Comparing the Extremists in the US House with a Similar Situation in the French National Assembly

The penetration and disruption of extremist politicians into governing bodies is a worldwide phenomenon. The 15 ballots that it took for Kevin McCarthy to prevail over a cluster of extremists to be elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives is only the beginning of a disruptive two years for US governance.  Similar concerns are on display in numerous other countries, but here it is interesting to see how the functioning of the French National Assembly compares with what has happened (and is happening) in the US.

The McCarthy Election Fiasco

First, though, a few reflections on what happened in the US. The four days of voting for the US House leadership elections provided excellent evening entertainment for those of us in Europe who could watch the uniquely unrestricted C-span transmissions of the 15 cycles of voting.  We even enjoyed our popcorn, blankets and, for some of us, even a nice glass of white wine in the course of these evening broadcasts. The last few ballots on Friday night were a bit late for us, but we were back up early enough to watch them finally wrapping up at 8:15 am (02:15 their time) on Saturday morning. What a fiasco! And yet, what a relief that at least this hurdle of choosing the speaker, blocking the official opening of the 118th session of Congress, finally got done.

While it may be a distinction that it took 15 ballots over five days to get there, it at least did not match the record-holding series of ballots back in the 1850s – more than once in that time period, it seems. But then, these were a precursor to a civil war. One can hope that this isn’t a foretelling for yet another civil war. The fact that Speaker McCarthy invoked the vision of Abraham Lincoln in his “acceptance” speech  might be a bit of a warning signal about that – especially since it seems that many of those reluctant Republicans who finally came around to support him or at least caved don’t seem to be the type who would necessarily be Lincoln fans. In any case, the internal divisions within the Republican ranks in the House are likely to fester in the governance of the weeks and months ahead.

As history buffs have helped us put this into historical perspective, we have also learned that the last time there was a crisis in electing the House Speaker was exactly 100 years ago, in 1923. Interestingly, that also included a Republican majority in the House and therefore the expectation of a Republican Speaker. While it only took 9 ballots then, it was also distinguishable from those pre-Civil War days in that the ultimate winner was the original one that the majority party had proposed. Presumably, then, it would have been far more dramatic if the Republicans this time had actually dropped their chosen one and shifted to a back-up.

Naively, I had speculated that those diehards in the extreme right of the Republican Party were mostly anti-McCarthy and would simply embrace an alternative (like Steve Scalese, for example) if the majority simply shifted their own support away from McCarthy. Was I ever wrong!  In retrospect, that would, indeed, have been a major catastrophe, more like the chaos of the pre-Civil War days than the impasse in 1923! Just imagine how those diehard extremists of today would have gloated if that had actually happened!

The preoccupation with this latest debacle, though, is largely driven by the complacency with how things have operated in the House in recent history – i.e. since at least 1945, if not since 1923.  The majority party in each session of the House has typically agreed on their leadership well in advance of the opening of any session – usually in November. Then in January, on the official opening day for each House session, they have simply used their majority to go through the formalities of electing their majority leader as the official Speaker of the House. For at least 50 years, as the historians have reminded us, this was done without a single “stray” vote. And even when things started to change in the 1990s and beyond, there were only a few of these “stray voters” from time to time – but none that blocked the actual election of the Speaker  – until now.

The presence of an extreme right that had emerged in recent years among the House Republicans had already been disruptive in other ways, of course – all that trouble they gave to President Obama, for example (even forcing the government to close down for an extended period once). But it would seem that today it is the whole Republican Party that has been disrupted by the changing mix of its electoral base – especially by the overlay of the Trump base on top of a pro-business and anti-regulatory (but pro-immigration?) coalition. The surprising narrowness of its House majority in the November election at a time when the Republican Party’s electoral base is so mixed up is the main factor here. Those nay-sayers had an unusually disproportionate influence on the outcome of these Speaker ballots, but they aren’t significantly different on ideological or fundamental policy grounds from their Republican compatriots. Their disruptiveness only portends more trouble for the Speaker and for governance generally in the months ahead.

Eventually, I may be inclined to look more deeply at the trends in the nay-saying characteristics of House leadership elections over a broader historical context, but my current inclination is to draw some parallels with the overall nature of political divisions elsewhere. Something has happened to trigger not just a growth in populist movements of the extreme right wherever they have been festering, but I do believe that they have become more prevalent through a growth in their social media power to distort and even misleadingly expand their appeal. The Brexit vote in the UK comes to mind, of course, as does the Bolsonaro faction in Brazil or the extreme right in Italy. But what I find especially interesting is to look at the parallels between the situation in the US House and the political divisiveness that one finds in the French National Assembly.

Invoking 49.3 in the French National Assembly

The French are currently dealing with a fluke in democratic governance that came out of an electoral system that was supposed to enable a unified government – i.e. first the election of a president for a five-year term and then immediately thereafter the election of the 577 delegates to the National Assembly, also for a five-year term. The assumption in this arrangement is that the popular vote for delegates would reflect the popular vote for president, thus enabling the president to govern (along with a prime minister and cabinet, of course), supported by a majority in the National Assembly. The awkward alternative to that is something has been called “cohabitation” – that is, a National Assembly choosing a prime minister where the majority party is in opposition to the party (and power) of the president. This happened more than once, most recently to President Jacques Chirac, and the French subsequently changed the timing of their National Assembly elections to avoid this from happening again.

Unfortunately for smooth governance, however, the French electorate surprised the pollsters in this latest round of elections. First, in April of 2022, President Emmanuel Macron was elected for a second five-year term – mostly, though, because the runner-up in the first round was Marine Le Pen from the extreme right. Despite his low popularity in the polls, no one was surprised when he outvoted her in the second round. Voter dissatisfaction with Macron was also expected to result in a sharp cut in the large majority for his party that he had garnered following his first election in 2017. But most of us were surprised when his party’s losses in June, especially in the second round, were so great that he no longer had a parliamentary majority.

Did this mean a return to “cohabitation”? Actually, no. I suppose it might have, if one or another of the traditional opposition parties had been able to coalesce into some form of majority in opposition. But that was not the case. Macron’s party and its coalition partners (calling themselves the “Renaissance”) garnered just 250 seats, a whopping 39 seats short of a majority (289). Without going into a long explanation of the plunging numbers for the old-style Socialist Party of the center-left or the old-style Republican Party of the center-right, French voters gave 151 seats to a coalition of left-wing parties dominated by the extreme left (epitomized by its rabble-rousing leader Jean-Luc Mélanchon) and 88 seats to the extreme right – Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party. The more moderate but still right-of-center Republicans, who had had 112 delegates in the previous assembly, held onto only 62 seats this time around. While they certainly did not want to coalesce with LePen on the extreme right, they certainly weren’t going to join up with Macron, either.

Mélanchon’s coalition includes Greens as well as old-style Socialists, and President Macron (that is, his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne) has maneuvered to break off some of them to support renewable energy legislation, for example. But in general this group is sticking together in opposition. And as the largest opposition group, they have been able to control the chairmanship of the Assembly’s Finance Committee. Macron’s best chances on such issues as pension reform, his top priority in 2023, are with the Republicans on the right, but even there, resistance is strong to avoid even the appearance of “joining the majority”.

Under these unusual circumstances, Macron’s party was still able to elect the President of the Assembly (equivalent to the Speaker of the House as the one who presides), mainly because no other political group could muster a majority for this position. Essentially, of course, this is a parliamentary system and the prime minister has the more controlling role in legislating than this Assembly President. Nonetheless, it makes no difference to the fact that there is no identifiable majority to support any of the government’s bills. In fact, on crucial budgetary and social security bills, Prime Minister Borne has activated an unusual constitutional provision, identified by its constitutional number (49.3) to pass key budget bills. Since September, she has done this 10 times already – where she has simply announced the version of the bill that will go to the Senate, whether on its first or its second reading – and off it goes – no matter how many thousands of pending amendments had been put forward by the delegates.

The only way to block this 49.3 maneuver is a censure motion to overthrow the government. Both Mélanchon’s group on the left and Le Pen’s group on the right have initiated censure motions each time that 49.3 was activated. At least once the Le Pen side actually voted with the Mélanchon side – coming closer to a majority to overthrow the government but still not the 289 votes needed to do so. In general, though, these extremes of left and right can’t afford politically to support each other, even if they are both anti-Macron.

The 49.3 constitutional provision can be invoked an unlimited number of times on budgetary or social security bills but only once per parliamentary session on anything else. As already noted, pension reform is currently the top priority for the Macron government, and his prime minister has been working hard to mobilize enough support to avoid having to invoke the provision on this matter. Mostly, this has been a lobbying effort with the 62 Republicans, who have recently elected Eric Ciotti (from Nice) to head their party nationally. (He is also leading the party in the National Assembly.) He is known to be to the far right of his party and has often been accused of being too close to the Le Pen party. But he has been signaling a receptivity to working with Macron to support “responsible” pension reform. If he delivers up to 62 votes for the legislation on reform, there will be no 49.3 required for this.

The question is how long can this governance without a majority continue in France? Will Macron run out of 49.3 options? Or will a censure motion eventually pass?  Speculation is percolating in the media about this. But it is also striking that there is another tool  – what is known as a “commission of inquiry” – that opposition groups in the National Assembly can use – and have used to good effect. It is a tool that is similar to what we can see unfolding in the US.

Opposition Tools in Addition to Disrupting the Legislative Process

In the French system, these commissions of inquiry aren’t definitive to governance as such – just a means to confront and embarrass the government.  In this respect  they are similar to the “select committees” (or subcommittees) in the US system since they do operate as avenues for opposition parties to attack and publicize weaknesses in Macron’s administration – much as the select committees can be used to investigate and publicize weaknesses in the Biden Administration. Of course, these select committees do require the approval of a majority, and the previous session of the US House of Representatives did have a select committee investigating the January 6th insurrection of 2021.  The difference now is that the new House under Speaker McCarthy is catering to the Republican fringe, in the  select committee process, much as the current situation in France is operating to the advantage of extremist groups on both left and right.

Each organized opposition group in the National Assembly has the right to propose one commission of inquiry per session. Unsurprisingly, they have included such proposals as one from Mélanchon’s group to investigate President Macron’s role in the “establishment of Uber in France” or the one proposed by Le Pen’s group  on “political, economic and financial interference by foreign powers aimed at influencing or corrupting French public opinion leaders, leaders or political parties”. These are certainly the kinds of issues that are intended to embarrass the administration.

In the US House, in contrast, these “select committees” can encompass far broader topics – like the ones that the Republicans have created this week on the origins and management of the COVID-19 pandemic or on US competition with the Chinese Communist Party – or the most controversial one, a select sub-committee to investigate the  alleged “weaponization of the federal government” against conservatives. We know that this crazy quilt of Republicans in the House will be using the spotlight on their select committees to good effect, just as they are likely to create problems on the debt ceiling, budget cuts and defense spending issues, if not also on immigration and support for Ukraine. Although some observers are suggesting that the whole Republican entourage in the House has taken on this populism of the extreme right, one can argue that it is because they know they are in opposition to the rest of the governance (i.e. Senate and executive branch) that the fringe can stir things up.

Given the fact that neither their investigatory activity nor their far-fetched legislation would gain any traction in the US Senate, one gets the sense that little of it will involve any serious “governing”. Rather,  the media grandstanding that was played out by the cluster of nay-sayers on the Speaker’s election will, through these select committees, be the be-all and end-all of the next two years.  Of course, there are some things that do have to get enacted, as already mentioned, even if it is only a two-year session.  But one can expect all three of these select committees, and especially the one on “weaponization” to provide for a lot of “useful” extremist media coverage.

As for the situation in France, President Macron does have the option to dissolve the National Assembly and call for new elections – something that he would probably do to pre-empt any successful censure motion if he had to. Otherwise, delegates to this National Assembly have a five-year term until 2027. But can it last that long? Can he actually last that long without a majority?  Legislation on budgets, if nothing else, does need to move through the National Assembly, even as it does need to move through the US House.  Ultimately, the difficulty of governing with extremes of left and right – and the absence of a governing majority – in the National Assembly will end up being more disruptive for governance in France than the apparent prevalence of a transformed, anti-government Republican Party in the House will be for governance in the United States.   The safety valve is that Macron can call for another election if things get bogged down, possibly even in 2023. In the US, unfortunately, one can anticipate a messy time of it for at least two years, only to be relieved by the uncertainties in both Presidential and Congressional elections in 2024.

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