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As Macron hangs on, here’s what’s at stake for France

George de Ménil is director of studies at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).

Seven weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron won a second five-year term in a landslide victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. 

Macron, a pro-market reformer, prevailed again on Sunday, in close legislative elections that will shape the future of France, but his program is now threatened by the far left. 

At stake is the makeup of the National Assembly, as a strong push by a new alliance of far left and traditional left parties could conceivably capture a majority, turning the presidential result on its head. But if what voters truly want is balance in France, this isn’t the way to go. 

In the French constitution of the Fifth Republic, both the president and the prime minister have executive authority, but the prime minister must have the backing of a majority of the National Assembly. When the two are of opposing parties, the situation is called “cohabitation,” in which case, the political center of gravity shifts to the prime minister. This has occurred only twice since the Fifth Republic’s foundation in 1958. 

Macron’s challenger now is flamboyant orator and far left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose platform starts with tried-and-true benefits — a 15 percent increase in the minimum wage and the rejection of any increase in the retirement age. He then advocates a return to France’s infamous tax on capital, a cap on inheritance at €12 million, a commitment to constitutional changes curbing the power of the president and allowing for popular referenda capable of over-riding laws passed by the National Assembly, and a proclamation that his government will pick and choose which European Union laws it will respect and which not.  

The program’s tone is reminiscent of the Socialist-Communist Common Program with which François Mitterrand won the election of 1981, and set France back 20 years. 

Sunday was the first of two rounds of voting in 577 separate legislative districts, with the first round designating the candidates who will face one another in the second round. 

With uncanny political sense, Mélenchon understood that voting by district favors national parties that can mobilize numerous leading candidates. He also correctly perceived that going into the legislative elections with many similarly minded but fragmented parties was doomed to fail. 

Therefore, calling for all the parties of the left to unite on the night of the presidential election, he offered as their rallying cry, “Elect me prime minister!” And though he’s unlikely to emerge as prime minister from the second round of voting, he did succeed in uniting his own France Unbowed, the Ecologists, the Socialists and the now small Communist Party all  under the banner of the New Popular, Ecological and Social Union alliance (NUPES). 

In the first round last Sunday, NUPES won roughly the same percentage of votes nationally as its constituents had garnered five years before. However, all the pollsters expect it will win three times more seats in next Sunday’s round than it did five years ago — making it the second largest party in the National Assembly. (The president’s party is expected to end up short of an absolute majority but to remain the largest party.)  

Both the far left and the far right remain potent forces in France. And if Le Pen and her allies were to join forces with Mélenchon and his allies, they could win a majority. But with diametrically opposed positions on key issues — immigration being one of the most critical — the intensity of those differences makes an alliance implausible, though they share a common hostility toward free-market measures and Macron. 

Interestingly, an overwhelming majority of voters, both left and right, indicated in exit polls after the first round of the presidential election that if Macron were elected, their preference would be that he be forced into “cohabitation” — IFOP put the percentage at 68 percent. 

The beneficiary of a desire for “cohabitation” today would be Mélenchon. But hopefully, one shouldn’t interpret this preference literally. 

If what voters really desire is balance, an executive committed to a radical and irresponsible program won’t give it to them. Paradoxically, in a nation as divided as France, political balance can only be achieved if the center wins a large, unbalanced majority of seats in the National Assembly.  

Macron surfs on the divisions of his opponents.  The far left and far right neutralize one another, but whether the next five years are of constructive action or stalemate will depend on the strength of the center. 

 Macron radically changed the French political landscape five years ago by gathering he moderate right, moderate left and old center around him. And this time around, Mélenchon is unlikely to force him into “cohabitation.” But the president’s ability to implement ambitious reforms will hang on his party and its allies’ ability to mobilize moderates of all persuasions behind its legislative program.

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