A New Dawn for the French Parliament?

PSA Parliaments member Rainbow Murray looks ahead to the French legislative elections on 11 and 18 June and discusses an “unprecedented opportunity for renewal within the French Parliament”.

France is experiencing “interesting times”.  One by one, all the favourites to win the presidential election fell by the wayside, leaving the path open for a relative outsider, Emmanuel Macron, to storm his way to the Elysée.  A centrist who leans to the right on some policies and the left on others, Macron sits outside the traditional landscape of French party politics.  And now he is seeking to rewrite that landscape.

Although France has numerous political parties, electoral competition has traditionally boiled down to competition between two main blocks: the right, working with the centre-right; and the left, working with the communists, greens, centre-left and various smaller groupings.  Despite its ever-growing presence in the political scene, the far-right National Front remains fairy marginal within the French parliament, where it has never managed to win more than a couple of seats due to the majoritarian electoral system.

The collapse of the Left under François Hollande is reflected both in their plummeting vote share (the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, scored just 6% in the presidential election, a completely unprecedented result) and their fracture into different groupings that have proven unable to work together.  The combined score of Hamon and the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could have been sufficient to allow one of them to qualify to the second round of the presidential election, but despite their similarities they could not reach any agreement to join forces.

Meanwhile the right is on the brink of divorce, separating into two distinct units: a more centrist-leaning wing, tempted by the politics of Macron, and a more hardline right-wing faction that apes the discourses of the far-right.  The appointment of a prime minister and several ministers drawn from the centre-right has thrown the Republican party into turmoil.  With more centre-leaning Republicans tempted to follow suit, Macron may be able to avoid cohabitation (the sharing of power between a president of one party and a parliament led by another) by instead fostering collaboration.  A “grand coalition” of centrist forces from the left and the right cannot be ruled out.

The nomination of Macron’s first government was a portent of things to come.  Not only has he drawn in Republicans, Socialists and ministers from several other parties; he has also ensured a gender balance (albeit with women in stereotypical, less powerful positions, following in the footsteps of François Hollande’s governments). And he has nominated a number of ministers with professional expertise in the areas of their portfolios but without prior political experience.  It is a quirky government that is unusually diverse in its composition, extending the concept of “ouverture” (openness/ diversity) first peddled by Nicolas Sarkozy.

It is not only the government that is getting some fresh faces.  At a time when French political parties have never been in so great a state of disarray, there is an unprecedented opportunity for renewal within the French parliament.  Firstly, a record number of deputies have decided not to defend their seats.  In 2012, 472 deputies sought re-election (out of 577); in 2017, the figure is just 361.  By definition, then, at least 216 seats will not be held by the outgoing incumbent after 18 June.  This turnover is triggered in part by new rules that prevent deputies from combining parliamentary office with local executive office.  In a country where local fiefdoms can afford more power than a seat in the weak parliament, many deputies have chosen to prioritise the former and sacrifice the latter.

Secondly, Macron’s party has come from nowhere to emerge as a potentially very significant electoral force, riding on the coattails of his presidential win.  Some of the faces standing for La République en Marche (LRM) – the electoral party formed out of his own movement, founded only a year ago – will be familiar to the French public.  He has cut deals with a number of deputies from across the political spectrum who have demonstrated their willingness to get on board with his programme and run on his party ticket.  He has also decided not to field candidates against another 50-odd deputies who have not overtly joined his camp but who might be minded to support his policies, given their ideological sympathy for his ideas.

For the remaining seats, he has honoured his commitment to introduce a host of new faces into politics.  More than 50% of the party’s candidates are political novices, drawn from “civil society”, meaning from outside party politics.  They have never before stood for or held elected office (like Macron himself, for whom the presidential election was his first campaign of any kind).  The gender balance of the candidates is 50:50, and the ethnic balance is more diverse than in the (extremely white) mainstream political parties.  LRM offers the potential for political renewal on a scale never before seen.


Image courtesy of Richard Ying et Tangui Morlier via Wikimedia Commons

Macron certainly has his work cut out.  While his own success in the presidential election is an indicator of the French appetite for change, voters may also be wary of political neophytes who lack experience, networks and name recognition.  They also lack the well-oiled party machine that their competitors will enjoy.  There is a fine line between being seen as a fresh face and as an amateur.  The stumbling steps taken thus far by LRM certainly give the impression of a party that is learning on the job. Their much-delayed candidate list contained numerous errors, had to be revised multiple times and ended up with far fewer names on it than originally promised.  It was hardly a great start.

And if many of the 2017 parliamentary cohort are taking their seats for the first time, there will be a lot more learning on the job to come.  In a country where professional politicians are the norm and politics is often a life-long career, the entry of a large number of outsiders presents both risks and opportunities to transform how things are done.  It would seem that French politics will continue to be “interesting” for some time yet.


Rainbow Murray is a Reader (Associate Professor) in Politics at Queen Mary University of London, and a visiting research fellow at CEVIPOF (Sciences Po, Paris). She is on Twitter: @RainbowMurray

To write for the PSA Parliaments and Legislatures blog, please contact us on psa.parliaments@gmail.com


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