The French presidential election results on April 26 gave Emmanuel Macron a comfortable victory – setting the stage for the “third round”, as many in France call the parliamentary polls scheduled for June 12 and 19. His populist adversaries are keen to seize control of parliament and scupper Macron’s second term – but analysts say victory for the president’s supporters is the likeliest outcome, although it could require a deal with France’s traditional conservative party.
The opening salvos in the “third round” were ready to fire upon Macron’s victory. “Tonight we start the great battle for the parliamentary elections,” said nationalist Marine Le Pen. She lost the second round to Macron by 58.5 to 41.5 percent – but reduced his lead by half compared to their previous face-off in 2017, signaling once again the French far right’s slow, steady rise.
Keen to turbocharge this momentum in the June polls, Le Pen is keen to frame her Rassemblement National (National Rally or RN) party as the sole outlet for opposition to the re-elected president, requesting support from all voters who want to “come together and join forces against Emmanuel Macron, wherever they may come from”.
Extreme-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon is taking a similar approach – telling supporters soon after Macron won that “the third round begins tonight” and that “another world is still possible if you elect enough MPs” from his Union Populaire outfit.
Mélenchon for one has explicitly pitched himself as a candidate for Macron’s prime minister if he can somehow gain a parliamentary majority. This would mark a return to “cohabitation”, the system which kicks in when the president lacks majority support in the National Assembly and so picks a prime minister from the winning party, creating a program based on compromise between the two.
In the event of Le Pen’s or Mélenchon’s party depriving Macron of the votes he needs to get legislation through, the president could resort to Article 49.3 – the Fifth Republic’s most controversial constitutional tool, allowing the head of state to bypass MPs to pass laws unless the opposition launches a vote of no confidence requiring fresh parliamentary elections. Macron “won’t want” to use this uncomfortable last resort, noted Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University.
But experts say both populists face a colossal uphill struggle to try and win the parliamentary elections (or the législatives, as they are called in French).
France has had no cohabitation since 2002, after which a constitutional reform kicked in moving parliamentary elections to the aftermath of presidential votes. Since then, the freshly elected (or re-elected) president’s party has sailed to victory on the coattails of their win.
Thus past precedent suggests that the same dynamics that carried Macron to victory in the presidential polls will benefit his party in June, explained Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University: The legislatives have “assumed the status of ‘follow-on’ elections favoring the newly elected president; no president since 2000 has failed to convert the momentum of their election into a parliamentary majority in the subsequent legislative elections”.
“The general tendency amongst French voters is to go and vote for the party of the president who’s just won,” Smith put it.
Whereas presidents tend to carry their support into the législatives, recently defeated runners-up and third-placed candidates tend to perform unimpressively. Le Pen won nearly 34 percent of the vote in the 2017 presidential vote's second round – before the Front National (National Front, the RN's predecessor) got just eight out of the 577 National Assembly seats in the subsequent polls. This came after she reached a strong third place in the 2012 presidential vote, but the National Front performed poorly in the parliamentary elections soon after.
‘Close to nil’
Le Pen and Mélenchon are hoping this time will be different amid fierce anti-Macron sentiment among parts of the French electorate. For swathes of people on both sides of the political spectrum, he is the very incarnation of the haughty, callous technocrat.
However, the fact remains that Macron won both rounds of the presidential election – and the first round showed that, of the three big voting blocs dominating France’s political landscape, Macron’s centre-right is the biggest, followed by the far right.
“As things stand at the moment, and given the way things have gone, I think Macron will get a workable majority, although not a huge one,” Smith said.
“This time, the chances of a majority for Le Pen’s RN, even if allied with [far-right presidential candidate] Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête! party, are vanishingly slim,” Shields said. “The different electoral system of legislative elections, with the high bar for contesting the run-off in each constituency, is a hurdle her party finds it almost without exception impossible to surmount.”
Likewise, Shields continued, Mélenchon’s prospects of securing a majority are “close to nil (with only 17 seats in 2017) – and the higher the abstention (which is again likely to be very high), the more remote those chances become by raising the second-round qualifying bar”.
The prospects for alliances to augment their voting blocs look slim: RN has spurned the idea of a pact with Zemmour while the left’s beleaguered parties are seen as unlikely to make a deal with the mercurial Mélenchon.
Macron deal with conservatives?
Whereas Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s parties have faltered in recent years’ parliamentary elections, traditional conservative party Les Républicains (LR) held up best when Macron’s party swept its rivals aside in the 2017 législatives, becoming the biggest opposition party despite losing a lot of seats.
LR finds itself in a paradoxical position after its presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse bombed at the ballot box: a negligible force in the race for the Élysée Palace, but a formidable presence at the local level after topping the polls at the 2021 regional elections. LR is also a paradoxical party on an ideological level: the party of Pécresse – whose attempt to cast Macron as a “pale imitation” of a centre-right leader made her, not him, look like the imitator – but also the party of Éric Ciotti, her biggest rival in the LR primaries, whose politics are far more like Zemmour’s than Macron’s.
The centrist president shifted to the right in tandem with the centre ground of French politics during his first term – after picking his first prime minister Édouard Philippe and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire from the LR ranks. As well as this ideological affinity, the conservative party would also offer Macron the kind of local machinery his political vehicle La République En Marche (Republic on the Move or LREM) lacks.
Consequently, “the most likely scenario is a deal between La République En Marche with its centrist allies and the most Macron-compatible components of Les Républicains,” Shields said.
“LR remains a powerful, well embedded party at grassroots level, as seen from its 112 parliamentary seats even in a context of severe presidential defeat in 2017,” he continued. “Here lie Macron’s best reserves for cooperation in an election where it may be more difficult for LREM to obtain a single-party majority than it was in 2017.”
Macron would have to navigate LR’s internal divide in forming an agreement. “You’ve got quite a lot of politicians in Les Républicains who don’t feel so close to Macron, who rather like the more identitarian stuff,” Smith cautioned. “The party is being torn in different directions. Some people within LR think there is still space for them to exist.”
But in the probable event that a diminished number of LR MPs take National Assembly seats, Smith continued, “they still see themselves as the natural party of government, so they would want to go in with Macron”.