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On June 19, France entered what could be a state of political paralysis. In last April’s presidential election, a rematch of the country’s 2017 contest, French President Emmanuel Macron defeated his extreme right-wing opponent, Marine Le Pen, with 58.6 percent of the vote. But in the June legislative elections, Macron’s center-right coalition failed to win a majority in the 577-member National Assembly. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) won a historically remarkable 87 seats—more than ten times the number it previously controlled. A conservative party, Les Républicains, won 64. And a coalition of four leftist parties, New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), led by the acerbic and often antagonistic hard-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, took 131 seats. The result is France’s most divided parliament since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
Few observers expected Renaissance, the new moniker for Macron’s own party, to fully live up to its name in the legislative elections. Not only had the gap between Macron and Le Pen narrowed since 2017—when the former won more than 66 percent of the vote—but Macron ran a legislative campaign that veered from lackadaisical to controversial. He waited weeks before naming a prime minister, the technocrat Élisabeth Borne, while trying to remain above the fray. It was only when this effort to appear presidential instead looked like another instance of his Jupiterian arrogance that Macron hit the campaign trail, wildly warning that Mélenchon’s coalition was no less antidemocratic than Le Pen’s RN.
Nevertheless the outcome of the election—one in which 54 percent of voters did not bother to participate—stunned political observers. In the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, which described the results as a “leap into the unknown,” the pollster Jérôme Fourquet warned that France might become “ungovernable.” In the liberal Le Monde, the editorialist Françoise Fressoz worried that this electoral “earthquake” would leave the country incapacitated. Even Borne, who won her own race by a hair against an unknown leftist candidate, emphasized the exceptional nature of the event, warning that this “unprecedented situation poses a risk to our country.”
Many Europeans, of course, live in parliamentary democracies where coalitions and compromises are commonplace. To them, such assessments may seem highly alarmist. Yet for contemporary France, the situation is exceptional and, indeed, dangerous. Volatile parliamentary regimes have paralyzed France in the past, and so over the last six and a half decades, the country has worked to build political institutions in which elections yield clear winners. But after a long stretch of strong leadership, divided parliaments are back.
This comes at an inopportune moment. France faces a war in Ukraine, the threat of climate change, and rising illiberalism across Europe. It needs a government capable of steering the state through a turbulent era. Instead, it has a legislature that is united solely in its opposition to the president—and where the far right has unprecedented sway.
From 1946 to 1958—the time of the Fourth Republic—France privileged parliamentary over presidential powers. This was not surprising. Like its Third Republic predecessor, created in response to nearly 20 years of Bonapartist authoritarianism, the Fourth was a reaction to the Nazi-backed Vichy regime. And like the Third, the Fourth suffered from parliamentary instability. It hosted, on average, a new government every six months and nearly two dozen prime ministers over its 12 years. Though this did not always entail changes in government policies—it was under the Fourth Republic that France joined NATO, helped lay the groundwork for the European Union, and triggered three decades of meteoric economic growth—the churn nevertheless contributed to a constant sense of uncertainty. By 1958, with France mired in la guerre sans nom in Algeria—the “nameless war” between the French army and Algerian nationalists—the government was unable to govern.
Once again, the country turned to Charles de Gaulle. The leader of the French Resistance in World War II, de Gaulle had vehemently opposed the Fourth Republic’s constitution—in part because he blamed unstable parliamentary governance for France’s swift defeat by Germany. When de Gaulle assumed power after the political crisis (depending on one’s interpretation, either by popular demand or by threatening force), he had the constitution rewritten to shift authority to the president. Among other things, the Fifth Republic’s presidents had the power to dissolve parliament and enact legislation through executive ordinances.
De Gaulle’s actions were controversial, but they did mostly end the chaos. Since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, there have been just three periods of “cohabitation”: when a sitting president must name a prime minister from an opposing party. It took place twice during the two mandates of Socialist François Mitterrand and then a third time during the presidency of the right-wing Jacques Chirac. But all three cohabitations resulted from a kind of stutter-step in the timing of French elections: the president served seven-year terms, while parliamentary representatives served only five-year terms. In 2000, the presidential term was shortened to five years, and legislative elections were slated to take place shortly after, not before, the presidential contest. As a result, voters unfailingly gave presidents parliamentary majorities.
From 1946 to 1958, France churned through nearly two dozen prime ministers.
But de Gaulle’s reforms also introduced a destabilizing element into French government. Given his hostility to political parties—which he famously dismissed as la pagaille, or mayhem, de Gaulle welcomed the concentration of political power into a smaller number of electoral camps, leading to polarization. By swapping a proportional electoral system for majoritarian one, the Fifth Republic eventually stifled the political center and strengthened the extremes. The country’s Christian democrats and socialists grew increasingly caught between the countervailing pressures of the hard right and the hard left, and eventually, they could not hold. Today, the parties representing both factions are relatively marginal.
In 2017, Macron managed to reconsolidate the center in French politics. It was a bloc large enough for him to pass some of the key elements of his earlier agenda, although he failed to reform the third rail of French politics, the nation’s pension system. But Macron’s agenda is likely to struggle more now that he clearly does not command sufficient support from voters. And because no party controls an absolute parliamentary majority, unlike Mitterrand and Chirac (both of whom faced parliaments controlled by a single party), Prime Minister Borne has no choice but to govern by what she calls “au cas par cas”—negotiating with different parties on different pieces of legislation—and what Le Monde, perhaps more realistically, calls “une mission impossible.”
It is an outcome that survivors of the Fourth Republic are unlikely to welcome—and may be shocked to see. France’s swing back to chaotic parliamentarism has, after all, occurred in a constitutional and electoral context explicitly designed to prevent it. “The Fourth Republic is reinventing itself in the framework of the Fifth Republic,” argued the French political scientist Luc Rouban. “This will not improve the public’s confidence in politics.”
Though the new parliament is but a few weeks old, what has happened so far suggests that Rouban may be right. Despite tradition, Borne did not seek her government’s confirmation from the newly elected parliament. This led Mélenchon’s coalition to demand a vote of no confidence. Le Pen’s party, which is determined to appear more “constructive” than the left, rejected Mélenchon’s call. But the RN joined with its opponents (including the left) to vote down key elements of Macron’s agenda—in particular the state’s ability to reimpose COVID-19 controls on people leaving or entering the country. This early failure does not bode well for the rest of Macron’s domestic agenda, including another stab at reforming the pension regime, or for France’s broader ability to create a functional parliamentary system.
It also bodes poorly for Macron’s international agenda. Although the president retains control of foreign policy as part of his domaine réservé, his global position is weaker now that he has less domestic support. The frailty is no small matter for Macron, who has made clear his ambition to make Europe—and not coincidentally himself—a major player on the international scene. And these new troubles build on existing ones. It is not easy to reconcile Macron’s call for Europe to “act with strength, to act with speed, and to act on great dreams” with his persistent (and persistently futile) efforts to engage Vladimir Putin before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Macron also did himself little favor by waiting until June 16 to visit the country and by providing Kyiv with relatively feeble military assistance. He is now in an even weaker position to help France constructively address the planet’s many crises.
That is not to say Macron’s international standing is ruined; he was applauded for his recent six-month stint at president of the European Union. But the handclaps came mostly from outside France. Many French are instead wringing their hands over burgeoning inflation and weakening buying power. The first order of business for Borne’s government is to find a compromise on its “pack pouvoir d’achat,” or package of proposals to aid French consumers. But given the fundamentally different economic views of the left and right—the first favors raising the minimum wage and increasing family supplements, and the latter seeks cuts in spending and decreasing the gas tax—it is not at all clear with whom Borne and Macron will strike a deal and what it will portend. For the moment, the government will have to sort through the more than 1,100 amendments that opposition parties have already introduced in response to the proposed bill.
The country’s inflation-related struggles could have serious consequences for the future contours of French politics, including by further helping the far right: pocketbook issues helped Le Pen’s party have its electoral breakthrough. Ever since the party’s founding (as the National Front), political observers thought it impossible that the far right would be anything but marginal. At the outset, the party had a penchant for violence, nostalgia for the Vichy regime, an authoritarian bent, and Holocaust denialism. But now, like COVID-19, it is clearly normalized. An ebullient Le Pen rightly hailed her party’s electoral performance as a “historic breakthrough.” And on June 30, the RN drew enough votes from other right-wing parties to claim two of the parliament’s six vice-presidencies, important positions responsible for assisting the president in ordering the schedule and overseeing chamber debates. “It took a week—not a day more—for the extreme right to make itself at home in the Assembly,” wrote Ellen Salvi, a journalist at the online investigative outlet Mediapart.
Like COVID-19, the French far right is clearly normalized.
In addition to being a reaction to inflation, the RN’s success is partially a product of Le Pen’s efforts to make it less extreme. She has purged its elected ranks of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites and moderated its positions on social and economic issues. Le Pen, for instance, now supports the right to abortion (though she opposes its reimbursement by the state), and she no longer flirts with the notion of a French divorce from the European Union.
But the moderation goes only so far. Le Pen continues to promote bans on headscarves in public places. The RN leader trumpets what she calls “priorité nationale,” which would block noncitizens living in France from seeking employment, housing, health care, and social benefits. She champions popular referendums on nearly all matters of concern to voters, but she seems mostly interested in using this mechanism to advance right-wing causes. Le Pen recently declared she was open to a referendum on reintroducing the death penalty in France, a touchy issue in the country that invented the guillotine, although she backpedaled on the same day.
Given Le Pen’s continued radical bent, it’s little wonder that Julien Bayou, the Green Party chair, condemned the RN’s acquisition of the vice presidency positions as “unthinkable.” But all kinds of unthinkable outcomes are now possible in France. It is plausible, for example, that Macron will resort to his nuclear option: dissolving the assembly and calling for new elections. The president may think that this will improve his standing, but elections are gambles, and it is also possible that if Macron returns irritated French voters to the polls, his party will lose its plurality share. Should the Rassemblement National continue its rapid ascent, it’s possible that it will become the biggest party. It could even win an absolute majority. (The RN might be unintentionally helped by the leftist coalition if the latter comes across to voters as disruptive rather than constructive, as it did during the vote of no confidence.) Indeed, given the RN’s steady normalization, it is no longer unthinkable that France could have its first female president in 2027: Marine Le Pen.