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The battle for parliament: France’s neglected election

© Loïc Venance, AFP | Election fatigued yet? The June parliamentary polls cap a year of almost non-stop campaigning in France...

Video by Josh VARDEY , Richelle HARRISON PLESSE

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2017-06-11

While overshadowed by last month’s presidential contest, the two-round legislative elections held on June 11 and 18 will determine the course of French government and politics for the five years to come.

France’s political system is so fashioned that parliamentary elections tend to be seen as a sideshow to the all-important race for the presidency. Under the Fifth Republic, they have generally handed the newly elected president a majority in parliament, and thus a chance to form a like-minded government.

Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the May presidential election signalled a political earthquake and France's electoral landscape has not yet settled, leaving everything up for grabs in the legislative polls. The new president is hoping the momentum from his victory, paired with his rivals’ weaknesses, will help him secure a commanding majority in parliament.

Favouring the big parties

There are 577 seats in play in the lower-house National Assembly, including 11 that represent French citizens who live overseas. A minimum of 289 seats is required to secure an absolute majority, and thereby pass legislation without relying on support from other parties. The legislative election does not concern the French Senate, whose members are indirectly elected.

A total of 7,882 candidates are standing nationwide in a process expected to produce a thorough renewal of the National Assembly -- not least because more than 200 of the outgoing lawmakers are not standing for re-election. The average candidate's age is 48.5 years old and more than 42 percent are women. In the outgoing parliament, women accounted for only 26.9 percent of MPs, or 155 out of 577, which was already a record.

If no candidate wins over 50 percent in the first round of voting, the two top-placed go into the second round, along with any other candidate who picks up 12.5 percent of the vote or more. In some cases, this can lead to a four-way contest in the second round.

The system favours big parties, to the detriment of smaller ones who would prefer proportional representation. It explains why the far-right National Front had only two lawmakers in the outgoing parliament, despite having won the third-largest number of votes in the 2012 elections. While more representative of the electorate, proportional voting was blamed for political instability in the short-lived Fourth Republic (1946-1958). It was scrapped in a 1962 constitutional reform.

Voter apathy

By strengthening the president’s powers, the Fifth Republic has tended to sideline legislative elections, leading to greater voter apathy. The rate of abstention has risen steadily since 2012, reaching almost 45 percent in 2012 (as opposed to 20 percent in that year’s presidential election). Analysts are forecasting even higher abstention this time.

Whirlwind France election heads for 'third round'

The notion that a newly elected president should be given the means to govern and pass legislation also explains why some supporters of other parties tend to shun the polls. Should his or her party lose the legislative election, the president would be compelled to charge the victorious rival party or coalition of parties with forming a government.

The prospect of a “cohabitation” between a president from one party and a prime minister from another is generally viewed negatively in France, leading to fears of gridlock. But most French people now have fond memories of the last left-right “cohabitation”, between 1997 and 2002 (under President Jacques Chirac, left-wing prime minister Lionel Jospin and a left-wing parliament), when the economy was growing, unemployment was low and France's multi-racial football team won the football World Cup.

Date created : 2017-06-10


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