Background - 20.06.2022 - 00:00 

2022 French legislative election: Closer to the abyss

A resounding slap in the face for President Macron, a surprising success for Marine Le Pen: the French have reorganised their National Assembly. By Christoph Frei.

20 June 2022. Mistakes in politics are not always punished, but sometimes when they are, the punishment can be all the more severe. The largest miscalculations in electoral terms came from Jupiter himself, of all people. In a free turn of phrase: "The president stands above the lowlands of domestic politics. He is a statesman, he takes care of the important things, there is a war raging in Ukraine." Until the very end, Emmanuel Macron held on to his conviction that he could shine in the election campaign by being absent. Had not this calculation payed off in the presidential elections earlier this year?

Alliance missed its target

Seven weeks later, at the beginning of his second term in office, the president is facing the shambles that unbiased observers and close advisors alike had predicted. Not only has Macron lost his absolute majority in the Assemblée, he has also lost the aura of the fleet-footed winner. Although he still has by far the strongest force in the National Assembly, with 246 of the total 577 seats, his electoral alliance clearly missed the majority threshold; from now on, "Ensemble!" will have to rely on partnerships to get executive proposals through parliament.

Combative posturing and pithy slogans do nothing to change another defeat. On the left edge of the political spectrum, the swashbuckling populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon ultimately fell far short of his own expectations in spite of his electoral alliance NUPES winning a very respectable 142 seats. After all, it was supposed to be a majority - and for Mélenchon himself the office of prime minister. Whether he can succeed in keeping his heterogeneous alliance even halfway together is highly uncertain. As it stands, his Communist, Socialist and Green junior partners cannot wait to make their mark as independent forces, especially since proportional rather than majoritarian elections await them at the local, regional and European levels - and thus an electoral system that also opens up opportunities for smaller parties.

Laughing her way to victory

The silent winner of the elections is Marine Le Pen. Five years ago, her party had won just 8 seats in the National Assembly. Now she has impressively demonstrated that her party can succeed even when it has to win 50 percent of the votes cast in a constituency. Now, the far-right controls not 8, but 89 seats, without even having invested much in the election campaign. Its parliamentary group may not be the largest opposition force, but it is the most homogeneous. What is more, the National Rally will receive state party funding from now on.

In the wake of the presidential elections, the reorganization of the political geography is becoming more accentuated. To the left and right of Macron's extended "Ensemble!" family, two extremist blocs have established themselves with which there can be no cooperation, since they conduct their politics - dixit Jupiter - outside the appropriate republican framework. Such a configuration does not bode well, as does the persistently high abstention rate: not even half of those eligible to vote have gone to the polls. Where is this country headed? What level of protests and violence will the coming autumn bring? Can we calmly rule out the possibility that the Fifth Republic will suffer the same fate as the Weimar Republic: that it will be torn between the extremes and go down in an ugly way?

The bottom line is that the president's domestic political leeway continues to shrink. The pugnaciously ambitious slogan of his first term - "transformation" - is no longer in use; meanwhile, there is talk of "refondation," a renewed social contract whose contours remain indetermined. For the time being, Macron is confronted with a necessity that is utterly unfamiliar to him: He will have to share power, forge ad hoc majorities and approach political opponents—be it Socialists who want to free themselves from Mélenchon's embrace, be it conservative Republicans who were overtaken on the right and humiliated on election day by the National Rally. During the campaign, the leadership of the chronically divided Republicans had explicitly spoken out against coalitions with "Ensemble!"; in light of the results (4th place, 61 seats), they now appear to be the most likely partners. By tipping the scales, they could mitigate their poor election results and even benefit the most – provided that they can bring themselves to engage in dialogue.

More broadly speaking, what about dialogue, tolerance, and a willingness to compromise amongst traditional French elites? Do they even realize what the stakes are? Could the National Assembly, of all places, become a venue for bridge-building? In the usual narrative of the Fifth Republic, the Assemblée plays only a supporting role in the shadow of the presidency; together with the Senate, it forms one of the weakest parliaments in the Western world.

With the June 19 elections, however, this narrative has been abandoned. Without absolute and thus automatic majorities, the National Assembly will actually have to function as a parliament. The French verb "parlementer", after all, can be usefully translated as "to negotiate long and tenaciously with someone". Yet, will the republican king be willing and able to go down this arduous road? Or will he soon succumb to the temptation to dissolve the Assemblée in order to win an absolute majority anew? In his days as president, Jacques Chirac chose to exercise that option. His plan did not work out. The subsequent parliamentary elections brought him a resounding defeat.

Photo: Adobe Stock / luzitanija

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