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How to watch the French parliamentary election like a pro

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron’s parliamentary alliance won a massive majority five years ago. This time, there’s a new left-wing bloc on the block looking to eat into the centrists’ seats. Whether it takes a small morsel or a big bite will determine the way France is run for the next five years.

France’s parliamentary vote comes in two rounds on June 12 and June 19. But for citizens living abroad, round one of polling closed last Sunday. As expected, Macron’s candidates came out on top in most constituencies, with the notable exception of Spain, Andorra, Portugal and Monaco, where former Prime Minister Manuel Valls was eliminated. For the first time, every expat had the option to vote online, though many reported difficulties doing so.

POLITICO’s aggregate polling has first-round voting intentions neck-and-neck between Ensemble, the ruling coalition, and NUPES, the left-wing alliance led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Once la saucisse is made, polls predict that Ensemble is more likely than not to scrape a majority. That’s primarily because the left-wing vote is more concentrated around fewer, mostly urban, constituencies, compared with the more widely spread centrist vote.

But other factors are at play, too, like turnout, demographics and the voting system itself. To understand the dynamics of the legislative elections like a true pro, we need to dig deeper.

The nuts and bolts

France’s legislative election is held every five years — two months after its presidential vote (the country switched from a seven-year to a five-year presidential term in 2002). The legislatives determine the MPs, or députés, who sit in the National Assembly, France’s lower chamber of parliament.

Candidates battle it out over two rounds to be elected as the representative of a constituency, or circonscription. These were last carved out in 2010, when they represented 125,000 people each, though the population numbers have changed since then. There are 577 constituencies, including 11 abroad.

A candidate can win in the first round if they receive at least half the share of votes cast, as well as the votes of at least a quarter of registered voters in the constituency. If not, the candidate who gets the most votes in the second-round runoff becomes an MP.

To reach the second round, candidates must receive votes from at least 12.5 percent of the registered voters. If only one of them achieves this, they’ll go up against the next best scorer. If none do, the top two will go up against each other.

Being a first-past-the-post instead of a proportional system — second-place candidates lose out even if they receive as much as 49 percent of the vote — the election tends to produce a clear majority in parliament.

What powers are there to play for?

Along with proposing, amending and voting on legislation, the National Assembly’s powers include triggering official investigations, questioning ministers and holding votes of no confidence.

Clearly, the fewer seats the governing party has, the more scrutiny it’ll face. But an absolute majority of 289 seats or more means no negotiation with other parties is needed to pass legislation.

Because of their enormous majority, the Macronists have so far been able to churn out laws, voting through some 354 since June 2017 — when Macron took the helm at the Élysée — even if some of the most controversial ones were revised after interventions from the constitutional council.

Macron’s leaky vehicle

Voters tend to choose members of parliament who come from the same political family as the president they have just elected, but according to Ipsos polling, things could be slightly different this time: As many as a fifth of those who voted for Macron in the first round of the presidential election intend to vote for a left- or right-wing party in the legislatives.

If Ensemble leaks enough support, its central party, Macron’s La République en marche (LREM), may face more of a challenge from its partners, particularly Mouvement Democrate, led by former Justice Minister François Bayrou, and Horizons, led by former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. It’s widely speculated that Philippe is preparing his own presidential bid.

Ensemble may even fail to win an absolute majority, in which case it would need to look for more coalition partners to increase its seats tally. The traditional conservative party Les Républicains would be the obvious choice, but party leader Christian Jacob has ruled out any alliance.

Sensing a need to reinvent itself, LREM will be rebaptized Renaissance in July, under a new charter that Le Parisien reports is aimed at making it more robust and attractive. The performance of Macron’s legislative vehicle in the parliamentary election will determine whether it needs a lick of paint or a whole new engine.

‘Mélenchon premier ministre’?

Those words adorn the campaign posters of the radical left leader of NUPES, who’s so confident of a potential win that he has referred to Élisabeth Borne, France’s newly appointed prime minister, as his “predecessor.”

Riding high off his best-ever result in the presidential election, Mélenchon believes NUPES can beat Ensemble, win a majority, unseat Borne, and usher in France’s first “cohabitation” government — where the president and prime minister belong to opposing parties — since 2002.

“Mélenchon for prime minister” posters, part of NUPES’ parliamentary election campaign, Paris, 2 June 2022 | Photo by Peter O’Brien

Such a situation neuters the president’s ability to implement reforms, handing a bulk of the policymaking power to the prime minister and their majority in parliament.

Our polling suggests the chances of this happening are extremely slim. Mélenchon is not running for re-election as MP for Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille, insisting that he’ll be prime minister. However, Mélenchon — even without a seat in parliament, let alone the premiership — could still prove more influential than ever. In the more likely scenario of becoming the main opposition force in parliament, the forceful orator steering the new French left won’t shy away from blocking Macron’s agenda.

How far will the far right go?

The National Rally led by Marine Le Pen is on track for a historic result in the first round of the legislatives. The party’s predicted to win roughly a fifth of the popular vote, compared with less than 14 percent in 2017 and 2012, when it was known as the National Front.

However, it’s an uphill climb for them to secure seats, mainly because their candidates often come in third place in the first round, and the 12.5 percent rule means it’s difficult to see a great number of them reaching the second round, let alone win it when they run against a centrist candidate.

Will voters show up?

Since they were synchronized to happen one after the other, the presidential race has historically overshadowed the parliamentary election. But even in the presidential vote, abstention has been on the rise since 2007. This year, at 26 percent for the first round and 28 percent for the second, abstention was particularly high because of a perceived lack of options and the war in Ukraine.

Expect there to be even less interest in the legislatives, turnout for which has been dropping since the 1990s. In 2017, it fell below 50 percent for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, and polls suggest it could be even lower this time.

This figure is however crucial to the outcome, again because of the 12.5 percent rule. The greater the number of people that vote, the larger the pool of candidates who make it to the second round.

Demographics are also key. Currently, the older you are in France, the more likely you are to vote, and the more likely you are to vote for Macron’s candidates. If there is to be an upset, it will be down to the younger generations.

I’m not French. Why should I care?

With war on the doorstep, political stability as well as who has the power to pass laws in France, a leading force in the EU, are of huge consequence.

The world is watching how France pushes forward on European sovereignty and implements landmark EU regulation like the Digital Services Act, which will be determined in part by the work of its parliament. In the unlikely event of a major upset, we could be looking at a Euroskeptic prime minister in Mélenchon, who plans to “disobey” EU rules. And that’s in the event of a softer stance than he’s often taken in the past.

If the president retains his majority, foreign policymakers will also be watching for the fruits of the spate of laws voted in over the last five years, and how they’ve affected French society.

“There are things we’ve voted on which we now have to deliver,” said Bruno Studer, LREM MP and president of the parliamentary commission on culture and education, “we have to make sure they’re put in place correctly.”

Following through with existing laws made under Macron, as well as advancing new ones, might not be quite so simple under a weaker presidential alliance, particularly for controversial reforms like pensions.

Over the longer term, the demographic shift is one to follow. As it stands, France’s support for centrist politics will be replaced with more left-right division as its population ages. It’s a trend that will change the face of one of Europe’s key powers.

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