Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) French President Emmanuel Macron has suffered a devastating setback in the parliamentary elections on Sunday, with his coalition Together! losing absolute majority, raising the question as to how the French government will function in the coming period.
The so-called father of the French Fifth Republic, Charles De Gaulle, envisioned France as a semi-presidential republic, in which the president represents the “spirit of the nation” and effectively leads the country by appointing the government. It is a system not well-suited for cohabitation, and it has been more than twenty years since a sitting president had to deal with an opposition government.
Soon after center-right president Jacques Chirac had to appoint socialist Lionel Jospin as prime minister in 1997, France changed its electoral law to hold the parliamentary elections soon after the presidential ones, in order to avoid cohabitation in the future. But the current situation – in which there is no majority for anyone in the parliament – is unprecedented in modern France.
Macron’s coalition won just 245 seats in the Assemblée Nationale – 44 short of 289 needed for an absolute majority. The left-wing New Popular Union (NUPES), led by far-left eurosceptic and NATO opponent Jean-Luc Mélenchon, won 131 and will be the second-strongest grouping in the parliament.
Another political upset was a record result for the far-right, with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) winning 89 seats and becoming the third strongest group in the parliament. This is the extreme right’s best showing since 1986 when Le Pen’s father won 35 seats with his National Front.
France’s traditional center-right party, the Republicans, only won 64 seats in the parliament, but this could help them act as kingmaker in the coming weeks, as the least radical, most pro-European opposition party. Despite some calls from the prominent party members to enter an alliance “against the extreme right and left” with Macron, party head Christian Jacob stressed that the party plans to “remain in opposition”.
Macron is now entering the uncharted territory of French politics – he will have to try and gather a workable majority, either by courting groups such as Republicans, Socialists, and Greens or by trying to win over individual lawmakers until he gathers the 44 additional seats necessary for a majority.
An alternative would be to keep a minority government, which would face tough negotiations over each and every legislative proposal, trying to find backing for every proposal either on the left or on the right. Such a development would likely result in a mostly paralyzed government, unable to act quickly or implement its agenda fully.
A striking result by both NUPES and RN means that both groups can now initiate no-confidence votes against individual ministers, and can delay the implementation of laws by referring them to France’s Constitutional Council. Having more than 180 lawmakers between them, they could even come to an agreement on calling for popular referendums on issues of interest to both populist groups.
Despite hailing from the opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, the French far-right and far-left have found themselves more than once on the same side over particular issues – such as Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age to 65. If they find any other such issues to cooperate on, they could force through a number of popular referendums to block or overturn Macron’s policies.
Macron still has one option remaining – he could, in theory, dismiss the Assemblée Nationale and call early elections – this is one of the constitutional powers of the president. However, doing so at this point would likely bring no benefit to Macron, and probably strengthen both extreme options in the parliament.
He could choose to do so, however, at a later date, if the political paralysis stemming from a hung parliament causes public opinion to shift back in his favour, or at least against the populist left and right. It would be a gamble that could well pay off, though the last time a French president tested the public opinion this way – Chirac in 1997 – he was “rewarded” with hard cohabitation.