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Can far-left champion Mélenchon become Macron’s prime minister?

French voters will troop to the polls next month to decide, all over again, who governs their country for the next five years.

Just as in the presidential election last month, the French will also decide the future of the European Union when they vote to elect their representatives in the National Assembly, the country’s lower chamber, in June’s parliamentary election. This time the apparent threat to the EU comes from the left, not from the far right. 

Will President Emmanuel Macron win a majority of seats in the National Assembly? Or can a newly united left impose a radical, Euroskeptic prime minister, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who will lead France into Euro-dissidence and the weakening of the EU?

An electoral alliance negotiated this week between Mélenchon’s hard-left France Unbowed, the green party EELV and the Communists has been extended to embrace the much-weakened Socialists — it will be put to a vote for approval by Socialist Party representatives Thursday.

The abrupt unification of the French left has been largely on Mélenchon’s Euroskeptic terms. To the fury of moderate Socialists and some Greens, the alliance’s common platform pledges to “disobey” or “withdraw temporarily from” EU budgetary and economic rules. It also (incoherently) commits a left government to stay within French and EU law.

This “New Popular Social and Ecological Union” has a chance of winning a large bloc of seats on June 12 and 19 but almost certainly not enough to force Macron to appoint Mélenchon as his prime minister. (The French system is presidential by custom and practice but the ultimate power rests with parliament.)

History, and the arcane rules of the two-round electoral system, suggest that Macron and his pro-European center bloc will emerge with, at the very least, a working majority of seats on June 19. The French electorate may be perverse but it has never in the six decades of the Fifth Republic denied a newly-elected president at least a plurality of seats in the assembly.

The low turnout in parliamentary elections — 48.7 percent in the first round in 2017 or 29 points below that year’s presidential election — should favor Macron. His older, wealthier, well-educated supporters vote in all types of election. Mélenchon’s younger, poorer and racially disparate voters do not (or at least they haven’t until now).

The French political writer Chloe Morin described Mélenchon as his party’s “greatest weapon and its greatest handicap” in an interview with Le Figaro: a brilliant orator and a smart tactician but a man who divides rather than unites the nation.  

If his new left alliance does well in round one, Morin predicts, there “could be an anti-Mélenchon front” in round two.

This analysis was supported by a Harris Interactive poll this week. In the second round of the presidential election last month, many left-wing voters supported Macron to keep out Marine Le Pen and the far right. In round two of the parliamentary election, according to the Harris poll, Macron’s centrist allies will benefit from the reverse effect — tactical voting by the right and part of the center-left to defeat Mélenchon.

Both the new left bloc and the centrist bloc could attract 33 percent of the first-round vote, according to the Harris poll. However, in the second round on June 19, this would produce less than 100 seats for the left and well over 300 for Macron’s “center” out of a total of 577.

And yet and yet … these are unusual times in French politics. All forecasts at this stage are hazardous. The parliamentary elections are 577 separate races, in which local allegiances and issues can skew national trends.

The June elections will also mark another stage in the redrawing of French electoral frontiers. They will be fought not by left and right, but by three broad and internally quarrelsome blocs of left, right and center.

None of the three blocs appears to have enough strength to win an outright majority of seats. But the two-round system means that one party or an alliance of parties can win a majority — even a big majority — with much less than 50 percent of the vote nationwide.

If a bloc is united enough and gets out its vote — and attracts parts of another bloc in round two — it can win many more seats than its share of the electorate.

Only two of the three blocs are united enough to have any chance of such a victory: Macron’s center and Mélenchon’s newly and uneasily allied left.

On the nationalist-populist right, Le Pen’s National Rally has refused to ally with Eric Zemmour’s Reconquête. The center-right Les Républicains, humiliated by their 4.7 percent score in round one of the presidential election, are divided. A dozen or more of their MPs want to save their seats by joining forces with Macron.  

Macron’s center is split into four or five groups, including his own La République en Marche party. Difficult negotiations are in progress on how to incorporate the new center-right party Horizons, created by Macron’s ex-PM, Edouard Philippe.

On the left, Mélenchon’s success in almost reaching round two of the presidential election gave him a historic opportunity. He has uneasily united the French left from a radical position, not from the consensual center. That excites many of his young supporters. That may prove to be an electoral handicap or an unexpected advantage.

More than two candidates can reach round two of the parliamentary election. To qualify, a candidate must come first or second in round one or attract the votes of 12.5 percent of the local registered electorate.

On a turnout of just less than 50 percent, that means a third placed candidate has to win circa 25 percent of the actual vote to qualify. In the second round in the 2017 election, there was only one three-way race (out of 577).

In seats where there are straight second-round fights between Macron candidates and left or Mélenchon candidates, many right-wing and moderate left voters will vote Macron to keep out Mélenchon.

Arguably, however, historic low turnout could provide Mélenchon with an opportunity. He inspired an unusually high number of young and racially diverse voters to cast ballots in the first round of the presidential election — a trend not picked up by pollsters.

If he does that again, the result could be very different. An outright left or Mélenchon victory is extremely unlikely. With a very high turnout in metropolitan areas and multi-racial suburbs, he might just – and it is a big might – deny Macron a majority in the new assembly.

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