Democracy in Jeopardy: French Case Study Round 4 on the Legislative Elections

Democracy in jeopardy has become the “mantra of the moment”, what with the ups and downs of populist nationalist movements in so many of what we have considered to be the bulwarks of democracy – with France being a prime example of this.  Hence, this series on “democracy in jeopardy” has included a continuing study of political elections in France. A convenient flow of French elections (at the municipal level in March and June 2020, at the regional and departmental level in June 2021, at the Presidential level in April 2022 and finally at the parliamentary elections in June 2022) provides a timely, ongoing opportunity to assess these ups and downs.  I have been writing about these French elections from the perspective of an American living in France, with a deep interest in how even the strongest of democracies, like France or the US or India, are in jeopardy of succumbing to the forces of authoritarian populism.  My interest extends, furthermore, to looking at the similarities and differences between French and American political cultures and systems of governance.  Here, Round 4 of the series addresses the outcome of the French parliamentary elections that were held on 10 and 17 June 2022.

My focus in this French case study has been on three leading concerns – the inadequacy of debate among the candidates, the significant decrease in voter turnout, and the growing popularity of extremist parties, both on the right and on the left of the French political spectrum,  that make it difficult to engage in coalition-building for governance purposes.  This last concern was especially evident in the recent parliamentary elections but has been brewing for several years. It is reflected, furthermore, in what I have been describing as the absence of institution-building for a centrist platform at the grass-roots level in spite of the promised vision of Emmanuel Macron’s surprise victory in 2017.  In this essay, I assess the significance of the parliamentary election results on all three of these concerns.

The Background

Emmanuel Macron’s inauguration for his second five-year term as President of France was held on Saturday, 7 May 2022, shortly after he had been re-elected (on Sunday, 23 April). (The French system is different in this regard than the American system, with a mandate that the duly elected President must be inaugurated within 20 to 25 days of his election.)  This was followed by another formality, the announcement on 12 May of the slate of parliamentary candidates in the June elections for the National Assembly, the lower house of the French legislature that controls the legislative process.  The slate included Macron’s own “party” (LREM from 2017 but with the new name in 2022 of “Renaissance”) in collaboration with President Macron’s centrist allies, various new (Horizon) and old (Modem and Agir) groups to ensure a pro-Macron candidate in most of the 577 National Assembly districts. This new coalition was given the title  “Ensemble”. But one might note, as in the photo below, that this did seem a bit old-style “good old boys”.

Anyway, President Macron delayed announcing the new cabinet for his second term  (the new team to inspire the legislative election campaign) until 20 May 2022. This delay disgruntled more than a few pundits, and I have to say that it provided a clue to me that Macron was not really caring that much about the legislative process. What is more, the new cabinet did not seem to convey the vision of a new presidential (i.e. “Renaissance”) mandate for the overall slate.

The new cabinet was not entirely well received – too many “technocrats”, said the media, – and not enough “political weight”, as it were. I rather liked some of his cabinet appointments, though. Elisabeth Borne as the new Prime Minister, for example, was well received as only the second ever female Prime Minister in the history of France. I also liked his choice for Education Minister, Pap Ndiaye; with his impressive academic credentials on racism in France (and the US), Mr. Ndiaye has the potential to convey a new vision on education, at least. On the whole, though, the new cabinet was seen as a mere reshuffling of mostly old guard types plus this addition of mere “technocrats”.  In retrospect, it seems that this technocratic label, along with the impression of a missing vision in the appointments, contributed to the evident lack of enthusiasm among Macron voters in the parliamentary elections. At least, it is among the reasons cited by political commentators for the disappointing results for Macron’s legislative candidates.

The Surprises

The outcome of the legislative elections, however, did surprise the pollsters and all those impressive commentators who were relying on the polling forecasts – or had no reason to dispute them. The polls had already suggested, of course, that Macron would not have a comparable super-majority in the National Assembly as he had garnered in the 2017 parliamentary elections. (Out of 577 members of the Assembly, 348 LREM (or allied) delegates had been elected in that remarkable year. ) Nonetheless, the pollsters did expect the Ensemble (the newly named coalition of the Renaissance (i.e. LREM) and its allies) to scrape by with enough delegates for the 289 out of 577 that a majority requires. Actually, the polling trends did show a steady decline in the projected number for the Ensemble slate leading up to the first round of elections on 10 June, with a slightly worrisome range of anywhere from 260 to 295 in the last days of the campaign.  So the warning signals were there. But even in the short week before the second round on 17 June, the assumptions were widely shared that Macron’s supporters would survive with enough of a critical mass to govern, even if it might mean negotiating with a few independents here and there.

Of course, the final number of 245 Ensemble delegates was well below the number required for a majority in the Assembly.  That was a loss of 103 seats from the 2017 high mark. Even worse for Macron, though, the results produced a combination of extreme right and extreme left delegates that are not available for any coalition-building. The “hard-left” dominated by Jean-Luc  Mélanchon and his La France Insoumise had pulled off quite a coup in coalescing with other leftist parties in the elections, producing a new dominant group of 142 (or 131, depending on how these delegates are tallied) delegates on the left. This new coalition, NUPES, did not win enough seats, of course, for Mélanchon to claim enough backing to become the next Prime Minister. But, although he himself had opted not to run for the National Assembly, he remained the leading influence there, even if some of those leftist parties (Socialists and Greens, for example) might not have fully embraced his more extremist positions.

More surprising, though, was the electoral success of the extreme right – i.e. the National Rally and its leading figure, Marine Le Pen (who did run for the Assembly, unlike Mélanchon – and won). The big leap in the number of National Rally delegates – from 8 in the 2017 elections to 89 in 2022 – came as quite a surprise. Independently of the implications for enhanced visibility of the extreme right in national politics, this does mean that some 231 delegates are off limits for Macron as he searches for delegates to support the 245 Ensemble delegates to ensure a majority for his legislative proposals.

The most obvious bloc for Macron to reach out to is the Republicans. They may have lost seats from 2017 (when they had over 100), but they still did better than had been expected. This bloc now has 64 delegates (61 plus a cluster of 3 allied with them).  But it so happens that this Republican bloc is itself divided between sympathizers and opponents of cooperating with Macron. While it is possible for the National Assembly to piece together its own anti-Macron majority and control the legislative process – and the appointment of a prime minister and cabinet, this is highly unlikely here. This has happened in the past in France – something described as “cohabitation”, but that has happened only when a united opposition to the party of the President had garnered an actual majority in the National Assembly.

Looking back on the legislative elections themselves, it’s easy to criticize Macron for the setback in his legislative slate – he was, said may critics, too complacent, too stand-offish, didn’t really do any campaigning, etc. And the media attention since then has been directed to the daily ins and outs of politicking among the blocs and their leaders to come up with a governing routine of some sort in the National Assembly itself. One could even see a surprise call for another round of legislative elections at some point.

The implications for the future of democracy in France are grounded in the legislative cycle, and I will only reiterate that the three concerns that I have been raising about the electoral process in France were evident this time around.  Just to summarize here in conclusion, these three concerns were – (1) the inadequacy of inclusive debates, (2) the low voter turnout, and (3) the extremist trends in voting patterns.

The Inadequacy of Inclusive Debates

The absence of lively political debates among the candidates for the National Assembly was bothersome to me. I know that the French system is different from the American one. The most obvious differences are that the French system enables a significantly larger number of political parties to have competitive candidates and restricts formal campaigning to a more limited timeframe than in the US. One spillover effect of these differences is that a district with some 12 or more candidates can’t really enable a lively debate on the issues. It’s more like a cacophony of voices, at least in the first round of these legislative elections. But then, in the second round, which is most often a choice between the two highest vote getters in the first round, the candidates left running might not actually be offering a credible choice of platforms.

It is true that there was a bit more consolidation of candidacies this time around – especially on the left. The coalition that Jean-Luc Mélanchon pulled together, the New People’s Economic and Social Union (NUPES) around his “La France Insoumise (LFI)” party was quite a feat. In his campaign to defeat Macron, if not in the Presidential race where Mélanchon came in third and therefore had been cut out of the run-off, then in these National Assembly elections that could make him the opposition’s prime minister as long as he pulled together a majority there, he became quite visibly active. He reached   out to the environmentalists (the EELV), the Communist Party of France and a large part of the French Socialist Party to create a consolidated left-oriented coalition to divide up the national ticket for an array of mutually supported candidates. All in the name of defeating Macron!

The NUPES platform was very long – over 700 specific proposals, it seems. Against raising the retirement age to 65 – and actually endorsing a lower retirement age of 60 for everyone; an increase in the minimum wage; advocacy for a new Sixth Republic; anti-NATO and a nuanced anti-EU regulations package. And it may well be that this gambit did open up the issue-oriented campaigning in many, mostly urban parts of France. But the main objective was to elevate Mélanchon as the leading opponent to Macron. (In fact, it seems that most of the voters that were drawn to this NUPES platform were just looking for a change, not particularly a platform.)

While the extreme right under Marine Le Pen did not do a similar coalition-building exercise with other groups on the far right, the main challenge to Le Pen in the Presidential race from the right, Eric Zemmour, seemed to have limited grass roots appeal in the legislative races. And what unfolded in this Riviera region was mostly a right versus extreme right competition. I suppose one could argue that this was indeed a credible political debate – who could be more anti-immigrant and pro-police, more pro-laité. On the other hand, there had been inroads by LREM in this region in 2017 that did make it look like there could have been a three-way competition. And maybe a more active national strategy by the “Ensemble” might have reinforced the appeal of LREM-style incumbents in this region. As it turned out, the Le Pen candidates managed to beat out both Republican and Ensemble candidates in the area.

What was especially disappointing was that the Renaissance/Ensemble platform was both vague and not widely promoted. Yes, we did hear from President Macron that pension reform was on his agenda – along with things like improving educational access – but he himself said almost nothing on these issues and occupied himself mostly with foreign policy matters, including a trip to Ukraine during the week leading up to the legislative elections! Did he really think that the Ensemble slate would carry the day without any debate on the issues?  We looked around for locally sponsored debates on the issues and only saw one series of interviews on the local TV station. No in-person events anywhere!

To wrap up from this regional perspective, nine single-member legislative districts make up the delegation from the Alpes-Maritime department to the National Assembly.  In 2017, four of them had hooked up with LREM, while five were solidly Republican. In 2022, one Republican lost to a Le Pen candidate, while one defeated an LREM incumbent, retaining a total of five seats. But the Le Pen candidates also defeated two LREM, thus gaining three out of the nine seats for the extreme right. Only one LREM incumbent survived.  Where we live, therefore, we are in a district that held its own in the Republican column, Just across the street was one of those districts where the LREM candidate fell to the extreme right.

Low Voter Turnout

Increasingly low voter turnout is another aspect of French elections that merits concern.  More registered voters abstained than actually voted – both in the first and in the second round! Media reports indicated that this was the lowest voter turnout in legislative elections.  It seems, therefore, that this is a growing trend – affected by the inadequacy of public debates on the issues of concern to voters. My sense is that this was mostly due to the lack of a lively debate from President Macron rather than from the opposition groups. Certainly, the NUPES platform and active campaigning by Mélanchon in his bid to be the next prime minister of France did get a lot of media attention. In any case, it would seem that indifference and disinterest are the result of an inadequate focus on an electoral campaign.  And for extremes to gain visibility, too.

The Phenomenon of Extremes

With the NUPES coalition holding 131 seats in the National Assembly, it is the largest opposition group to Macron. But it is a very loose coalition, and it does seem that both the EELV and the Socialists are willing to deviate from the coalition’s extremist positions.  Meanwhile, on the extreme right there is the Rassemblement Nationale or RN (Le Pen’s party) with a solid 89 delegates.  That is where the issue of extremism is most significant.  In both cases, of course, the numbers are not going to block others from getting things done, but the visibility of these extremist oppositions on both the left and right is making the future a challenging one for democracy in France. Let’s hope that pragmatism will take hold and mobilize more reasoned debates in the coming months -and elections, too, whether spontaneously or in the longer five-year timeframe of scheduled elections. (That would be 2025 for the municipal, 2026 for the regional, and 2027 for the National Assembly. Wow!)

 

 

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