Better understanding the results of the French legislative elections

08-07-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

Most commentators of the results of the last French legislative elections seemed to point to an ungovernable France and a President Macron lost at sea, while Europe and the world are in the midst of a dual economic and geopolitical crisis. It is time for more clarity.

While President Macron lost his parliamentary majority (as was expected) and it may not be business as usual in terms of his legislative agenda, France will remain a “governed” country and Macron’s agenda will go forward – even if not in full.

Macron’s mistake, which he may not see as one, was to neglect his party or, more correctly, opportunistic movement of five years ago known as La République en Marche (the republic going forward), this also reflecting the fact that since 2017 France went from party politics to personality politics, as Marine Le Pen would agree. It is symptomatic to notice that the two emanations of the parties that governed France on the left and the right, for nearly sixty years with an aggregate of 80-90% of the votes, only gathered less than 7% at the first round of the most recent presidential election last May.

As such, Macron will still govern France, even if more arduously. There are many reasons for this:

  1. While the left wing opposition, created in no time as a coalition of four different parties (the radical left La France Insoumise (Rebellious or usually Unbowed France) led by the radical leftist Jean-Luc Mélanchon, the Socialist Party, once ruler of France, the dwarfed Communist Party and the popular Greens) gathered 131 MPs (députés in French) they are unlikely to act as one parliamentary group, as each of the three partners of Rebellious France would prefer having their own group. They also do not share the same political agenda – short of defeating Macron at the last election.

The chair of the crucial National Assembly’s finance committee being given to a radical leftist, opponent of capitalism and neoliberalism, is a mere technical step. Such a committee chairmanship is traditionally given to the opposition, admittedly usually so far sharing the same values as to the prevailing world economic system. This step will not prevent the government from controlling the budgetary process and passing legislation, even if requiring working with other, mostly centrist and centre right, individual parliamentarians or their formations.

  1. The Rassemblement National or RN (National Rally), that was created by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the early 1970s as the Front National and was reset as a less racist (though Islamophobic, immigration hostile) and anti-EU extreme right party, created the surprise in multiplying by ten the number of its MPs (all while giving the short-lived extreme right disrupter Eric Zemmour, even more radical than Le Pen, the image of a forgotten soufflé). It was a great feat, but 89 MPs do not make law, even if the RN will be the leading single opposition party in the French Assembly.

So, there will be no really strongly-structured parliamentary opposition to Macron, even if he has no absolute majority and the passing of laws will no longer technically and superficially be “business as usual”. Offers of a national unity government initially made by Macron, while showing a willingness to cooperate, will not go far with opposition parties naturally wanting to oppose. As such, the French President will rely on the Les Républicains party (LR), the neo-Gaullist party of the day, that has been in deep existential crisis having been squeezed for five years between Macron and the RN, while at the same time losing its identity as a centre right “government party”, to act as its right wing in passing many laws. LR will do so, as they wish to survive and not be seen as blocking the constitutional process. And when Macron seeks to lead the EU in five years, when he can no longer run for the French Presidency, LR will likely then try reappearing again as the party of the moderate and sensible right that should naturally take over the affairs of France – all the more if the Socialist Party keeps vanishing due to its dearth of talents, and RN shows its ineptitude to play a constructive legislative role as extremist parties often do when its members are elected.

In the meantime, Macron will ensure that the foreign and defence policies of France stay as they have been so far, as he will remain in sole charge of this presidential domain under the constitution of the Vth Republic made for Charles de Gaulle. Ukraine, the EU and the West should not lose any sleep.

Two points should be noted when reviewing the last election outcome: the high abstention level and the very young age of some of the new MPs. The first point should be seen in the context of the view that, having ensured that Le Pen did not go to the Elysée Palace, voters might have decided not to give full power to a “distant” President by weakening his legislative agenda. However, it is not sure that the outcome of the National Assembly election was so well crafted. Abstention was at 54% which is high for any European parliamentary election though not so uncommon after a presidential election that focused more minds two months earlier. It should be stressed that the “young” (the 18-26 age group) – not unlike for the Brexit referendum – abstained at a high 70% level putting into question whether they are interested in their future or trusting the traditional electoral and political processes. It is also clear that such a high general and “young generation” abstention rate favoured extremist parties, left and right, as their followers tend to go voting – resulting in a poor, but officially valid, reflection of actual public opinion and an over-representation of extremist parties, e.g. Rebellious France (via NUPES this time) or Marine Le Pen’s extreme right party. The second point stressed by commentators, many times as a good feature, is the much younger age of some the MPs, at times being elected in their early to mid-twenties (like for the RN as Marine Le Pen worked hard to sway the few very young talents who wanted to be engaged politically), or the unusual background of some (a cleaning lady known for having organised a strike against hotel group Accor was elected as a Rebellious France-NUPES MP). While the average MP age of 48.5 does not change from 2017 (it was 55 in 2007) this last development should also be assessed against experience and indeed competence for the tasks required from an MP in an advanced democracy. Being young is great and can usefully bring another key societal input to the National Assembly. However, sheer youth does not usually yield tested expertise, while France is also known for the expertise and management skills, at times called and criticised as “technocracy”, of its political leaders who often went through the well-known elitist (though meritocratic) ENA school. And if looking at similar themes of our days alongside age (actually while ageism should be fought against fashionably in today’s times), like gender, the new National Assembly may be less representative of French society as it has fewer women than in 2017, when many new MPs in the Macron movement were indeed women, a feature that Macron’s opponents understandably kept low key.

So, going back to an “ungovernable France” and as the French saying goes if applied to the outcome of the latest French elections “a lot of noise for not much or indeed nothing”. As always, the real opposition to Macron, as he has known it since 2017, will be in the street.

Warmest regards,

Serge

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