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France: What To Expect From the Snap National Parliament Election?

Just when everyone thought the political season was over, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to shine a new spotlight on his country’s politics and called a surprise snap national parliament election. The French will then go to the polls on 30 June and 7 July, and their ballots could critically reshape the country for the long haul. Here’s your guide to one of the most important European elections of the decade.

France’s Fifth Republic is a hybrid system. Most of the time, it’s a ‘rationalised‘ parliamentary system with a strong executive president, with tools designed in the middle of decolonisation (civil) wars in order to prevent government instabilities. The president does most of the governing. But when the Prime Minister is from the other side of the political spectrum than the president, the balance of power is reversed. The PM is the one who enjoys these ‘presidentialist’ constitutional tools, while the president is restricted to the realm of foreign policy — a situation known as ‘cohabitation’.

The next Prime Minister will thus probably be able to govern even with a hung parliament — mostly thanks to article 49.3 of the Constitution and the fact that no vote of confidence is required. This is why the surprise snap national parliament election is crucial to the next three years in France.

How does the election work?

The national parliament election uses a two-round system in single-member districts to elect the 577 MPs who will convene in the next legislature of the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament. Thus, these are 577 elections in as many constituencies that have national stakes and party dynamics intertwining with very local issues and personalities. If no candidate reaches the absolute majority of the votes cast in the first round, a run-off is held a week later with the top two candidates.

The run-off can include a third candidate if at least 12.5% of the registered voters voted for them. This rule could change a lot of things this time around, as a way higher turnout than usual is forecast. A major strategic challenge in between the two rounds will be formal and informal agreements between parties to pull out of, or remain in, the race.

A tripolar party system

According to early projections, the incumbent government will almost certainly be out of a job on 8 July.

Since January 2024, Gabriel Attal has been in charge as the youngest Prime Minister France has ever had. He is the fourth PM under President Emmanuel Macron since 2017. The 2022 election resulting in a hung parliament, the task for PMs Élisabeth Borne and Attal has been harder than ever before under the Fifth Republic. They still managed to pass controversial bills such as the pension reform law and the immigration bill, essentially thanks to said constitutional tools aimed at ‘rationalising’ the parliament. These laws both characterised a shift to the right for Mr. Macron’s presidency, in spite of he, Ms. Borne and Mr. Attal all originating from the Parti Socialiste (PS-S&D).

In the National Assembly, the government is formally backed by the Ensemble coalition, made of Renaissance (RE-RE), the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem-RE), and Horizons (HOR-RE). In fact, it is also unofficially backed by Les Républicains (LR-EPP), who critically vote in favour of Ensemble.

The rest of the Assembly speaks volume on the current re-composition of the French party system into a tripolar landscape, with a left-wing block led by La France Insoumise (LFI-LEFT) and, on the opposite side, a block of 88 MPs from the Rassemblement National (RN), of the righternmost European Parliamentary group ID.

Why did Macron dissolve the Assembly?

On 9 June, Emmanuel Macron caught almost everyone by surprise when he announced the dissolution of parliament the RN so desperately asked for. He called a snap election on live television as a response to the disastrous results from his side in the European Parliament election. Just an hour before his speech, the RN’s list more than doubled the total of Renaissance’s.

This dissolution was arguably done in a very Gaullist tradition — a vertical use of power from the president to take back control (of the narrative, at least). Though strictly obeying to RN’s Marine Le Pen may not appear as the wisest move, Mr. Macron’s advisors had a logical calculation in mind.

In the 2022 national parliament election, the government coalition got a hung parliament because of the relatively rare and remarkably effective left-wing alliance NUPES, formed by LFI, Europe Écologie Les Verts now known as Les Écologistes (LÉ-G/EFA), the PS, and the Parti Communiste Français (PCF-LEFT). Two years later, the alliance still worked together in the Assembly but had not aged perfectly. All leaders had since declared the NUPES over and they ran separately in the EP election. On 9 June, the left was divided again.

Now, presidential advisors were probably aware that, in 2022, 276 out of 572 run-offs were between Ensemble and the NUPES, 61 between the RN and the NUPES, and 25 between LR and the NUPES. Meaning that with a divided left, Ensemble could replace the NUPES in the 86 other run-offs it was involved in. It would then rather easily win against an RN candidate thanks to the tradition of the ‘republican front’, where everyone votes for whoever faces the candidate deemed as far-right, ‘un-republican’.

Therefore, Ensemble could have reinforced its majority in the Assembly thanks to the two-round mechanics, even though the centrist governing coalition is less popular than in 2022 — especially among young voters, with whom it receives single-digit voting intentions.

The surprise within the surprise: the left did, in fact, unite

So much for the theory. In retrospect, Emmanuel Macron’s thinking that the left would not unite was a huge mistake. The threat of an extremist government has always been a strong unity factor; and the left almost always and solely unites as a last resort solution. The president offered both conditions on 9 June.

Barely 24 hours after Mr. Macron dissolved the Assembly, the four former NUPES leaders struck an electoral deal. They then had a programmatic agreement and finalised constituency distribution among the member parties by 13 June. Contrarily to the president’s prediction motivating his gamble, the ‘Nouveau Front Populaire’ (in reference to the 1936 Front Populaire) was born.

The umbrella coalition goes from the anti-liberal Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA-LEFT) to the most moderate PS members like Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol or Carole Delga. Made up of 20 parties and supported by 22 others, it promises to be more consensual than the NUPES. Even former President François Hollande, seen by many on the left as a traitor, is running and rather accepted.

This entity weighted about 27% in the EP election combined, in line with recent polling and with the 26% result the NUPES got in 2022. It is thus expected to draw a lot of run-offs. A Le Figaro projection solely based on the EP election results found that no less than 536 run-offs could oppose the RN and the Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP), although local dynamics and incumbency bonuses will temper this figure.

Is the ‘republican front’ still a thing?

In an RN-NFP run-off scenario, the tradition would have it that centrist and moderate right-wing voters gather and vote for the NFP. However, the ‘republican front’ (also known as ‘dam’) may not benefit the left any more due to LFI’s presence in the alliance.

A driving force of the left, the radical party founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon is often targeted for its offensive, performative political strategies. Its management style, which some view as centred around a cult of the leader, has also faced criticism and resurfaced during the campaign. And since it strongly opposes the Israeli response to 7 October and some of its members refused to describe the Hamas attacks as ‘terrorist’, it’s wholly labelled antisemitic by all of their right-of-centre political opponents, government included, in an oftentimes misinforming manner.

Already in 2022, most Macronists refused to pick a side in run-offs that opposed LFI to the RN. They considered them as ‘two extremes’ outside the ‘republican arc’. Polling results on presidential run-offs between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen tend to confirm that the ‘republican front’ is now working against LFI, or at least against Mr. Mélenchon. A trend that might extend to the whole NFP, a recent Odoxa poll on the matter finds (with very close margins, p. 33).

The same pattern seems to be repeating in the 2024 snap national parliament election. French daily Le Parisien reports that Ensemble’s official line will once again be ‘neither the RN nor LFI’ — thus making a distinction between the different parties inside the NFP.

However, this stance is subject to change on a case-by-case basis. The most left-leaning members of the presidential majority, like former Minister for Transport Clément Beaune, have stated that they would vote for whoever faces the RN, including LFI. On the other side, Minister for Gender Equality Aurore Bergé prefers to stand as a ‘bulwark against the NFP’.

Towards the first RN government?

The end, or even reversal, of the “republican front” is one of the reasons — along with the right-wing shift of the French media environment boosted by billionaire Vincent Bolloré — why the Rassemblement National remains favourite to repeat its EP election result and form the first government of its history. Jordan Bardella, the RN leader, though, already said he would only become the next Prime Minister if voters grant him an absolute majority, i.e.. 289 seats.

If they don’t, President Macron will have to be innovative to form a new government. France would simply enter uncharted waters. Other options include a big-tent (from LFI or PCF to LR), ‘republican’ government; a ‘technical’ cabinet in which no elected politicians make the country’s politics; or— an endless cycle of overthrown governments from all sides that could prompt an institutional collapse, since the Constitution forbids another dissolution in the coming year.

RN’s Member of the European Parliament Jordan Bardella is the would-be Prime Minister in case his party gets an absolute majority of the seats // Photo European Parliament (CC BY 2.0)

But the RN remains the likeliest winner of the election. That’s because it has gained grounds in parts of the populations that used to oppose it, like middle-class owners, retirees, and young voters. Such gains were in part made possible by economic promises that Mr. Bardella has since gone back on. Ms. Le Pen’s party is now over-performing national figures in conservative, religious parts of the country that were traditionally immune to the allure of RN, like Cantal and Vendée. A sign that more and more LR voters are swinging towards the RN and are making it an almost uncontested party on the right.

So much so that the union of the left has not been the only dramatic development in the week after the dissolution. LR President Éric Ciotti, himself from the radical wing of his party, announced that he would seek an alliance with the RN. Reconquête’s (REC-ECR) Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece, pledged the same for her party.

As a result, Mr. Ciotti has since been facing an inside putsch by most of Les Républicains. This pretty much cancelled the alliance in most constituencies — there are 62 ‘Ciottist LR’/RN candidates, while the ‘historic’ and more moderate side of the party endorsed nearly 400 candidates. As for Ms. Maréchal, she has been expelled by REC President Éric Zemmour, along with three other members of the European Parliament the party had just gained.

In any case, these events will probably weaken the alternatives to the RN, confirming its favourite status for 7 July. Neither of these three blocks, though, is likely to get an absolute majority. With an election that will all be about run-offs, lack of head-to-head polling and the campaign narratives that are still to be driven between the two-rounds prevent us from forecasting any majority as of now.

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