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As France’s electoral marathon nears its denouement there could still be surprises

In a polling station in western France on June 11, 2017. Loïc Venance/AFP

When Emmanuel Macron launched his outsider campaign for France’s presidency in November 2016, most observers thought he had little chance of winning – he was “too young” and had support from neither of the major parties. Then he squeaked out a win in the first round and went on to crush the extreme right-winger Marine Le Pen nearly two-to-one in the May 7 finale.

Now the candidates put forward by Macron and his party, La République en Marche (LREM) have dominated the first round of the legislative elections, with potential wins in more than 400 seats out of a total of 577.

The legislative elections have served to amplify the restructuring that was already taking place during the presidential elections. This featured a collapse of the Socialist Party, a weakening of Les Républicains (LR), and a significant drop for both Le Pen’s Front National (FN) and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed).

A record abstention

The overall abstention rate in the first round of the legislatives on June 11 was 51.3%, a jump of 8.5 points over 2012’s 42.8% – the previous record low. The abstention rate has steadily risen since the 2002 reform that moved the legislative elections to immediately after the presidential election. The feeling for many voters seems to be that the president should be able to move forward with his proposals – tacit approval without an explicit vote.

According to an Ipsos poll on the eve of the first round, 24% of respondees agreed with Macron and wanted him to have a majority in the assembly; another 28%, while they didn’t agree with the new president, also felt that it was preferable for him to have a majority.

This in part explains the high abstention rate in the legislative elections – one that was most pronounced among far-right and far-left voters. Of those who voted for the FN in the first round of the presidential election, 57% skipped the legislative elections. On the far left, 52% of Mélenchon’s supporters stayed home. The abstention rates were lower for the centre-left and centre-right: 43% of those who had backed Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate, and 38% of supporters of François Fillon, candidate for Les Républicains, stayed home. By comparison, the abstention rate for Macron supporters was only 37%.

Polls also show continuing disapproval of the political class. The emergence of new political forces – mainly LREM and France Insoumise – have not been enough to convince disappointed citizens to come back to the voting booth. The sociological characteristics of non-voters remain the same: 64% of the 18-to-34-year-olds didn’t vote, compared to 35% of those over 60-years-old. Working-class voters remained on the sidelines, with 66% not participating, and abstention rates were high for low-income and less-educated residents as well.

The president’s side, on the rise

Despite questions about his private financial dealings, minister Richard Ferrand is leading in his Brittany district. Fred Tanneau/AFP

Candidates aligned with Macron received 32.3% of the votes cast (28.2% for LREM and 4.1% for François Bayrou’s centrist MoDem party), a jump of 8.3 points over the first round of the presidential election. While many LREM candidates are new to politics, the district-level results have been excellent. Not only did Macron’s backers remain mobilised at a higher rate, they picked up 21% of those who had voted for Fillon, 17% of Hamon’s supporters, and 14% of Mélenchon’s. Macron won many more voters than he lost.

Macron’s strategic choices since his election have paid off. He appointed a prime minister from the political right, Edouard Philippe and ministers on the left and right according to their “Macron-compatible” profile. He has already begun announcing his first reforms, and been a confident presence on the international scene. According to the Ipsos poll, 58% of those surveyed said they were satisfied with Macron’s first actions in office, no small accomplishment.

Tradition in meltdown

Jean‑Christophe Cambadélis, the head of the Socialist Party, was eliminated in the first round of the legislative elections. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP

Things are less rosy for two traditional parties, the centre-left Socialists and centre-right Les Républicains. In the 2012 legislative elections, the Socialists and their allies won 34.4% of the votes – in 2017 they collected only 9.5%. Victims in the first round of the legislative elections included Hamon and Jean‑Christophe Cambadélis, the head of the party itself, both of whom lost seats they had long held. The poor showing is a verdict on François Hollande’s presidency as well as the result of internal divisions between the party’s left wing and centrist right wing.

By comparison, Les Républicains held on better. They and other centre-right parties won 21.6% of the vote, versus 32% in 2012. This is barely better than Fillon’s 20% score in the first round of presidential election. Their high abstention rate in the legislative election is explained by the party’s divisions – between those favouring a hard-right ideological line and a more moderate approach, as well as the split between those who urged “constructive” support of Macron versus those who wanted to be a part of the opposition.

The decline of the FN and France Insoumise

While Le Pen obtained 21.3% in the first round of the presidential election, support for the FN’s legislative candidates dropped from 13.6% in 2012 to 13.2% in 2017. This calls into question the party’s longstanding efforts to remake itself and leave behind its sulphurous past. Following the double loss, internal divisions have risen again as well as questions on the party’s platform. In particular, its positions against the euro and the EU probably led many FN supporters to abstain.

Mélenchon won 19.6% of the votes in the first presidential round, but has been on the decline since. The party’s candidates got only 11% of the vote in the legislative elections, which can be explained by its strategy of isolation and rejection of an alliance with the once-powerful Communist Party. Overall, however, compared to the 2012 legislative election, the far-left is on the rise and hopes to dominate the moderate left in the coming years.

Two possible scenarios

At the end of this first legislative round, France faces a new political landscape. Instead of four almost equal political forces with between 24% and 20% of the vote, France now has a single dominant force in the centre, a weakened family on the right, an extreme right that’s stumbling, and a deeply divided left. And half of potential voters are still sitting on the sidelines, seeing how the political situation evolves.

Two scenarios can be anticipated for June 18 – when the second and final round of the legislative elections take place. Because the winner of each constituency will be the candidate with the majority of votes, it’s likely to confirm the results of the first round and give a large majority to Macron. But one can also imagine a decrease in the momentum for the president, with opposition parties gaining more seats than anticipated.

And there could still be some surprises at the end of a very long series of elections that have completely transformed the French political landscape.

Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published in French

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