France votes again on Sunday in the election to choose a new parliament. The ballot will also determine the shape of the country’s new government — and determine the limits of Emmanuel Macron’s power at a time of economic and international crisis.
The French are going to the polls for the fourth time in a little over two months. April’s two-round presidential bout grabbed worldwide attention, but Sunday’s second ballot for the National Assembly is arguably as important, at least domestically.
Despite his victory in the race for the Elysée, last weekend’s parliamentary round one results suggest it is touch-and-go whether the re-elected president will win an overall majority.
Hot on the presidential heels is the Left-Green alliance of Nupes, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A strong performance by the hard-left veteran’s group could severely clip Macron’s wings.
Euronews examines five important factors at play ahead of Sunday’s vote.
1. Macron in struggle for a majority despite presidential win
In 2017 the Macron wave crushed the traditional mainstream parties of left and right as it swept him to the presidency. It then surged on into the parliamentary vote, delivering the political newcomer an overall majority almost as a foregone conclusion.
Five years on, Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Ensemble! topped the first round poll, just. Official results show the president’s group won just under 26% of the vote, less than a tenth of a percentage point ahead of Nupes.
That was a fall of two points compared to this year’s presidential first round, a full six points less than Macron’s alliance won in the 2017 parliamentary vote, and well below the scores of the winning presidential parties in this century’s previous elections, all of whom won well over 30%.
The president is seen to have lost momentum since April, a period marked by the ongoing war in Ukraine, a cost-of-living crisis, and several domestic mishaps. Macron himself has kept a low profile in the campaign.
Ensemble! is forecast to be the largest parliamentary group, but a projection by the polling group Elabe suggests it is on course to win between 260-295 seats, at best only scraping the 289 needed for an outright majority, and quite possibly falling short.
Under Macron’s tenure, the government’s handling of the economy has been praised internationally and unemployment is the lowest for 15 years. But his leadership style has rankled and he is loathed by many opponents. Majority or no majority, rebooting the Macron presidency will take some creative imagination.
2. Mélenchon’s moment: a false surge for France’s wannabe PM?
Leading the opposition to Macron’s group, Mélenchon’s alliance Nupes (New Ecological and Social Popular Union) represents one of the blocs to have emerged in France’s new political landscape. After years of division, the new left grouping includes socialists, communists and greens.
Mélenchon himself is not standing, but in portraying the parliamentary vote as a “third round” of the presidential election, and suggesting that he should be made prime minister, he has succeeded in making much of the running in the campaign.
Nupes is forecast by Elabe to win between 160 and 210 seats, way short of the number needed to form the largest parliamentary bloc, never mind a government.
Mélenchon may have succeeded in uniting disparate forces, but he has failed to increase the overall share of the vote for the left. Their 25.6% first round score was less than the sum of their parts in April’s presidential election, and barely up on 2017.
The high proportion of first round losers from the political right also suggests that extra votes for the Left-Green alliance may be thin on the ground on Sunday.
Macron has warned against left-wing “extremists” — though many of Mélenchon’s allies are anything but — in the hope that right-wing voters whose candidates have been eliminated will fall in behind the presidential alliance.
3. Le Pen’s nationalist right: still making headway despite presidential defeat
Marine Le Pen recently suffered her second consecutive presidential run-off defeat, but neither the far-right leader nor her Rassemblement National party can be counted out.
Although she closed the gap on Macron in running for the presidency, France once again recoiled at electing the head of a far-right party who in the recent past has been openly pro-Putin, pro-Trump, anti-EU, anti-euro, anti-NATO, and pro-Russia.
But Le Pen’s nationalist, populist party came a strong third in the first round vote for the National Assembly with 18.68% of the vote, a rise of nearly six points and 1.2 million votes more than in 2017. The number of RN candidates in the second round is up by nearly 75%.
The party is predicted by Elabe to win between 35-45 seats, although Le Pen is hopeful of gaining “dozens”, many more than the eight she took last time.
Her success in campaigning on domestic issues such as spending power has paid dividends, and Le Pen has successfully seen off the challenge from rival far-right challenger Eric Zemmour, whose Reconquête! party won barely 4% of the vote and failed to put a single candidate into the parliamentary second round.
Although her party is likely to be under-represented in the assembly due to the electoral system, Le Pen has consolidated her position as head of the nationalist right in France.
4. Revived conservatives eye kingmaker role
Their performance at the presidential vote in April was catastrophic. Both parties representing France’s traditional conservatives and socialists, from whose ranks all post-war presidents sprang until recently, fell below 5% of the vote.
But at least on the right, some renewed hope has emerged from the debris of Valérie Pécresse’s presidential score of 4.78%. Les Républicains more than doubled that percentage last weekend.
The projections from Elabe give them 50-65 seats, more than enough to secure their survival and likely establishing themselves as France’s fourth political force.
Even in seats where the Républicains’ candidates have been eliminated, Emmanuel Macron is likely to need the support of conservative voters in run-offs against either Le Pen’s RN or the Left-Green alliance.
Should the president’s party fail to win a parliamentary majority, the conservatives’ influence in the new parliament could be amplified as Macron seeks allies to push through legislation.
Relations between the two groups however, somewhat frosty at best, have been further strained by an increasingly visible rapprochement between Macron’s Ensemble! and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy — founder of the Républicains.
5. Abstention: The real election winner?
Below the list of parties running in last weekend’s parliamentary first round, another table on the results page gives the real winner.
Abstentions 25 697 541, it says. Voters 23 256 207.
The fact that more people stayed away from polling stations last Sunday than turned out to vote, has prompted much hand-wringing. Hot weather and seasonal election fatigue maybe played a part. But so did a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the produce on offer.
Results quoted usually talk of a candidate’s share of the vote. In many cases they often look bad enough. But the column giving scores as a percentage of registered voters looks even worse.
In the first round, Macron’s Ensemble! won the backing of 11.97%. Mélenchon’s Nupes secured 11.92%. Under one in ten voted for Le Pen’s RN or any of the others.
The president’s first term was marked by the “gilets jaunes” (“yellow vests”) protests, the Covid pandemic, and now a cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine.
There is no lack of burning issues affecting people’s lives. But the passions often seen on the streets of France are anything but reflected in any corresponding allure for the ballot box.