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Macron narrowly beats Melénchon in France's first round of parliamentary elections

The leader of the left threatens the president's absolute majority in an election marked by high abstention rates
Emmanuel Macron

PHOTO/ELYSÉE  -   French President Emmanuel Macron discusses with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping from the Elysée Palace, Paris, 10 May 2022

Emmanuel Macron or Jean-Luc Melénchon. Ensemble! or the NUPES. Reformist centre or left-wing alliance. These are the options on the table for the French electorate to define the path their country will take in the next five years. The possibilities are varied: the president revalidates his absolute majority and legislates comfortably, obtains a relative majority that requires him to make a pact, or loses his majority and is forced to govern in cohabitation. The result is only a week away. 

The first electoral 'round' was narrowly won by Ensemble!, President Macron's platform led by the recently appointed Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, who narrowly defeated Melénchon's New Ecologist and Social Popular Union (NUPES). The first round of the legislative elections was decided by just over 21,400 votes, according to Interior Ministry figures, a narrow margin that at times did not even exist, resulting in a technical draw. 

The coalition of communists, ecologists and socialists won 25.6% of the vote to the centrist party's 25.75%. In third place was Marine Le Pen's National Rally (RN) with 18.68% of the vote, a result that will allow the far-right party to have its own group in the National Assembly for the first time since 1986. Behind, in a distant fourth place, was the traditional right-wing party Les Républicains (LR) with 10.4%. Although the surprise was the early elimination of Éric Zemmour, the far-right polemicist and presidential candidate who set the presidential campaign on fire.

Jean-Luc Melénchon
PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   The leader of the New Ecologist and Social Popular Union (NUPES) Jean-Luc Melénchon

But abstention was the star of the day. 52.8% of the electorate decided not to go to the polls on Sunday, setting an abstention record for the first round of a legislative election in the last 60 years. "It has unfortunately become the norm in all French elections, and it is not a new phenomenon," Ariane Bogain, a senior lecturer in French and politics at Northumbria University, told Atalayar, blaming the phenomenon on disinterest, distrust or weariness of the political class or the system. "The specific circumstances of these elections come into play: a weak and flat campaign with little relevance in the media, a campaign that did not interest the French," she says.

Five years ago, in the 2017 legislative elections, a newly elected Macron and his allies won a resounding absolute majority in the 350-seat National Assembly after beating Le Pen by a wide margin in the presidential election. Since then, Macron has ruled unchecked, with the backing of 267 LREM! MPs, 57 MoDem MPs and 22 Agir Ensemble MPs since 2020. A roller coaster in the lower house that has allowed the president to legislate from the Elysée without opposition. 

This time, the newly re-elected president's parliamentary majority is in jeopardy. Ifop's projections estimate a range between 275 and 310 Macronist deputies in the second round of the legislative elections. The absolute majority threshold stands at 289 seats.  

In the worst-case scenario, the NUPES would become the leading opposition force, a position hitherto held by Les Républicains with 101 seats. According to initial estimates, the platform led by Melénchon could win between 180 and 210 seats in the second round, figures that highlight the efforts of the La France Insoumise (LFI) candidate to unite the left-wing forces after failing to make it to the second round of the presidential elections due to the fragmentation of the political space. 

Melénchon has made his intention clear since Macron's re-election: to be prime minister and force the president to govern in cohabitation. A scenario that has the precedents of the conservative Jacques Chirac under the presidency of the socialist François Mitterrand and of the socialist Lionel Jospin during Chirac's own presidency. "It must be borne in mind that the circumstances are very different from previous parliamentary elections. It is the first time a president has been re-elected outside a period of cohabitation. There is a deep anti-Macron sentiment and this could lead voters to opt to prevent him from having a majority," points out Bogain, who does not however believe Melénchon stands a chance: "In 2017, Macron was predicted to win between 400 and 450 seats and ended up with much less. So, although unlikely in my opinion, in theory it could happen."

Élisabeth Borne
PHOTO  -   Newly appointed Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne exercising her right to vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections, 12 June 2022

This hypothetical situation would considerably reduce President Emmanuel Macron's executive authority, especially at the national level, where the prime minister would have the ability to pass laws if he had a parliamentary majority and could not be forced to resign by the president. Macron, for his part, would preserve foreign policy prerogatives. 

In the event of cohabitation, it would mean that Macron "would not be running the country", argues the senior lecturer in French and politics at Northumbria University. "All the policies will be those of NUPES and there is nothing Macron can do about that. The only areas he could influence are foreign affairs and defence. Both of these are 'shared competences' with the prime minister." "Given the huge differences between Macron and Mélenchon on the EU, NATO and Russia, we could expect major crises. If cohabitation occurs, Macron will become the leader of the opposition, will try to do everything possible to obstruct the prime minister, and will try to dissolve the National Assembly if the conditions are right," he sentences.

The parliamentary system of the Fifth Republic is bicameral. On the one hand, there is the Senate, the upper house; on the other, the National Assembly, the lower house. The latter is the institution with the greatest power to legislate and, above all, to act as a counterweight to the executive. Only the Assembly has the power to bring down the government by means of a motion of censure. To elect its tenants, the country is divided into 577 constituencies in which an election is held by direct universal suffrage in which the candidate with the most votes wins in two rounds.

"In theory, a centrist alliance like Ensemble! is better positioned in the second round than the radical blocs. That's because it can capture the moderate vote, scared off by the extreme right or the radical left. Thus, we can expect voters on the Republican right to vote for Ensemble! in a duel against NUPES," says Bogain. She predicts that a centrist alliance can act as a bulwark against candidates from the opposite side of the political spectrum. "For example, in a duel between Ensemble! and the extreme right, we can expect NUPES voters to support Ensemble! Similarly, in a duel between Ensemble! and NUPES, we might expect far-right voters to support Ensemble! to block the radical left. However, the theory might not happen in practice".

"I expect moderate voters to turn out en masse for Ensemble! but NUPES and far-right voters might not behave as the theory says. Both could opt for abstention," says Bogain. "Far-right voters could also choose to support a NUPES candidate to block Macron, because many National Rally voters would agree with the socio-economic policies proposed by NUPES."

Minutes after the results were announced, the head of the NUPES appeared to call on the people to "unleash a wave" in the run-up to the second and final round of elections scheduled for Sunday 19 June. "The presidential formation is defeated and broken", said a galvanised Melénchon, who managed to unite the divided Socialist Party (PS) for the cause in May despite the reluctance of the core group closest to former president François Hollande. 

From the LFI headquarters on Monday, Melénchon accused the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, of having rigged the results. "Example of manipulation of the results. Jean-Hugues Ratenon has been a member of the LFI group in the Assembly for five years. He is not classified as 'NUPES' by Darmanin, but as 'various lefts'. He came first in the 5th circus of La Réunion," he tweeted before proposing a debate to the Prime Minister. 

Marine Le Pen also called on her activists to abstain in constituencies where a pro-Macron candidate and a leftist candidate would go to the second round in order to prevent the president from revalidating an absolute majority. "If we let him, we run the risk of entering a tunnel for the next five years, a tunnel without light," concluded the heiress of the French far right.

Élisabeth Borne avec Jean Castex
PHOTO  -   The outgoing Prime Minister, Jean Castex, passes the baton to the new Matignon tenant, Élisabeth Borne

Élisabeth Borne, the first woman to lead an executive in France since the socialist Édith Cresson between 1991 and 1992, came out on behalf of Ensemble! to convey to the electorate that the Macronist platform is the only force "with a chance of obtaining a majority". "Faced with the situation in the world, and the war at the gates of Europe, we cannot take the risk of instability and rapprochement," declared the former labour minister, a first-time ally of the president. 

"Faced with extremes, we will not give in to anything, neither from one side nor the other", Borne declared, expressing the new official position of Macronism in the face of the second round. There is no definite slogan, but the national leadership of Ensemble! will assess which party to support in the second round in cases where the candidates are from Le Pen's National Rally and the NUPES, but a decision will be taken "on a case-by-case basis".

"The strategy that Ensemble! and Macron have used in recent weeks is the demonisation of NUPES to try to attract moderate voters," argues Bogain. "They want to present NUPES as something dangerous, a recipe for economic disaster, and so on. However, putting NUPES and the far-right on the same level is a mistake because a) it legitimises the far-right and b) it contradicts what Macron did in the presidential election, i.e. calling on the left to support him." "Logic dictates that they would call on their voters to support NUPES in the NUPES-RN duels. It certainly doesn't look good," stresses the Northumbria University professor.

Macronism has emerged weakened from the first round, yet the president's bloc is favourite to maintain its majority in the National Assembly. All indications are that Macron will lose deputies, so he may be forced to make a deal with the opposition to push through laws during his second and final term in office. In this regard, the traditional right-wing Les Républicains is emerging as the main ally in the lower house.

"Since his re-election, Macron has been very discreet. Where is his vision? What is his programme? I really don't know. He has talked about changing the way he acts, about being less top-down and giving citizens more of a voice. He talked about the need to tackle the climate crisis, to protect the French from inflation, education and public services. He also talked about reforming the pension system, but has kept quiet about it for fear of a backlash. All this does not give us a vision. What is his overall ambition for France? Where does he want to take the country? The danger I see is what we call Macron's 'chiraquisation', that is, that like Chirac in his second term he will not do much, he will be more interested in keeping the country calm and nothing much will happen," anticipates Bogain.