Salut.