The campaign for the second round of France’s legislative elections pitted two antagonistic forces against each other, Emmanuel Macron’s presidential coalition and the left-wing group, the New Popular Ecological and Social Union (NUPES).
But the results also clearly confirmed the weight of a third, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). The far-right party now boasts of a parliamentary group for the first time since 1986, with 89 out of 577 elected deputies. The hopes of Macron’s bloc to secure an absolute majority of seats as in 2017 are now all but buried. Those of a classic cohabitation, too.
The uncertainty that hung over the campaign of the two rounds is unheard of since the 1997 parliamentary elections, which followed the dissolution decided by then-president Jacques Chirac (in office from 1995 to 2007). What was until now an “unthinkable” relative majority for Macron’s coalition will drive new alliance strategies – particularly between the presidential bloc and Les Républicains (LR) (64 seats), the right-wing party of former presidents Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) and Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012). Therein lies a risk of paralysis.
In the run-up to the election, two political forces dominated the public debate. Macron’s party, La République en Marche (now called “Renaissance”) had joined forces with François Bayrou’s MoDem and Edouard Philippe’s Horizons, to form Ensemble! (Together). The left-leaning NUPES was led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, which hammered together a coalition with France’s Socialist, Communist, and environmental parties after Mélenchon’s strong finish in the presidential election.
While Macron’s coalition won the largest bloc of seats in the new national assembly, 245, it was 100 fewer than the total won in 2017, and Macron fell 34 seats short of the 289 required to have an absolute majority. NUPES picked up the second-largest bloc of seats in the National Assembly, 131, and showed that it was a political force to be reckoned with, but failed to reach the symbolic bar of 150 seats.
On the right end of the political spectrum, the LR party, had been nearly inaudible throughout the campaign, managed to hold on to 64 seats thanks to the anchorage of its local representatives. With the RN holding 89 seats, the new National Assembly is made up of four unequal blocs, the first of which is the presidential coalition which holds only a relative majority.
A history of compromise
While unexpected, such results are not without precedent: born in 1958, the country’s Fifth Republic has already seen a relative majority, in 1988. President François Mitterrand (1981-1995) was re-elected in 1986 and had to govern with a National Assembly dominated by the two right-wing parties, the RPR and UDF. After two years of cohabitation, Mitterrand chose to dissolve the National Assembly and hold fresh parliamentary elections. “It is not good for a party to govern alone” he said during the 1988 campaign, during his annual ascent of the Solutré rock, north of Lyon, during the Pentecost weekend.
Mitterrand campaigned to “open up” to the centre – a movement he intended his new prime minister, Michel Rocard, to embody – and hoped that the gamble would reward him with a clear majority. He did not wish to return to the union of the left between Socialist and Communist parties, which constituted the basis of the government led by Pierre Mauroy between 1981 and 1984, nor to rely on a majority based on the Socialist Party alone, like in 1984-1986.
The challenge of governing
The governments led by Michel Rocard (1988-1991), Edith Cresson (1991-1992) and Pierre Beregovoy (1992-1993) had to build majorities to pass each piece of legislation, sometimes with the Communists, sometimes with the centrists and non-affiliated members. Macron’s coalition could also break deadlocks by resorting to Article 49-3 of the French Constitution, which allows the government to pass legislation without a parliamentary vote. Doing so is not without risk, as right- and left-wing oppositions can join up and call for a no-confidence vote.
Successive Mitterrand governments used the article 39 times. In five years, only the 1989 budget was adopted without it. On two occasions, no-confidence votes almost brought down the government. In 1990, Michel Rocard was five votes short of being overthrown when he used Article 49-3 to pass a bill raising taxes to finance social security. In 1992, Pierre Bérégovoy’s government faced a no-confidence vote when it sought to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Despite the challenges, governing with a relative majority is therefore possible, and the first 1988 legislature is an example of this. It was marked by a certain ministerial stability and the implementation of important reforms, including the revenu minimum d’insertion (a cash benefit for low-income residents with children) and taxes to fund national health insurance. And all this despite a turbulent international context, with the collapse of the communist bloc, signing of the Maastricht Treaty and the first Gulf War.
A necessary culture of compromise
This historical precedent helps shed light on the present political situation. Like Mitterrand, Macron can hardly hope for the support of one of the opposition groups to form a stable majority. The left-wing coalition, NUPES, has emerged strengthened from an election in which their voters supported a collective front and strong opposition to Macron. RN deputies also stand at loggerheads with the executive, which since 2017 has designated the far-right group as its main opponent and an existential threat to France.
As for the LR parliamentarians, while some may be tempted, like the centrists of 1988, to form alliances with the government on ideological grounds, this would nevertheless be with the view of forming an anti-Macron front on the right.
As historian Christian Delporte points out, Macron hardly embodies the “culture of compromise” that the situation calls for. And he does not enjoy the same legislative arsenal as his predecessors.
Indeed, since the 2008 constitutional reform, the 49-3 article has been considerably weakened. While its principle remains, its use is limited to one bill during a parliamentary session, with the exception of legislation relating to the budget or health care. Prior to this, the government could resort to it as often as it wanted and on any bill.
An increasingly fragile democratic system
Macron is facing a more delicate situation than François Mitterrand. He has to grapple with a radicalised opposition, both on the left (with the NUPES) and on the right (with the RN), who have no interest in helping him implement his political agenda. Above all, his majority is much more precarious than that of his distant predecessor. The three-way split of French politics, which we had first seen in the first round of the 2022 presidential elections, is such that deputies might have well been elected under a proportional representation system.
Moreover, the coherence of the presidential majority is more fragile than that of the Socialist Party (PS) in the late 1980s. The presidential party does not have the same territorial anchorage as the PS of 30 years ago, be it in terms of activists, executives or local elected officials. And it has to rely on allies – Edouard Philippe (Horizons) and François Bayrou (MoDem) who guard their autonomy and influence more closely than did the allies Mitterrand was able to count on.
This relative majority comes at a moment when France’s democratic system is far less robust than it was 40 years ago. The legitimacy of elected representatives and institutions is weakened by the rise of abstention (30% in the 1988 legislative elections vs. 52% in those of 2022), with a genuine distrust among a growing part of the population. The rise of the far right (14.5% in the 1988 presidential elections, more than 30% if we add up the voters of Le Pen and Eric Zemmour in 2022) is also one of the symptoms of the rise of populism.
The successive collapse of the parties that structured French political life in the second half of the 20th century (Gaullist, Socialist and Communist) has created a fragmented and shifting political landscape that brings back memories of the unstable Fourth Republic, which saw 24 governments during its existence between 1946 and 1958.
This article was translated from the original French by Natalie Sauer and Leighton Kille.