The Re-Parlamentarization of French Politics

Gala Kabbaj

***Version française ci-dessous***

On Sunday 19 June, a long electoral sequence in France that began on 10 April during the first round of the presidential election ended. Although this first election only had one winner, Emmanuel Macron re-elected in the second round against Marine Le Pen, the tripartition that has worked the political field since 2017 was heavily reflected in the results and now structures a national assembly divided between the group Ensemble, the Nupes and the RN. Also, The Republicans were more resilient than in the presidential race and currently have a strategic position in an environment where the presidential camp does not have an absolute majority.

The unprecedented defeat of the president’s legislative coalition has ushered in a new, volatile era

The 2022 French legislative elections were completely unprecedented. In line with previous political sequences, Macron’s victory in the presidential elections should have enabled him to secure a large majority in the National Assembly. Even before the reversal of France’s electoral calendar, all the legislative elections held in the wake of a presidential election confirmed the choice of the majority camp. This reality was strongly internalized as an unchangeable fact by political forces in their way of campaigning.

For the first time, the idea that the newly elected President of the Republic should be controlled by an assembly of a different political colour was a majority opinion. This unprecedented situation invited the leaders of the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), first and foremost Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to launch an innovative campaign staging the election as a third round of the presidential election and weighing up its outcome with the possibility of “electing” Mélenchon as Prime Minister. This alliance strategy was based, immediately after the second round, on an electoral agreement between the left-wing parties and a shared programme.

The election also differed from previous elections in its result. The political forces in the presidential camp did not achieve an absolute majority of 289 seats. Ensemble, the presidential coalition bringing together Macron’s party, Renaissance (formerly La République En Marche), the Democratic Movement, and Horizons won 245 seats, NUPES won 131 (+22 for various left-wing parties), while the far-right National Rally (NR) won 89. The Macronist camp was forced to reach an agreement with The Republicans (74 seats), less defeated than they had been in the presidential elections.

The tripartite dynamic that characterized the presidential election is now reflected in the Assembly. This tripartite reality is all the more surprising given that institutional rules had prevented access to the assembly of a far-right group since 1986 and largely reduced the weight of the radical Left since 2012.

Another highlight was abstention, which reached 53 percent. Compared to the presidential elections, the electorate was reduced to the most active voters, without radically changing the various sectors mobilized. Understanding the mobilization/demobilization dynamics and the definition of each of the electorates helps to shed light on this unprecedented situation.

The Presidential Camp in Turmoil

In 2017, La République En Marche alone obtained 314 representatives (361 for the entire coalition). In 2022, Ensemble won only 245, including 170 for the presidential party. The collapse is amplified by the elimination of emblematic figures from Macronia (Richard Ferrand, Christophe Castaner, Jean-Michel Blanquer) and members of Élisabeth Borne’s government formed on 20 May (Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of Ecological Transition, Brigitte Bourguignon, Minister of Solidarity and Health and Justine Bénin, Minister of the Sea) forced to leave it.

These results sanction the presidential party’s avoidance strategy. During a campaign marked by a series of controversies — police repression at the Stade de France, accusations of sexual violence against Damien Abad — the Macronist camp hoped that the staging of its ability to govern was enough for it to have a majority.

As in the presidential election, it Macron and his candidates recruited voters from within the bourgeois bloc. They outperformed in higher management and intellectual professions (33 percent) and among high-income voters. Thirty-six percent of the well-off categories (earning more than 2,500 euro per month) and 33 percent of the upper middle classes (1,900-2,500 euro) voted for the presidential coalition, compared to 22 percent of the modest categories (900-1,300 euro) and 11 percent of the poor categories (less than 900 euro).

After the Macronist tidal wave in the 2017 legislative elections, the waves of the majority flowed back towards the West, which now constitutes its zone of strength. This decline mainly benefits the RN in the North and South-East, and NUPES in large cities and in the Paris region. In Ile de France, Ensemble fell by eight points compared to 2017. This decline is accompanied by a shift towards the west of the region, which corresponds to favoured neighbourhoods, as during the presidential election.

Several factors explain the decline of the Macronist bloc. First, the five-year term largely led to the Right opening up space for the union of the Left. This returns to Ensemble constituencies that were traditionally attached to the camp of the Left. But this shift to the right has failed to make up for what they are losing on the left, owing in particular to the resistance of The Republicans limiting the right-wing expansion of the Macronist bloc.

Finally, the collapse of the Republican Front prevented the presidential side from winning enough in the second round against the National Rally. In the case of the second round between an RN candidate and an Ensemble candidate, only 31 percent of NUPES voters mobilized to block the RN (45 percent abstention and 24 percent for the RN), which won 52 percent.

The End of the Republican Firewall?

After Marine Le Pen failed in the second round of the presidential election, where she still won more than 13 million votes, the National Rally set up a discreet legislative campaign with no national resonance. Their expressions consisted less in developing proposals than in discrediting the strategy of Mélenchon and NUPES. This lack of ambition displayed at the national level certainly masked the campaign work carried out at the local level and led many observers to underestimate the results that the far-right formation could achieve. The RN increased its first-round legislative vote by more than 1.2 million votes compared with 2017.

Despite the million votes won by the candidates of Reconquête, the far-right party led by Éric Zemmour, Le Pen’s party qualified for the second round in more than 200 constituencies, including 110 where it led. The success is twofold for the RN, with the elimination of all Reconquête candidates and an unprecedented conversion of its 200 second-round qualifications into 89 seats.

Despite very high results in the presidential elections, the RN had not managed to form a group in the National Assembly since 1986. The RN, a victim of both the widespread demobilization of its voters, largely from low-education grassroots groups, and the two-round voting system where the Republican Front used to take action, failed to convert its high presidential ratings into parliamentary seats.

But this year things were different. The RN benefited from several factors. First of all, a joint undertaking to trivialize its themes by a powerful reactionary movement supported by members of the government, figures on the left and the right and by certain media — so much so, that largely xenophobic notions such as the “great replacement” theory now have their place in the discussions. Zemmour’s candidacy also helped to shift the centre of gravity of the debates towards the far right and helped to create different far-right currents and thus complicate this ideological space. Thus, the RN experienced a lower decline in votes between the presidential and legislative elections (–4.5 points) than five years ago (–8 points) while starting from a higher score (23.15–21.30 percent), suggesting a lesser demobilization of its electorate. 

Then, the presidential majority, refusing to give a nationwide voting instruction in the NUPES/RN duels, caused the Republican Front to collapse in the 200 districts where the RN qualified in the second round. Thus, only 16 percent of people who voted for an Ensemble candidate in the first round voted for NUPES in the second round against an RN candidate, 72 percent abstained and 12 percent voted RN. It seems that the fear of a left-wing alliance over a plan to break with neoliberal and xenophobic logic has outweighed the republican barrage. In addition to the movement to make the far right more commonplace, there was the demonization of NUPES and Mélenchon, allowing liberal forces to develop rhetoric around the impossibility of choosing between these two forces, as both were “anti-republican”.

This victory of the RN will increase its financial resources (7 million euro per year) and human resources (almost 200 parliamentary employees). Nevertheless, this poses a double challenge for the party. First, those lawmakers seeking legitimacy will have to prove that they are capable of carrying out useful parliamentary work for their constituents. This position is at odds with the anti-establishment party status dear to the RN. Then, media coverage and the formation of new party figures may create a stir within the RN, whose management of dissent always ends up with the departure (voluntary or forced) of those who deviate from the party leader’s line.

New Hope on the French Left

The first round of the presidential elections confirmed the central position of La France Insoumise on the French Left. As a result, it opened negotiations with parties to bring a joint bid to the legislative elections. The Left reached an electoral and programmatic agreement to present unique candidates around radical proposals such as retirement at age 60, the minimum wage at 1,500 euro, or the green rule (framework of ecological planning) in each of the 577 constituencies.

This strategy made it possible to move the Left from around 60 to 153 representatives in a joint inter-group, and to deprive Emmanuel Macron of the absolute majority by establishing itself as the leading opposition bloc.

In line with Mélenchon’s results in the presidential elections, NUPES consolidated its areas of strength in large cities and poor territories (Seine-Saint-Denis, overseas). While age analysis has largely been used to understand the left-wing electorate (very low among pensioners and very high among young people), it remains insufficient. The high rates for the unemployed (28 percent), for people with an income of less than 900 euro per month (32 percent), and for people with education higher than a baccalaureate (29 percent), define, as in the presidential elections, a group of voters who belong to both undervalued and precarious segments of the labour market and those with a diploma without obtaining very high remuneration.

Geographically, many commentators are concerned about a decline of the Left in rural areas where the RN is dominant. In addition, some in NUPES pointed the finger at the programme, considered too radical in terms of secularism and relations with minorities and/or the police, which would have cut off the Left from voters in rural areas where social anger would dominate. They propose a strategy aimed at winning over this share of the electorate seduced by the far right.

Two elements suggest limiting the scope of this interpretation. On the one hand, the transition from an RN vote to a left-wing vote is almost residual and even in the event of a duel in the second round between Ensemble and NUPES, only 18 percent of RN voters voted Left, reflecting the difficulty of winning them back from a Le Pen vote.

Then, during the presidential election, there was no obvious sub-vote for Mélenchon in rural areas. The importance of the RN vote in these geographical areas does not therefore imply the inability of the Left to address these populations, but simply the need to understand the hidden specificities behind the term rurality. Finally, the presidential elections showed that the ability to articulate the themes of anti-racism, feminism, and ecology with social and economic issues was a major asset for a broad mobilization and joint work with social movements.

For a Popular Ecology

The question of ecology is emblematic from this point of view. Electorally, the issue was mainly captured by the Green Party (EELV) and then by alternative candidates (farmers or animal rights activists), recruiting a predominantly urban electorate until the 2022 presidential election, highly qualified and from salaried employment. This social sectorization was reinforced by an individual and ethical vision of ecology, making it less a political ideology than a way of conducting one’s life and eating.

The depoliticization of ecology has also led to the dispossession of the theme’s working classes, which are the least carbon-intensive and at the same time the most exposed to climate change.

But NUPES seem to have largely overcome these obstacles. First, during the presidential campaign, Mélenchon developed an environmental project that tackled financialized capitalism, placing social and employment issues at its heart and giving the state a central role: ecological planning as a lever for respecting global rhythms while developing and anticipating the necessary trades.

Then, the electoral and programmatic agreement work carried out by NUPES made it possible to decide how to deal with ecology: first by including it in a strongly articulated radical left project, but also by drawing a watertight line between this project and the belief in the capacity of the market economy, innovation, and new technologies to overcome the ecological crisis, associated with the liberal current. Having been clarified, ecology is now a common radical platform for this parliamentary Left.

NUPES is also pursuing its ambitions to constitute a level of organization that allows associative and trade union figures involved in ongoing struggles to participate in this political dynamic. For example, the National Assembly now includes among its members Aurélie Trouvé, former president of ATTAC, Rachel Kéké, a member of the House and union leader who fought victoriously against the Accor hotel group, Alma Dufour, an environmental activist who coordinated a campaign against Amazon, and François Piquemal, an activist for the right to housing. In this sense, NUPES helped change the meaning of legislative elections.

From now on, the challenge will be to maintain unity and numbers, while retaining the centre of gravity on the side of radicalism, focused on defending an anti-racist, feminist, anti-capitalist, and ecological perspective.

Gala Kabbaj is a researcher with the collective Quantité Critique.


Élections législatives en France : la reparlementarisation de la vie politiquePDF file