French Legislative Elections 2017: Results & Analyses By Nathan Richmond
President Emmanuel Macron is beginning the process of transforming French society following his improbable conquest of French politics. His party, La République En Marche! (REM), formerly En Marche!, was created in April 2016, barely a year before the presidential election. Distrusted by the French Right because he was economy minister in Hollande’s Socialist government and distrusted by the French Left because he had once been an investment banker, Macron staked out the French political center. His presidential and legislative electoral victories are thus even more surprising because the main political cleavage in France has been Left and Right and the French traditionally have not supported centrist political parties or candidates (e.g. Bayrou, deVillepin).
How The Legislative Electoral System Works
Having won the presidency in May 2017, Macron needed a legislative majority in the just-held National Assembly elections or else he would become a mere ceremonial president. This is because France has a semi-presidential system in which the president wields enormous power—unless the opposition has a majority in the National Assembly. In that circumstance, called cohabitation, the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, wields power and the president is relegated to ceremonial duties because the French president has no veto power. This has happened three times in the Fifth Republic: 1986-1988, 1993-1995, and 1997-2002.
The National Assembly election, like the presidential election, is held in two rounds. In the first round, held this year on June 11, all 577 single-member district seats were contested. Political parties from the far Left to the far Right fielded candidates and often there were more than a dozen candidates—sometimes more than 20 candidates—standing for election in each district. To win a seat in the first round a candidate must win an absolute majority of the votes cast (50 percent + 1) and must win at least 25 percent of all eligible voters in their district. Thus, a low turnout may prevent a candidate from winning on the first round. In 2017, only 4 candidates won a seat on the first round (compared to 36 won in 2012, 110 won in 2007 and 59 won in 2002).
To advance to the second round, held this year on June 18, candidates had to win at least 12.5 percent of all eligible votes in their district, which is very difficult to do with so many candidates running in each district. If only one, or none, of the candidates did so, the two top candidates after the first round advanced. Rarely did more than two candidates advance to the second round.
Macron’s party, REM, won an absolute majority on the second round though far fewer than the 400+ seats the polls had predicted. With 577 seats in the National Assembly, a majority is 289. REM won 308, and along with their electoral partner the Modern Democrats (MoDems) who won 42 seats, Macron has a comfortable majority.
The parliamentary Right saw its share of National Assembly seats fall from 229 to 136 while the parliamentary Left lost about 85 percent of its seats plummeting from a majority of 331 to a mere 45. The far Left won 27 seats, the far Right won 8 and the remaining 21 seats went to various regional and independent candidates. Macron now has an electoral mandate to implement his political program, though the record high abstention rate 51.30 percent on the first round and 57.36 percent on the second round of the National Assembly election could be an indication of trouble ahead. And while the French Senate does not have any REM members yet, it can only delay but not prevent the National Assembly from passing legislation. Half of the Senate’s 326 seats will be contested in the fall of 2017 and the other half in 2020. The Senate is indirectly elected by an electoral college composed of (mostly local) elected officials,
President Macron’s Priorities
President Macron has put forward an ambitious agenda that he would like to accomplish before the fall. His top three priorities are national security, political corruption, and labor law reforms.
In terms of national security, France has been in a state of emergency since the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015. This state of emergency gives the authorities, especially the police, emergency powers to investigate, arrest, and detain, which they otherwise would not have. Macron’s government is proposing to continue the state of emergency through November 2017, then replace the emergency powers with a series of permanent measures including:
a. the establishment of cordons, security zones to protect public places at risk of terrorist attacks like concert halls, sports arenas, festival sites, etc.;
b. giving local authorities the right to close mosques suspected of inciting jihaddists;
c. replacing house the arrest of suspect individuals with close surveillance; and
d. allowing the police to conduct raids of suspected terrorists if authorized by a judge.
Macron has vowed to tackle corruption in French politics as well. Among his proposals are laws to prevent officeholders from hiring family members, limiting officeholders to 3 terms, and politicians found guilty of fraud or a corruption offense will be barred from holding elected office for 10 years.
Thirdly, Macron will attempt to make the French labor market more ‘flexible’ in an effort to reduce France’s comparatively high level of unemployment. His goal is to make the system similar to the Scandinavian model where employers can more easily fire workers or otherwise adjust their work schedules as needed. In order to do so, Macron is proposing that:
a. employers have the ability to negotiate worker contracts at the company level instead of industry-wide;
b. the process of firing workers be streamlined and severance pay should be capped at lower levels,
c. the 35-hour work would remain but be an average and more flexible instead of a hard deadline; and
d. France would implement better worker training programs for unemployed workers.
Macron will easily have his anticorruption legislation passed. His antiterrorism legislation will also pass, though not without a fight from people concerned that their civil liberties will be threatened. The real test for Macron will be if he is able to succeed in reforming the country’s labor laws. President Hollande before him tried and failed as did President Sarkozy. While Macron is laying the groundwork now for reforming France’s labor laws, that issue will not be resolved at least until the fall when he can expect massive opposition to his proposals from organized labor. For now, however, things are tranquil as the French enjoy their summer vacations.
The stakes are quite high, not only for France but for the E.U. as a whole. If Macron is successful in reforming France resulting in lower unemployment and generating economic growth, he will have a better chance of persuading Germany and other E.U. states to adopt needed reforms. Should he fail at transforming France, however, he will have litttle chance of persuading other leaders to reform the E.U.
Some commentators and analysts have suggested that the traditional parties of the Left and Right are dead. It may be a little early to declare these parties dead, but with the traditional parties of Left and Right severely weakened, the extreme Left and extreme Right are poised to take advantage of the wounded traditional parties should Macron falter in his quest for reforms at home in France and abroad in the E.U.
Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College who currently resides in France.