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Whirlwind French election heads for 'third round' with legislative votes

Jean-François Monier, AFP | Electoral posters of candidates for the upcoming French parliamentary elections, in Saint-Cosme-en-Vairais, northwestern France, on May 29, 2017.

As France’s legislative elections begin on Sunday, the country is entering uncharted territory, with Macron's newcomer party poised to score a comfortable majority and the country’s established parties looking very uncomfortable indeed.


Since election reform that took effect in 2002, the race to fill the lower-house National Assembly’s 577 seats is often deemed the “third round”, coming as it does on the heels of the presidential election’s two-round contest just a few weeks earlier. In practice, the legislatives have in the past been a low suspense affair, with voters reliably choosing to give the just-elected president the majority he needed to govern.

But all bets are off in 2017.

With a freshly elected 39-year-old independent centrist president in Emmanuel Macron – a political neophyte never elected to any office before he won his country’s top job in a May 7 landslide against the anti-immigration populist Marine Le Pen – there were no guarantees ahead of this legislative race.

Macron and Le Pen advanced to the final at the expense of the two political forces that had governed France for decades, the Socialist Party and the conservative Les Républicains (LR), relegating them to also-rans. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, scored a miserly 6.36 percent of votes, his party’s worst result since 1969, and nearly 14 points behind his far-leftist challenger, the charismatic ex-Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his La France Insoumise.

In this “third round”, both main traditional parties – smarting in defeat and riven with ideological quarrels – are fighting to stay relevant in parliament when voters head to the polls in two rounds, on Sundays one week apart, June 11 and 18.

Meanwhile, Macron’s lawmaker candidates are running under a banner that didn’t even exist 15 months ago. Moreover, Macron – who risks seeing his domestic reform agenda collapse if he doesn’t win a majority on June 18 – nevertheless fielded hundreds of candidates who are not politicians, newcomers plucked from civil society. An audacious move. Macron’s roster includes a mathematics marvel, a bullfighter and a fighter pilot.

Macron’s audacity to pay off?

When François Fillon, the disgraced conservative LR candidate whose campaign was crippled by scandal, argued only months ago that elected Macron as president would be risky because the newcomer couldn’t score a parliamentary majority, the point had a ring of truth.

Even after Fillon’s presidential defeat, Les Républicains were still vying confidently for a legislative tour de force that would obligate Macron to govern alongside them in so-called co-habitation. An absolute majority did seem a difficult prospect for the new president; despite his May 7 presidential win, public support for a Macron majority was divided. In mid-May, the OpinionWay polling firm released a survey that showed an even split, 49-49, between voters who wanted the new president to have a majority in the National Assembly and those who didn’t.

But on the eve of the legislative elections, Macron’s position appears stronger than it was after he won the presidency. A critically acclaimed performance on the international stage played a role, as the new French leader held his ground against Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and did not look out of place with the likes of Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau.

Domestically, some of Macron earliest moves – like naming conservative Les Républicains import Édouard Philippe as prime minister and celebrity environmentalist Nicolas Hulot to his cabinet – have proved popular with the public; those choices also proved savvy politically in further exposing ideological rifts on the left and within Les Républicains.

Massive Macron majority?

Suddenly pollsters are suggesting Macron could win an unusually massive legislative majority.

“If [Macron’s La République] en Marche (LREM) gets around 350 seats, it will be a majority at least as good as the one [former president Nicolas] Sarkozy enjoyed in 2007,” OpinionWay’s Bruno Jeanbart told reporters in Paris this week. “But there are projections that go as high as 400 seats, which means an extremely large majority that has rarely been seen since the end of World War II.”

An absolute majority would give Macron the mandate to put through his reform agenda. It might also lay to rest the knock on Macron after the presidential election that he was simply elected by default, the lone option to Le Pen, the presidential runner-up.

But Macron’s expected win may be so decisive that the concern is now – among pundits, analysts and especially political rivals – that he may have too big a majority for French democracy to operate properly. Analysts warn that Macron’s roster of rookie parliamentarians could make the National Assembly too submissive under a president that holds all the cards. “The newcomers will owe him not only their victory but their very political existence,” analyst and pollster Jérôme Sainte-Marie told Agence France-Presse.

On a more granular level, six of Macron’s cabinet ministers’ jobs are on the line in this election, with the Élysée Palace decreeing that any minister running for a legislative seat win or step down. Two of those races to watch? Bruno Le Maire, a Les Républicains heavyweight Macron poached to be his finance minister, is running for re-election in a district of the Eure. The German-speaking conservative has the upside of reassuring European partners on the Europhile Macron’s domestic reform agenda and budgetary rigour; losing Le Maire would be an embarrassment for the president. Meanwhile in Brittany, Richard Ferrand, a Macron ally who has faced allegations of impropriety since he was named minister for territorial planning, is also facing voters’ judgment at the ballot box.

Blowing up the political landscape

If the late-race polling that suggests a big win for Macron’s LREM does prove right, French politics may never be the same.

En Marche! is a virtual fragmentation bomb, meaning it explodes in one place first – and that was the presidential election – and now it will continue exploding in the legislative elections,” Kantar pollster Édouard Lecerf told reporters this week. “It will continue inflicting damage on political life as we know it, creating shockwaves at the local level. It will reorder the way we see and interpret the political landscape.”

Both of the main traditional parties have seen pre-existing rifts aggravated by disagreements and recriminations over how to respond to Macron’s rise. Some are of the if-you-can’t-beat-him-join-him school, while others are tempted to stump for a harder line out of the moderate president’s remit.

One victim of Macron’s surge may be Les Républicains. Once primed to win a majority, the conservative camp may well lose dozens of lawmakers, with polling putting LR at between 110 and 130 seats in this race.

The battle for the French capital is particularly revealing on that score. “We had envisaged winning one or two [more of Paris’s 18] districts, but our objective has been revised down. It is now to maintain our position,” Philippe Goujon, who heads Les Républicains’ federation in Paris, admitted this week to the daily Le Figaro.

We’ll always have Paris?

In one race to watch on Paris’s Left Bank, conservative heavyweight Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet is struggling to win a seat in what was considered a “golden district”.

When Fillon decided not to stand for re-election in the district and passed the torch to Kosciusko-Morizet in January, it seemed like a gift. But the moderate former Sarkozy cabinet minister has walked a fine line on the campaign trial, trying to appear Macron compatible while not abandoning the district’s harder line conservative voters. As a result, she is facing two dissident candidates from her party as well as a LREM newcomer. On a recent poll, Macron’s candidate, Gilles Le Gendre, looked set to crush the moderate conservative 68 percent to 32 percent, a shock result if it bears out.

The battle within Les Républicains between hardliners and moderates tempted to join lawmaking forces with Macron, at least informally and occasionally, may be exacerbated in the week between the two rounds of this election, depending on how the party reacts to legislative races that see the far-right National Front advance to three-way finals. Some top party officials have advocated desisting in favour of even a leftist political rival if that rival is better placed to keep the National Front out of office; others are unwilling to treat Marine Le Pen’s camp as pariahs at their own party’s expense.

Life and death for the Socialist Party

The floundering Socialist Party has a similar problem – only worse. At risk of being squeezed into irrelevance by outright Macron defectors on the one hand, Mélenchon far-leftists on the other, and Socialists sympathetic to Macron’s cause somewhere in the middle, the stakes are truly life and death for the Socialists. Pollsters say they could drop to as low as 15 seats, the bare minimum needed to maintain a group in parliament, a far cry from the majority it won in 2012.

One emblematic race to watch for the Socialists, also in Paris, will be whether party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis retains his own seat. The 65-year-old is facing Macron’s youngest cabinet member, his minister of state for digital affairs, 33-year-old Mounir Mahjoubi, a former Socialist. On the other hand, the district, which takes in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, gave the most votes to Mélenchon in the presidential first round (30.52 percent), leaving the Socialist Hamon well behind (13.21 percent).

Mélenchon, meanwhile, once dreamed of governing or at least building up a ferocious opposition to Macron after he finished a respectable fourth with nearly 20 percent nationally in April 23’s presidential first round. But while the far-leftist may well win a seat for himself in central Marseille, pollsters suggest La France Insoumise could win between 15 to 40 seats; perhaps enough to challenge the Socialist Party for the title of “leader of the left” – a nail in the Socialist coffin that some pundits believe would suit the disgruntled and cantankerous ex-Socialist Mélenchon just fine – but not quite on par with the 65-year-old veteran far-leftist’s heady dreams of the presidency before he fell 600,000-odd votes short of Le Pen for a place in the presidential final.

Meanwhile, a month after Le Pen’s runner-up performance, her National Front, too, is in danger of falling short of its once-high hopes and exacerbating that party’s own ideological rifts. Le Pen’s score doubled her father’s 2002 tally, but Jean-Marie Le Pen’s presidential run-off appearance back then was a surprise while his daughter managed to fall short of her 2017 voters’ high expectations; polls had suggested she could top 40 percent in the run-off against Macron.

Le Pen has arguably staked her own political future on winning a seat in a northern France district where she won 58.2 percent of votes against Macron on May 7. She has run for (and lost) the same seat twice before, falling short by approximately 100 votes in 2012.

The Front National needs 15 seats – up from its current two – to constitute an official parliamentary group, which confers certain advantages in terms of resources and speaking time on the house floor, a potential new public pulpit for the party’s personnel. The ability to form a parliamentary group would be a rare piece of post-presidential election good news for a party riven with infighting and smarting from the loss of its star parliamentarian, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who announced she would step down from politics, at least temporarily.

High stakes right across the spectrum make this race one to shake up France for years to come. And of course for Macron, every success so far has simply won the young political newcomer the right to take on challenges even more difficult. With a terrorist threat to manage and labour market reform to push through in the short term, even a convincing new win at the ballot box may soon not feel like such a prize.

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