Pro-Macron forces expected to prevail but face left-wing challenge
By Roger Cohen and Aurelien Breeden
After a first round of voting in French parliamentary elections marked by the lowest turnout on record, President Emmanuel Macron’s party and its allies looked likely early Monday to retain a majority even as a newly formed coalition of left-wing parties mounted a strong challenge, according to preliminary projections.
Just 47.5% of the electorate voted, according to the projections based on initial results, a reflection of widespread disillusionment with politics and a feeling that nothing will change whatever the country’s political alignment.
The projections, which are generally accurate, showed pro-Macron parties and the left each getting around 25% to 26% of the vote. However, the projections also suggested that after the second round of voting Macron’s centrist alliance would win between 255 and 310 seats in the 577-member National Assembly. The left-wing alliance known by the acronym NUPES, for Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale, would have 150 to 210 seats.
The second round of the elections — for candidates who did not win outright this time — will be held next Sunday.
Unlike many of its European neighbors, France awards seats to candidates who get the most ballots in each district, rather than by proportion of the total vote across the country, meaning that percentage vote shares are an imperfect measure of what the National Assembly will ultimately look like.
If Macron’s party and its allies muster an absolute majority of seats — 289 — he will have relatively free rein to enact his legislative agenda. That seemed plausible but by no means certain after the first round.
There has been no honeymoon for Macron, who was decisively reelected in April. In the end, he won more because enough voters were determined to keep his extreme-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, out than because there was any wave of enthusiasm for him. Energy and food bills have been rising, and the president has at times seemed curiously disengaged from France’s citizens and their concerns.
The result in Sunday’s elections represented a remarkable achievement for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the fiery leftist leader who has benefited from the broad anxiety in French society over inflation. He managed to forge a movement uniting his own France Unbowed Party with the Socialists, Greens and Communists, after the left proved hopelessly divided during the presidential election and was largely sidelined.
However, Mélenchon, who had wanted to turn the vote into a plebiscite that would force Macron to make him prime minister, appeared to have failed in that aim.
Among other measures, Mélenchon wants to reduce the retirement age to 60 from 62, raise the minimum wage, phase out the nuclear plants that provide most of France’s energy and bend European Union rules to allow higher debt and deficits.
Mélenchon, in a televised address on Sunday, said that the left-wing alliance had “magnificently” succeeded in its first test, “campaigning together, shoulder to shoulder, and convincing.” He insisted, against the evidence, that Macron’s party had lost its dominance.
“For the first time in the Fifth Republic, a newly elected president has been unable to muster a majority in the following legislative election,” he said, an apparent reference to the equal vote shares on Sunday.
The final composition of the National Assembly will become clear only after the second round of voting. Runoffs are usually held when no candidate gets more than half of the vote in the first round. They are contested between the top two vote-getters in a district, although under certain conditions they can feature three or even four candidates. Whoever wins the most votes in the runoff wins the race.
If Macron’s party and its allies lose their absolute majority next Sunday, he will be forced to reach out to lawmakers from opposing parties, most probably the center-right Republicans, for support on certain bills. The projection showed the Republicans and their allies claiming 40 to 60 seats.
The president, whose party and its allies currently hold 345 seats, named a government only last month, led by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne. Her effect up to now seems to have been minimal.
Several of Macron’s Cabinet members are running in the elections, including Borne. On Sunday none appeared to have been knocked out of the election. Their races were being closely watched, as a loss by one or several of them next week would be a rebuke of Macron, who has warned that those who are not elected will be obliged to leave his Cabinet.
Borne said in a televised address on Sunday that Macron’s party and its allies were the “only political force capable of obtaining a majority.”
“Faced with the situation in the world, and war on Europe’s doorstep, we cannot take the risk of instability and of approximations,” she said. “Faced with extremes, we will yield nothing, not on one side nor the other.”
If the turnout — the lowest on record for the first round of legislative elections — was linked to broad dissatisfaction with politics, it might also have reflected Macron’s highly personalized top-down style during his first term, which has often made France’s Parliament seem marginal or even irrelevant. He has now promised to govern in a more consultative way — but then he promised that in 2017, only to embrace the enormous powers of the presidency with apparent relish.
Macron is the first incumbent to be reelected since Jacques Chirac in 2002. After stumbling during the presidential campaign, he recovered to defeat Le Pen by a margin of 17 percentage points.
Since then, Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Rally party has had trouble connecting with voters and, after the first round of voting, appeared likely to end up with no more than a few dozen seats.
On Sunday, Le Pen, who was poised to keep her seat in Parliament, called on her supporters to abstain from voting in the event of a runoff between a candidate from the left-wing alliance and one from Macron’s coalition, to prevent Macron from gaining an absolute majority.
“It’s important to not let Mr. Macron get an absolute majority,” she said. “If you let him, we risk entering a tunnel over the next five years, a lightless tunnel.”
Éric Zemmour, a far-right pundit who briefly shook up the presidential election with anti-immigrant stances even more extreme than Le Pen’s, had entered the parliamentary race in the southern Var area of France, but on Sunday he was knocked out.
Foreign policy is largely determined by the president, but Macron needs Parliament for his domestic agenda. This includes his contentious vow to raise the legal age of retirement progressively to 65 from 62. He would like to see a bill enacted within 12 months to that effect.
More pressing is a government bill to prop up French purchasing power, which has taken a hit from rising inflation. The government wants Parliament to vote over the summer on the bill, which includes subsidies for poorer households to buy essential food products.
The National Assembly is the more powerful house of Parliament, with greater leeway to legislate and challenge the executive than the Senate. It usually has the final word if the two houses disagree on a bill, and it is the only house that can topple a French Cabinet with a no-confidence vote.
The party that Macron founded, La République en Marche, swept to victory in 2017 with a wave of political newcomers as candidates. For these elections, La République en Marche is the largest force in a coalition called Ensemble, which includes some of Macron’s longtime centrist allies and some newer ones.
The left-wing alliance ran a vigorous campaign that saturated airwaves and that focused heavily on Mélenchon. With typical bravado, and equally typical hyperbole, he promised that French voters could “elect” him prime minister by sweeping in a left-wing majority in Parliament for the first time in a decade. The prime minister is in fact appointed by the president.
But Macron is a formidable opponent, as several elections have now shown. He has proved masterful in occupying the entire middle ground in French politics, eclipsing both the center-left Socialists and the center-right Republicans.
Whatever the temptation of the extremes for French voters angered over the economic situation and immigration, the center retains a strong appeal, and the country has resisted the kind of blow-up-the-system political lurch evident in America’s election of Donald Trump and Britain’s choice of Brexit.