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The results of the first round of the legislative elections show the close finish between the presidential and left-wing coalitions.
The results of the first round of the legislative elections on 12 June from the headquarters of Ensemble! (presidential coalition) in Paris show the close finish with the left-wing coalition Nupes. Ludovic Marin/AFP

French parliamentary elections continue to redraw the political map, amid record low turnout

The results of the first round of the French parliamentary elections that took place on Sunday are out: according to national daily Le Monde, France’s new left-wing coalition headed by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Nouvelle union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (NUPES, New Popular Ecological and Social Union) has clinched most of the votes (26.10%), just ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s coalition Ensemble (25.81%). Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, Rassemblement National (RN), emerges as the third political force with 18.67% of the vote.

Puzzling results

In contrast, the figures of the Interior Ministry place the president’s coalition ahead by a fraction of 0.9% (25.75%) over the NUPES (25.66), equivalent to around 21,000 votes. Rassemblement National stands at 18.68%.

Le Monde attributed the contrasting outcomes to differing views on candidates’ political labels: although the publication recognised several socialist and green hopefuls rebelled against the coalition despite their parties’ agreement, the French daily ended up labelling a higher number of candidates as NUPES by comparison to the Interior Ministry. Speaking on French radio on Monday morning, green MEP David Cormand accused the state of identifying candidates from overseas territories based on their original affiliations (socialist or ecologist) prior to the coalition agreement.

Leaving aside the controversy over the results, what might we retain as the takeaways from this first round?

French voters continue to shun the ballot box

First up, the first round of the parliamentary elections saw a high level of abstention, reaching 52.61%, or 1.3 points more than in 2017. This is part of an underlying trend, which has seen French voters increasingly shun the ballot box since the 1993 parliamentary elections.

One of the reasons for the decreasing turnout in parliamentary elections could well be institutional. Reforms such as the reduction of the presidential mandate from seven to five years in 2000 or the new electoral calendar placing presidential elections before parliamentary ones have gradually erased differences between the two elections, accelerating the “presidentialisation” of France’s government, with the parliament becoming a secondary consideration.

Another might be down to circumstances. As journalist Gérard Courtois reminds us, since then-President François Mitterrand failed to clinch a majority in the 1981 and 1988, resulting in the dissolution of National Assembly, newly elected presidents had tended to work hard to dominate parliament. This year, however, the two camps that came out on top in the presidential elections (LREM, now Renaissance, and the Rassemblement National) ran an almost non-existent parliamentary campaign.

On the one hand, President Macron seems to have opted for what journalists have dubbed a “chloroform strategy” – a reference to the colourless and odourless anaesthetic – by keeping a low profile during this campaign and delaying the nomination of a new government until three weeks after his re-election.

On the other hand, Marine Le Pen seems to have already admitted defeat by aiming for only about 60 RN deputies in the Assembly, shrinking from public view up to the point that some observers wondered where she’d gone.

As a result, this parliamentary campaign has captivated only 15% of French citizens and will not have been marked by a central theme in the debates.

Who comes out on top?

The creation of the NUPES recalled the glory days of the unified left – the Popular Front of 1936 or the Common Programme of 1972 – and tried to instil a new dynamic for these legislative elections. The slogan “Jean-Luc Mélenchon Prime Minister” adopted by the coalition personified and nationalised these elections and the strategy of the “third round” finally followed the logic of presidentialisation of the regime.

The NUPES’ strong presence in the media combined with Renaissance’s half-hearted campaign can explain the surprise of this election: for the first time in France’s Fifth Republic, the presidential camp did not obtain a clear majority of the votes cast in the first round of the legislative elections. As a result, Macron’s supporters may not wield an absolute majority in the second round of this election.

What are the prospects for political life?

The conservative Les Républicains party, of which Jacques Chirac (president from 1995-2007) and Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) were standard bearers, obtained its lowest-ever score in the parliamentary elections with 13.6%. Here again, the campaign steered clear from national politics, focusing instead on its respective constituency identities as it sought to present itself as “party of the territories”.

The strategy appears to have borne little fruit, however, with estimates showing a drop in the number of LR deputies from 100 to around 50 to 80 seats. For the Rassemblement National, on the other hand, the number of MPs could rise to between 20 and 45 depending on the results next week.

In sum, we note a slow decline of LR since 2017 (or even 2012) while the RN consolidates its place on the benches of the National Assembly.

Going by estimates, the presidential camp could eek out a majority in the National Assembly, with just under 300 deputies, comparing with its current 346 seats. If it has fewer than 289 seats, it would fall short of an absolute majority.

For the NUPES coalition, the challenge is now less to obtain a majority than win as many seats as possible to become the leading opposition group in the Assembly. The prospect of a cohabitation with Jean-Luc Mélenchon as head of government is therefore compromised, even though it is important to note the leader of France Insoumise might not have been nominated as prime minister in in the case of a NUPES victory since France’s Constitution (art. 8) does not specify the criteria for the nomination of the prime minister.

Beyond talks of a majority, the NUPES risks seeing other political blocs form an anti-Mélenchon front. Indeed, the coalition’s leader continues to polarise, be it for his calls to disobey European treaties, his stance on Russia, or his recent accusations against the French police after officers shot at a car that refused to stop, killing a female passenger.

If the progressive coalition is to become the country’s chief opposition force, it will need to maintain its coherence in the Assembly amid policy disagreements and a lack of a single parliamentary group.

The author is writing his thesis under the supervision of Jean-François Godbout.

This article was originally published in French

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