Why are France's legislative elections so important to Macron?

Patrick Kovarik, AFP | Members of Parliament attend a session of questions to the government, on February 22, 2017 at the French National Assembly, in Paris.

Monday marks the official début in France of an unprecedented legislative election campaign with the stakes exceptionally high for all the political forces concerned.


On two consecutive Sundays next month, June 11 and 18, France’s more than 47 million voters will head to the polls to vote for some 6,500 candidates battling it out to fill 577 seats in the lower-house National Assembly. The legislative elections are colloquially known as “the third round”, falling as they do, since 2002, shortly after a presidential election battle waged in two rounds just weeks earlier.

The stakes are especially high for newly elected president Emmanuel Macron, who needs a majority if he is to push through his campaign platform. A French president who does not obtain an assembly majority – a situation known as “cohabitation” – still has a wide berth on foreign and defence issues, but the country’s domestic agenda will be in the political opposition’s hands. For other political forces, like the imperilled Socialist Party, the stakes this time around approach life or death.

New political landscape

In a standard election year, the conventional wisdom has it that French voters -- in a collective bid for coherence, consistency and stability -- will provide a legislative majority of the same political stripe as their newly elected president so he can follow through on the mandate he was elected on.

But election-wise, 2017 is anything but standard or conventional.

Recall that the presidential election this year saw both of the political forces that have governed France for decades eliminated in the first round. Benoît Hamon, the candidate representing the Socialist Party -- which held the presidency under the record-breakingly unpopular François Hollande as well as a majority in the National Assembly -- finished a dismal fifth on April 23’s first round with 6.36 percent, the party’s worst performance since 1969. On the right side of the spectrum, the conservative ex-prime minister François Fillon, his hardline campaign dogged by scandal, also failed to advance to the May 7 final duel, finishing third.

The final pitted anti-immigration Europhobe Marine Le Pen against a political novice, the independent centrist Macron, who campaigned firmly for political renewal. The 39-year-old Macron was elected with a solid majority, with two-thirds of the vote against Le Pen. However, critics point to polls showing that a majority of Macron’s voters chose him “by default” to keep Le Pen out of office than out of real enthusiasm for Macron.

Macron’s fledgling En Marche! [Forward!] movement is only a year old. To win the legislative election, he has touted the value of political renewal with faces new to politics; his candidates include a torero (female bullfighter) and a Fields Medal-winning mathematician [pictured in tweet below].

Macron has also poached big names from other parties as counterweights – his cabinet is an alchemy that includes centre-right members of Les Républicains like new Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, luminaries from the centrist Modem party like new Justice Minister François Bayrou and Socialist Party prizes like new Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, a rare popular member of ex-president François Hollande’s government. But Macron’s unprecedented venture still counts as a gamble in French politics.

An OpinionWay poll released last week showed an even split with 49 percent of French people surveyed who want the new president to win a National Assembly majority and 49 percent who don’t. Meanwhile, with the first round only three weeks away, 48 percent are still unsure of who to choose, compared to 52 percent who are certain of their choice.

Spotlight advantage?

An incumbent president nevertheless holds one key advantage to help his candidates’: the spotlight. Every gesture by new president Macron is, implicitly, a campaign move. Naming a centre-right prime minister and finance minister poached from Les Républicains (LR) -- as he did last week with Edouard Philippe and Le Maire, respectively -- might well be strategic for Macron’s presidency, but it also had the tactical result of destabilising a rival party ahead of the legislative votes. Of those polled by the Odoxa opinion firm last week, 69 percent approved of Philippe’s nomination as prime minister, while 75 percent liked that Macron named of TV-star-turned-environmentalist Nicolas Hulot to his government.

It bears noting, too, that Macron will be making his grand entrance on to the world political stage at the end of this week, with the consecutive NATO and G7 summits in Brussels and Sicily. No rival domestic political leader will be able to claim comparable attention over that period. On the other hand, a serious gaffe would be all the more damaging as a consequence.

Watchword: Renewal

In fact, even without that wholesale so-called “recomposition” of the political landscape that Macron’s win heralded, the upcoming legislative vote would have shaken up the political status quo regardless.

As it happens, a 2014 law that forbids concurrent parliamentary and local executive offices – eg, holding a lower-house seat and a mayor’s office at the same time – comes into effect for deputies in this election, which has forced many incumbents to choose between parliament and their local political office. As a result, nearly 200 sitting deputies, a record total, have decided not to defend their seats in this election, including the last two National Assembly presidents (roughly equivalent to the chamber’s [house] speaker), the Socialist Claude Bartolone and the Les Républicains conservative Bernard Accoyer.

In 2012, when the last cohort of deputies was elected, 82 percent of them held another elected office concurrently and 45 percent held a local office as now forbidden by the new law. The comparative figures elsewhere in Europe were much lower; only 16 percent of Italian parliamentarians -- 15 percent in Spain, 13 percent in Britain, and 10 percent in Germany – held another elected office concurrently, according to an official French comparison.

Unpredictable races

The sheer number of individual races – 577 – and candidates – 6,500 – make predictions difficult.

Moreover, unlike in the presidential race that concluded last month, it is not only the top two finishers after the first round that advance to the June 18 final, but any candidate that scores more that 12.5 percent of registered votes. That means three-way contests, known as “triangulaires”, are commonplace in the run-off round and have in the past often led to seat-specific tactical deal-making between parties – which makes predictions all the more tricky.

The polls indicate that Macron’s camp has the momentum, with 27 percent of voter intentions on a recent OpinionWay poll, ahead of Les Républicains and the Front National, each of whom polled at 20 percent. The same poll says Macron could win 280 to 300 seats. The absolute majority is 289.

Macron has chosen to present only 526 candidates for these elections, opting to sit out of races where a nominal rival heavyweight has let it be known he or she would take Macron’s side in parliament. One example: Marisol Touraine, the former health minister under Hollande, is officially a Socialist Party candidate for a legislative seat, but her campaign posters make no mention of that party and read instead, “The candidate of the presidential majority with Emmanuel Macron”.

High stakes

Indeed, while Macron will be looking to win a majority for an upstart movement that didn’t exist until 2016, the Socialist Party will be looking to save its skin. The party suffered a traumatic rout in 1993, winning only 57 seats then, including five for candidates merely affiliated with the party. The debacle could be worse this time; the OpinionWay polling figures give the Socialists and their affiliates 40 to 50 seats ahead of voting in June.

Races to watch

There are a number of household names that will draw the media spotlight in this legislative race.

Le Pen, the National Front’s (FN) presidential finalist, announced last Thursday that she will be running for a seat in a northern France district where she won 58.2 percent of votes in the presidential run-off. She ran for the same seat in 2007 and 2012; and she lost the latter race very narrowly, falling short by approximately just 100 votes.

More generally for the FN, there is some suspense over whether the party will win enough seats to earn its own official parliamentary group. In 2012, the party won two seats; it needs 15 to form a group, which confers certain advantages in terms of resources and speaking time on the house floor. A parliamentary group would be a rare piece of post-presidential election good news for a party that has since seen infighting, the end of its presidential run-off alliance with pro-sovereignty politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, and the announcement that its youngest star, National Assembly deputy Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, will be leaving politics, at least temporarily.

Meanwhile, far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the “Unsubmissive France” leader and former Socialist cabinet minister, whose charismatic presidential campaign contributed to reducing the Socialist vote to rubble, has decided to run for a seat in Marseille. His choice of district is controversial because instead of running to keep a National Front candidate out of power, as he aimed to do against Le Pen in northern France in 2012, Mélenchon is challenging a Socialist heavyweight for his seat in a leftist bastion in the south. Mélenchon, who fancies himself as the future of France’s left at the Socialist Party’s expense, topped the district he is contesting in June with 39 percent of the vote in the presidential first round in April.

As for Macron, six of his brand new cabinet ministers’ jobs are also on the line in this election. The Elysée Palace has said that any minister running for a legislative seat must win or step down. That includes Le Maire, who was kicked out of Les Républicains (LR) after he joined Macron’s government, only to see a new LR candidate invested to run against him in his district. A big catch -- and one surely meant to reassure European partners, and especially Berlin, on France’s budgetary rigour under Macron -- Le Maire’s loss would be an embarrassment for the new president, whether or not Macron’s other candidates perform well on June 18.

However Macron and his rivals fare at the ballot box in June, there is a level of interest in this upcoming vote unusual for legislative elections in France. Stay tuned.

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