The results of the first round of the French parliamentary elections that took place on Sunday are out: according to national daily, Le Monde, France’s new left-wing coalition headed by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Nouvelle union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (NUPES, New Popular Ecological and Social Union) has clinched most of the votes (26,10%), neck and neck with Emmanuel Macron’s coalition Ensemble (25,81%). Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, Rassemblement National, emerges as the third political force with 18.67% of the vote.
In contrast, the figures of the Interior Ministry place the president’s coalition ahead by a fraction of 0,9% (25,75%) over the NUPES (25,66), equivalent to around 21,000 votes. Rassemblement National stands at 18,68%.
Le Monde attributed the contrasting outcomes to differing views on candidates’ political labels: although the publication recognised several socialist and green hopefuls rebelled against the coalition despite their parties’ agreement, the French daily ended up labelling a higher number of candidates as NUPES by comparison to the Interior Ministry. Speaking on French radio on Monday morning, green MEP David Cormand accused the state of identifying candidates from overseas territories based on their original affiliations (socialist or ecologist) prior to the coalition agreement.
Leaving aside the controversy over the results, what might we retain as the takeaways from this first round?
French voters continue to shun the ballot box
First up, the first round of the parliamentary elections saw a high level of abstention, reaching 52.61%, or 1.3 points more than in 2017. This is part of an underlying trend, which has seen French voters increasingly shun the ballot box since the 1993 parliamentary elections.
One of the reasons for the decreasing turnout in parliamentary elections could well be institutional. Reforms such as the reduction of the presidential mandate from 7 to 5 years in 2000 or the new electoral calendar placing presidential elections before parliamentary ones have gradually erased differences between the two elections, accelerating the presidentialisation of the regime and rendering parliament redundant.
Another might be down to circumstances. As journalist Gérard Courtois reminds us, since former socialist president François Mitterrand failed to clinch a majority in the 1981 and 1988, resulting in the dissolution of National Assembly, newly elected presidents had tended to work hard to dominate parliament. This year, however, the two camps that came out on top in the presidential elections (LREM, now Renaissance, and the Rassemblement National) ran an almost non-existent parliamentary campaign.
On the one hand, President Macron seems to have opted for what journalists have dubbed a ‘chloroform strategy’ - i.e. borrowing the name of the highly volatile, colour and odorless chemical substance - by keeping a low profile during this campaign, but also by delaying the nomination of a new government (three weeks after his re-election).
On the other hand, Marine Le Pen seems to have already admitted defeat by aiming for only about 60 RN deputies in the Assembly, shrinking from public view up to the point that one wondered where she had gone.
As a result, this parliamentary campaign has captivated only 15% of French citizens and will not have been marked by a central theme in the debates.
Who comes out on top?
The creation of the NUPES recalled the great hours of the unified left (the Popular Front of 1936 or the Common Programme of 1972) and tried to instil a new dynamic for these legislative elections. The slogan “Jean-Luc Mélenchon Prime Minister” adopted by the coalition personified and nationalised these elections and the strategy of the “third round” finally followed the logic of presidentialization of the regime.
The NUPES’ strong presence in the media combined with Renaissance’s half-hearted campaign can explain the surprise of this election: for the first time in the fifth Republic, the presidential camp did not obtain a clear majority of the votes cast in the first round of the legislative elections. As a result, Macron supporters may not wield an absolute majority in the second round of this election.
What are the prospects for political life?
The former conservative party of Jacques Chirac (president from 1995-2007) and Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012), Les Républicains obtained their lowest score in the parliamentary elections with nearly 13.6%. Here again, the campaign steered clear from national politics, focusing instead on its respective constituency identities as it sought to present itself as “party of the territories”.
The latter strategy appears to have borne little fruit, however, with estimates showing a drop in the number of LR deputies from 100 to around 50 to 80 seats.
For the Rassemblement National, on the other hand, the number of MPs could rise to between 20 and 45 depending on the results next week.
In sum, we note a slow decline of LR since 2017 (or even 2012) while the RN continues to consolidate its place on the benches of the National Assembly.
Going by estimates, the presidential camp could clinch a majority in the National Assembly, with a little less than 300 deputies, comparing with its current 346 seats. It could even fall short of an absolute majority (of 289 seats).
As for the the NUPES, the challenge for the coalition is now less to obtain a majority than win as many seats as possible in order to become the first opposition group in the Assembly. The prospect of a cohabitation with Jean-Luc Mélenchon as head of government is therefore compromised, even though it is important to note the leader of France Insoumise might not have been nominated as Prime Minister in in the case of a NUPES victory since the Constitution (art. 8) does not specify the criteria for the nomination of the Prime Minister.
Beyond talks of a majority, the NUPES risks seeing other political blocs form an anti-Mélenchon front. Indeed, the coalition leader continues to polarise, be it for his calls to disobey European treaties, his stance on Russia regarded by many as weak, or his recent accusations against the French police, after officers shot a female passenger following the driver’s refusal to cooperate with them.
The author is writing his thesis under the supervision of Jean-François Godbout.
Julien Robin has received funding from the Department of Political Science at the University of Montreal. He is a member of the Jean Monnet Research Centre in Montreal.
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