On Sunday, the French public once again went to the polls, this time to vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The initial results have put the political party of President Emmanuel Macron, La République en Marche, firmly in the lead, and it is expected to win up to 445 seats in the National Assembly. However, instead of writing in even more confusing terms I’m going to use this post to explain how France elects its politicians, and what the recent results mean for French politics.
First of all, I’d like to talk about the French political system (please bear with me!). Much like the House of Commons in the UK, the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) is the lower house of the government. It is here where laws are debated, amended and voted upon, making it an essential part of the law-making process. The Assembly has 577 seats which are filled by MPs (députés) who are chosen in the parliamentary elections. After the presidential elections (which are held roughly one month before), the President needs to gain a majority in the Assembly (289 seats) so that their party can pass laws. It is for this reason why the parliamentary elections are so important. As with voting in the presidential elections it is held over two rounds, with the first aiming to eliminate the candidates with the least support. The two with the highest number of votes then proceed to the second round, and the candidate with the highest vote percentage is the winner. Elections are held in all 577 constituencies (circonscriptions) across France, including 27 in the overseas territories and 11 for French residents abroad. In the parliamentary elections this year a total of 7,882 candidates are standing; 42% of them are women, potentially a new record for female representation in the Assembly. They will be voted in by the 46.9 million people registered to vote, 716,000 of whom are first-time voters.
Following his election as President in May, Emmanuel Macron needs to get as many of his party members elected as possible to give him enough political power to carry out his agenda. His party, La République en Marche! (The Republic on the Move!) was only formed in April 2016 and as a result currently has no seats in the National Assembly. However, as mentioned his party is expected to win an historic 445 seats, giving them a significant majority. Many of the party’s candidates were selected in the weeks after Macron’s victory, with several having interesting backstories. Marie Sara is a retired bullfighter, for example, and Hervé Berville a Rwandan refugee. Although many of the party’s candidates lack political experience, this could in fact play to their advantage with an electorate fed up of mainstream politicians. The newness of La République en Marche! is seen as a clean break from the politics of the past, with Macron the figurehead of this new political movement.
These parliamentary elections will significantly transform French politics. If estimates are correct, the success of Macron’s party will be the biggest change to the National Assembly since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle brought in the Fifth Republic. The Socialists, who previously governed France under François Hollande, are set to lose up to 200 seats, a staggering loss for a party that has long been at the centre of the political system. On the other hand, the elections have highlighted a growing problem – turnout. In the first round it was 48.7%, compared to 57.2% in 2012. The reason for this has been suggested to be a lack of interest in the voting process, as well as a feeling of resignation among many of Macron’s rivals. His projected victory also puts the system itself into question. With an absolute majority in the Assembly many have warned that there would be no effective opposition to Macron, weakening the political process. This would be a step back for French democracy.
Voters go to the polls for the second round of the parliamentary elections next Sunday (18th), when we’ll know for sure just how successful Macron has been and what it means for la démocratie française.