Christophe Petit Tesson / Reuters French President Emmanuel Macron casts his ballot to vote in the first of two rounds of parliamentary elections in Le Touquet, France, June 11, 2017.

In France, a Government Without an Opposition?

Reading the Results of the First Round of Legislative Elections

The first round of French legislative elections yielded a stunning victory for La République En Marche, a centrist political movement founded just over a year ago by the newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron. Not only is Macron the youngest person to lead the country since Napoleon, his fledgling party won with around 30 percent of the vote share and is now projected to sweep up 400 to 440 out of the 577 seats in the National Assembly during the final round of parliamentary elections on June 18.

Winning roughly 70 percent of the available seats would be nearly unheard of in the history of the Fifth Republic. Its founding father, Charles De Gaulle, could not even count on such stable majorities. Only a coalition between the right-leaning Rally for the Republic and centrist Union for French Democracy did better with 458 seats in the 1993 legislative elections. Even in that case, each party only fared moderately well on its own and together, their power was still balanced by the Socialist President François Mitterrand. Macron, on the other hand, will likely face very little opposition and will be in a very strong position to enact his centrist agenda, which includes vigorous reforms to the labor market, downsizing the public sector, and relaunching European integration by restoring France’s partnership with Germany.

Meanwhile, the election was a debacle for the other parties. Only six months ago the center-right Les Républicains Party was confidently angling for both the presidency and a governing majority in the legislature, and yet it obtained only 20 percent of the vote share and is now projected to obtain a meager 90 to 130 seats in the National Assembly—even less than it currently holds. It will remain the main opposition party, but it is difficult to see how it will exercise this function. It agrees with most of Macron’s policies and the newly nominated prime minister, Emmanuel Philippe, as well as the minister of economy, Bruno Le Maire, were both lifted from the party’s ranks.

The former ruling Socialist Party had its worst showing yet. With just over 11 percent of the vote share, it is projected to tumble from over 300 seats in the current parliament to something between 15 and 25 in the new one. Since securing 15 seats is the bare minimum needed to form a parliamentary group, the Socialists, one of the oldest parties in France, could even face the humiliation of having to form an alliance with the European Ecologists and the Greens should they do worse than predicted.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise also underperformed. After the first round of presidential elections last month, in which Mélenchon came in third place, it was widely believed that his party would overtake the Socialists and therefore stake a claim to replacing it as the leader of the country’s historically strong left wing. But with only 14 percent of the vote share, it barely surpassed its rivals and is projected to obtain even fewer seats than it currently holds after the second round of legislative elections.

Finally, in what is perhaps the most surprising result, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front took a severe hit. After rising in the polls over the last few years, and obtaining almost 34 percent of the national share at the second round of the presidential election, Le Pen’s party obtained only 13.2 percent of the vote share yesterday and is projected to win only the fifth-largest number of seats in Parliament.

At first glance, these results may appear reassuring for liberal democracy. After all, only a few weeks ago, a National Front presidency, which would have jeopardized both the future of the European Union and the economic stability of France, still looked possible. By comparison, Macron is a reliable moderate who has promised to uphold France’s commitments both to the European Union and its Trans-Atlantic partners. The strong stance he took in his first bilateral meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as at the recent G–7 and NATO summits, offer a first taste of the steady, international leadership he intends to project.

On closer inspection, however, a more worrying picture emerges. First of all, the rate of abstention hit record levels, surpassing the 50 percent mark for the first time in the history of French legislative elections. This suggests that, instead of obtaining a broad-based consensus, Macron has benefitted from the French electorate’s seething resentment of the political system as a whole. Because of the low turnout, Macron’s support came from only 15 percent of all those registered to vote. This may undermine the legitimacy of his mandate, and is also likely to generate demands for a reform of the electoral law.

The second cause for concern is that the severe crisis faced by virtually all the other political parties in France may end up leaving the new government without any meaningful opposition. La République En Marche is effectively only an electoral machine in the service of the president himself. Virtually all of its elected candidates, and the ones that will likely be elected in the second round next week, owe their positions directly or indirectly to their association with Macron. This raises the specter of a "Bonapartist" one-man rule.

This type of unopposed government could lead to two possible scenarios. Although Macron’s hope is that his electoral machine will be able to contain the fissile nature of French politics by delivering stable governing majorities, the country’s deep social divisions are likely to reemerge within La République En Marche’s parliamentary ranks. For example, it is far from clear whether the motley coalition Macron put together will be able to offer a coherent position on public service reform and on immigration. In this way, Macron’s government could end up resembling the grand coalitions that currently govern in several other European countries, such as in Italy and Germany, which have ended up alienating many sections of their country’s electorates, precisely because they offer no way of channeling criticism into an effective governmental response. This has, in turn, bolstered the rise of populist alternatives.

The other possibility is that political opposition is transferred onto political institutions themselves. In a country such as France, where trade unions are particularly strong and have already shown their ability to bend political will, this is not something to be underestimated. A showdown between the government and trade unions is already in the cards, given Macron’s plans to radically reform the labor market. Moreover, the political capital of the protest parties has not gone away. Without any meaningful parliamentary representation, it might well take the form of massive street-level resistance—another well-established tradition in France.

Neither of these two options—strong leadership with weak institutional support or massive social and institutional resistance—is particularly appealing, but given the current distribution of political forces as revealed by yesterday’s election, the latter may represent the best check on Macron’s power.

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