France’s political system is at a crossroads

The election’s unexpected outcome shows that even highly stable systems can reach a breaking point

By Jean Pisani-Ferry

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Published: Wed 22 Jun 2022, 10:04 PM

It was regarded as a given. Whatever the result of France’s presidential election in April, voters would elect MPs from the same party as the winner in this month’s general election. But, by depriving President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition of an absolute majority in the National Assembly, voters have departed from the usual script and presented France’s political system with a major challenge.

Although the constitution stipulates that “the government shall determine and conduct the policy of the nation,” French voters display scant interest in National Assembly elections. Turnout was expected to be abysmally low, and so it was: No less than 70% of voters aged between 18 and 34 stayed away. So far, so predictable.

But the election’s unexpected outcome shows that even highly stable political systems can reach a breaking point. The presidential election revealed a country split into three blocs of roughly equal size: the far left, the not-so-radical center, and the far right. The far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon was skillful enough to build an unlikely alliance and to campaign under the slogan “elect me prime minister.” And Macron did not miss an opportunity to show how distracted he was (to the extent that he failed to indicate how he would wish voters to choose between the far left and far right). Perhaps most important, French voters are deeply dissatisfied.

The big surprise in the National Assembly election came not from the left, but from the far right. Marine Le Pen, the standard-bearer of that camp, who lost to Macron in the presidential election runoff, hardly bothered to campaign. She had set herself the moderately optimistic goal of winning the 15 seats needed to form a parliamentary in the new assembly. In the event, she will have 89 of the 577 seats, up from just eight previously.

What has happened is a sort of French Brexit-lite that indicates the voters’ anger and follows many other expressions of popular resentment over the past decades. These include the 2018 gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests; former president François Hollande’s historically low approval ratings, which led him not to seek re-election in 2017 and paved the way for Macron’s surprise victory; the 2013-14 bonnets rouges (red caps) revolt against a tax on road freight; voters’ rejection of a French-designed European constitution in 2005; and the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s failure to advance to the second round of the 2002 presidential election.

This latest outcome therefore cannot be ignored. France’s odd and almost unique political system, which combines the election of a monarch and a parliamentary majority, is being pushed to the limit. True, Mélenchon’s left-wing coalition may fall apart; its members have already started to argue over parliamentary positions. But the more lasting change probably lies in the more than tenfold increase in the number of far-right MPs. Some of them will be ineffective. But a large enough number will stay on, learn, and make their mark. With both the far left and the far right well represented in parliament, France’s political conversation has changed irreversibly.

The immediate implication is likely political paralysis in a large European country at a time when the continent is grappling with war, a looming energy crisis, high inflation, and the threat of a recession – not to speak of the climate emergency. Markets that were hoping for clear choices rather than procrastination are understandably nervous. The result does not bode well for economic reforms and public finances.

But the real issue facing France runs much deeper: How will the country’s political system cope with a hitherto unforeseen situation? However one looks at things, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that France is heading for lasting political gridlock. The ambiguity at the root of the constitutional regime can no longer be papered over.

This ambiguity reflects the uncertain role of political parties. Back in 1958, when Charles de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic as a quasi-presidential regime on the shaky foundation of parliamentary predominance, parties were primarily meant to contribute to expressing political preferences.

But every constitutional change since then has brought France closer to a pure presidential system. The highlights include the election of the president by direct popular vote following a 1962 referendum; the experience in 1986 of so-called cohabitation, when a left-wing president governed with a prime minister from the right; the shortening of the president’s term in office from seven years to five in 2000; and the collapse of France’s traditional political parties on both the left and the right after 2017.

Because it amounts to electing a king, French voters love a presidential election. What happens in the subsequent parliamentary election does not much matter to them. But it does matter constitutionally, because the system is at its core a parliamentary one. And political parties matter, unless the president has the power to dispense with them. As three previous periods of cohabitation have shown, the system works remarkably well if the president and the prime minister belong to different parties. The president can stick to his or her constitutional role of appointing the prime minister, deciding when to call elections, providing military leadership, and having a say in foreign affairs. All the rest is the task of the prime minister.

To this landscape we can add a political crisis that has led French voters to distance themselves from what they call “the system.” As in many other countries over the past 40 years, an ever-larger proportion of working- and middle-class voters have abstained from taking part in parliamentary elections. For years, this has been an issue for political sociologists. Now it has become a major challenge that no party appears able to tackle effectively.

In the short term, Macron’s ability to govern effectively is highly uncertain. But the far more worrying issue is that France’s political system has reached its constitutional limits.

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