The first half of the French Fifth Republic has been marked by gridlock because between the French President usually came from a different political party as the Prime Minister. .
In 2001, the French Parliament rescheduled the legislative elections to take place after the presidential elections, in order to eliminate the risk of this partisan gridlock. The idea was to have a President and Prime Minister from the same party in order to preserve the institutions of the FifthRepublic. Institutionally, this move followed the Gaullist mantra of a strong statesman at the head of the executive and eliminated the confusion and paralysis which took hold during previous years. This system institutionalized a “majoritarian presidentialism” which strengthened the president and relegated the PM to a secondary position.
Following the UMP’s loss in the presidential election, the party’s natural successor to Sarkozy, Jean-François Copé, announced that the right would do whatever it takes to cut short the Socialist Party’s état de grâce and win a majority in Parliament, conjuring back the spectre of gridlock. However, the first round of the legislative elections proved him terribly wrong. Although the UMP scored slightly more than the PS, the Ecologists and the Communists outscored the fragmented right wing. Here are five takeaways from this result:
1) First, the Socialists might rally enough voters in contested constituencies to form a majority in Parliament, without even needing the support of the Front De Gauche, , the Communists, or Ecologist MPs. And Ségolène Royal’s fussy re-election campaign in the 1stconstituency of Charente-Maritime will likely not be a game-changer at the national scale. This represents a great appeasement for Hollande and J-M Ayrault’s government, who’d have been greatly embarrassed and hampered to bargain with and yield ground to tinier left parties, especially with the radical left whose presidential program ventures well beyond Hollande’s economic orthodoxy.
2) The UMP, pounded but not killed in the first round, has redoubled its efforts to secure as many seats as possible. The party leaders have all knuckled down to encourage their voters to engage in a last bout of grassroots militarism in constituencies where abstention was high. Moreover, the UMP has found itself in an awkward position regarding the long-standing quandary posed by the National Front (FN), the far-right party which chalked up 18% of the votes at the presidential election. The party leaders are caught between two stools. The militants and voters are overly favorable to a “non-permanent” alliance with the National Front in order to glean precious electoral gains against the left. The party direction has nonetheless kept a strong “neither, nor” stance toward both the Socialists and the National Front, pinning the latter on its anti-Republican essence. Quite unexpectedly and serendipitously, the fratricidal warfare that is raging on between local candidates and party patrons on whether supporting FN candidates has been occulted by the so-called “Twitter affair” that rocked the ruling Socialists Party.
3) The National Front, which gathered 13.6% of the total vote, will yet again be hamstrung from exerting any serious pressure in the Assemblée Nationale, with a potential number of seats ranging from 1 to 4 of a total of 577. All the so-called “Republican” parties have clamored a coalition to fend off the FN electoral assaults, throwing a wrench into the extreme-right party’s plans in order to claim seats. This has been common ever since the Socialists, under F. Mitterand, demonized the FN and barred its representatives from getting seats in the lower house. Hollande pledged to balance the unfair French majoritarian system that tends to over-privilege the frontrunners and dominant parties by instilling a long overdue dose of proportionality in the French electoral rules.
4) The astounding level of abstention ominously cast a shadow over the first round of the legislative elections. 42.9% of French voters did not show up or cast a blank vote during this first round, up 3.3% compared to the 2007 elections . Though it is mechanical that participation rates lessen between the presidential and legislative elections, such a disillusionment and political indifference from French voters is a remainder of the decrepit state of our representative democracies.
This decisive second round will, in all likelihoods, give a majority to the Socialists at the Assemblée Nationale and assure François Hollande a clear horizon to navigate his reforms and policies through the legislative process. The Senate is also controlled by Socialists. The impact on France’s European partners will be minimal.
In the meantime, in Greece, another set of legislative elections will turn out to be crucial for the euro zone’s future and the integrity of the common currency.