Well, Macron: ‘Do you hear the people sing?’

The iconic song, the anthem of rebellion from Les Miserables, seems particularly apposite, as we digest the results of France’s parliamentary elections. The people sang on Sunday through the ballot box, electing, as you may already know, 89 members of the patriotic ‘Rassemblement National’ (National Rally), led by Marine Le Pen, to the National Assembly, France’s equivalent of the House of Commons. This result is an astonishing 11-fold increase on the 8 RN MPs elected last time, in 2017, and a record for the party. [For the record, two other patriotic nationalists, standing independently, were also elected.] With a two-round electoral system, you need over 50% of the vote in a constituency to eventually win, which has always been a problem for a controversial party like the RN, as supporters of all the other parties tended to gang up against them in the second round. As we have seen here in Britain, where in 2015 UKIP gained almost 3.9 million votes (12.6% of the total) but only one MP, an electoral system rigged against you can subvert democracy better than any dictatorship. No wonder the French people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with their politics, with the turnout in the parliamentary election falling to just 47.5% in the first round. 

But the concept of ‘critical mass’ applies in politics just as it does in nuclear physics, and a relatively small increase in votes can sometimes tip the scales and make a big difference to the final result. In 2017 the RN gained 13.2% of the votes in the first round; this time they won 18.7%. This saw them qualify for far more second round run-offs, and surprisingly the united opposition to it – known in French politics as the ‘republican front’ – did not materialise this year. Does this mean that the French electorate no longer views the RN as the ‘extremists’ and ‘fascists’ that its opponents constantly try to label it as? The record vote Marine Le Pen obtained in the second round of the presidential election in April – 41.5% – suggests so, but it is too soon to tell. So what will having 89 MPs mean to the RN?  It is, quite literally, its salvation. The party is €24 million in debt and was in danger of bankruptcy. Now, however, under French electoral law it will receive state funding of just over €10 million per year, for the next 5 years of this parliament, so thankfully it is now financially sound. The party, with its survival now assured, will also have a number of important parliamentary privileges and be able to play a core role in the National Assembly.  

The RN is the second largest party in parliament (after Macron’s own party, which got 170 MPs), but the Left-Green alliance, together with a handful of independent leftists, led by the hardline socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon won a combined total of 137 seats, so although his own party only gained 72 MPs it is likely that Mélenchon’s alliance will be nominated as the official opposition – unless it falls apart, which is perfectly possible! The other parties in the alliance – Greens, Socialists, and Communists – have refused to sit together and want to form their own official parliamentary groups, sitting separately. As with all left-wing groupings, their alliance is likely to be fractious and fissiparous. Particularly funny is that Mélenchon did not stand for election himself and is therefore not in parliament to lead the group; this was probably a fatal mistake. The only other significant grouping is the centre-right Republicans and their minor allies, who won a total of 64 seats. This is a major collapse in their vote and they must be wondering where they go from here. The party is divided between very wet centrist types and those advocating more traditional conservative policies. I expect this divide to grow.  

French politics will certainly be very different now. Macron has lost his majority in the National Assembly, with his own alliance of parties only winning 245 seats – well short of the 289 needed for an overall majority. His reign as the new Napoleon is officially over, and from now on he will need to form alliances with other parties to get his Bills through parliament. The most contentious of all will be the reforms to the pension age, which he wants to raise from 62 to 65. Apart from Macron’s MPs, the only others who broadly support this policy are the Republicans, but the big question is whether they will want to be seen to support Macron on this issue, as this is likely to see their vote crumble even further – this is an issue that could split the party. If they decide not to vote for a change in the pension age Macron will need to consider using the nuclear weapon of Article 49.3 of the constitution, which allows him (through the prime minister) to ignore parliament and pass a Bill without a vote. But if he does so parliament can respond by passing a vote of no confidence in the government (though not in the President himself). The result would probably be a dissolution of parliament and a new election. So French politics is definitely going to become more unpredictable and querulous, with all the parties in the National Assembly waking up to the fact that the President is no longer the undisputed ruler of France, but rather a prisoner sat on a tumbril being driven to an unknown fate.  

But after Sunday’s election the only party in town was the RN – and the one to celebrate the man who founded it in 1972, Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who turned 94 on Monday. I bet he was singing loudly!

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