By Dr Maryse Helbert. School of Social and Political Sciences
A month after a truly extraordinary battle for the French presidency between centrist Emmanuel Macron and far right Marine Le Pen, the French people are going to the polls again for two rounds of voting in legislative elections.
The stakes are high. Macron’s presidential victory would not mean much if he were not able to confirm it with a large win in the legislative elections. By the same token, a poor showing at the legislatives would foreshadow the need for Macron to re-shape his political agenda to ‘fit’ the new majority of the Assemblée.
Only a few months ago, Macron’s party En Marche – only about a year old - was not given a chance of winning a majority in the Assemblee. Incredibly, three recent opinion polls indicate an absolute victory for Macron’s En Marche.
And it’s not just opinion polls that are encouraging for Macron – first round voting has already begun for French voters abroad and the results show En Marche with strong leads.
The President’s first month in office has widely been praised. Since his inauguration, several symbolic moves have been carefully planned. He visited French troops in Mali, vowing 'to secure the region against terrorism’. The announcement by US President Donald Trump that the US would leave the Paris COP21 Agreement provided Macron with a platform to reach out to left wing and ‘green’ voters, announcing (in English) his intention to ‘make the planet great again’.
What this all means is that the legislative elections (on Sunday June 11 and Sunday June 18) may well put an end to the historic – and strictly binary – battle between two traditional parties, the Républicains and the Parti Socialiste.
The level of support for Macron, as well as for the National Front’s Le Pen and Jean Luc Melenchon - the leader of Insoumis, (which emerged as the leading left wing party in the first round of the presidential elections, particularly among young voters) - will mean that the lower house will likely look very different after the elections.
With one third of sitting MPs not running this time round, we will see a large number of new faces representing new political forces. So if the opinion polls are to be trusted, the legislative elections may well be as extraordinary as the presidential election and augur the most significant change in the composition of the Assemblée since the Fifth Republic was pronounced in 1958.
The stakes are also high for other parties, who all need to show that they are still relevant forces in the political landscape. For the two major parties – the Socialistes and the Républicains – neither of whom even made it through to the second round of the presidentials, the results mean nothing less than their political survival.
For the National Front's Marine Le Pen, the aftermath of the presidential election has been difficult. She has had to face criticism from within her own party that she was too aggressive during the last presidential debate and didn’t focus enough on policy. She has attempted to justify her poor performance in the final debate by claiming her passion for being ‘the voice of real French people’ had overwhelmed her.
She has also come under fire for her political platform itself, and in particular her policy toward Europe. Indeed, her explicit intention to pull France out of the Euro currency zone was heavily criticised for the tortuous implementation process it would entail. The National Front has since decided to drop the plan.
Le Pen is still considered the only member of the National Front who can present the party in such a way as to appeal to a wider range of voters than that of her father’s era. But internal criticism has undermined her strategy to place it as the main party of opposition. The National Front is currently polling at just 18% for the legislatives – uncomfortably high for many, but nevertheless a lower score than Le Pen achieved in the second round of the presidentials; a decrease that could well be explained by the in-fighting of the interim period.
One of the reasons the presidential election was so extraordinary is that neither of the two traditionally biggest parties – the Républicains and the Parti Socialiste - even qualified for the second round. The legislative elections are an opportunity for these parties to regroup.
Both the Republicans and Socialists have dropped policies they put forward at the presidential elections in favour of new ones designed to attract more voters at the legislatives. The right wing Republicans – now at 22% in the polls – seem to have recaptured some of the voters they lost in the presidential elections, despite their presidential leader Francois Fillon still facing corruption allegations. The Socialists, however, are struggling to regain support and are polling at just 9%.
As for Melenchon –– he has made a plea to his voters to mobilise again in order to offer a real opposition to Macron. For Melenchon, the large majority that Macron obtained in the presidential election was not an approval of his agenda but rather a rejection of Marine Le Pen. A vote for En Marche in the legislative elections would therefore be, according to Melenchon, a vote not only against Le Pen but also against Macron’s neoliberal policies. He is currently at 13% in the polls.
The voting system of the legislative elections are similar to (but not the same as) the presidential system in that it is a vote in two parts. In the legislative elections, usually two candidates win through to a final contest in the second round, but it’s possible that three or four could. Due to this complexity, it will not be clear how well the parties have performed until after the second round of voting.
Banner image: Young supporters of President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, May 2017. Credit: Lori Shaull/Flickr
Second image: President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron with supporters in Paris, May 2017. Credit: French Embassy in the US/Flickr
Third image: Torn campaign poster of Marine Le Pen in Paris. Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr