What are the Implications of a French Tilt towards Parliamentary Democracy?

 

Alexandre Medvedowsky

Image: Shutterstock.com

Alexandre Medvedowsky is a former student of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (class of 1984-1986). Magistrate at the Council of State from 1986, he was in the cabinet of Laurent Fabius, then President of the National Assembly, from 1990 to 1992. From 1998 to 2001, he was an associate professor at the University of Aix-Marseille III and taught at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris until 2006. He was councillor of Bouches-du-Rhône from 1998 to March 2015. Appointed State Councillor in July 2001, he joined ESL & Network Holding the same year and became a member of the Management Board of ESL & Network Holding, of which he was appointed Chairman on 1 January 2013. He was elected President of SYNFIE, the French trade union for economic intelligence, in May 2014.

 

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*Please note that this graph does not include the 10 MPs who are still not registered on a party list.

 

For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the National Assembly elections did not produce a majority for a President re-elected only a few weeks before. It also failed to produce an alternative majority. President Macron and his party, Ensemble, failed to run an active election campaign, and as a result voters refused him a blank cheque. His programme was perhaps seen as too vague. The government he had formed after his re-election had not generated much enthusiasm. NUPES ‒ the leftist coalition formed around Jean-Luc Mélenchon comprising La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), the Communist Party, the Greens and the Socialist Party ‒ also suffered a significant setback despite a strong media dynamic. The French people have shown that they did not want him as Prime Minister.

 

One fact however stands out. Eighty-nine deputies of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing Rassemblement National (RN) will enter the National Assembly. This is a historic high score for the party in the life of the Fifth Republic. The RN has become the leading opposition group. For the first time, the national “Republican Front” against the hard-right agenda has not held. Competing against NUPES, RN won 33 seats and lost 30. Against Ensemble it won 53 and lost 59. Only the Republicans – Les Républicains (LR) – succeeded in making gains, inflicting 23 defeats on the RN.

 

The two main lessons that we can draw are that French voters did not want to hand President Macron the unconstrained power that would go with a parliamentary majority.  And nor did they want to see the controversial leader of the extreme left, Jean-Luc Melanchon, entrusted with the prime ministership.

 

The French people, with a certain political maturity, have indicated by their vote that the hitherto marginalised RN, which regularly exceeded 20% in national elections for several years, is entitled to significant representation in Parliament.  This defies the assumption, implicit in the notion of the “Republican Front”, that the RN is a dangerous anti-republican force that has no respectable place in French politics.  The oral violence between Ensemble, NUPES and LR completed the process of undermining the notion of a Republican Front, the extreme language being used, in a way unprecedented in French political life, discrediting all concerned.

 

Is France now governable?

 

The answer is obviously yes, even if the means of governance in this new period will have to be defined.

 

Emmanuel Macron gave a surprising speech on Wednesday 22 June. He gave the political parties 48 hours to discuss possible collaborations or government agreements. In this way he puts the ball back in the court of the political parties. However, this is not the practice of the Fifth Republic. The president's objective was surely to show the French that there was no alternative solution. Having a government with the support of a relative majority in the National Assembly is almost impossible. The government will therefore have to seek circumstantial majorities on a case-by-case approach for the texts it wants to pass.

 

This is not impossible. But it will have several consequences.

 

The first will be the need to seek compromise. This is not part of French political culture. But most Western democracies function in this way. It is up to the political parties in France, and in particular the government majority, to show that they will live up to their responsibilities to the French people, otherwise they will be punished very harshly at the next elections.

 

The more frequent use of the tools of rationalised parliamentarism is likely to be another consequence. For instance, the control of the Parliamentary agenda, the use of the block vote, the use of Article 49-3 of the Constitution, the right of dissolution. These tools were part of the vision of democracy defended by the authors of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. These tools give a government the means to work and move forward in the face of a turbulent Assembly and fragile majorities. However, it is necessary to have skill and a great deal of political practice. This period cannot be one of confident and domineering technocracy and autistic power, locked into its certainties. Is Emmanuel Macron aware of this? Is he ready to modify his teams and to put in place a government adapted to this new time?

 

The third consequence will probably be a slower and more complex pace of work: fewer texts, more debates, slower decision-making process. The main risk is immobility and a pause in reforms. If we are optimistic, we can think that the government will refocus on the essentials, and in particular on the problems that most interest France’s citizens: purchasing power, employment, dependence, and ecological transition.

 

For the business world, this period that is opening up is worrying because in the search for political and social compromise, it is not certain that economic logic will prevail. Just one example: what will happen in this period to the reform that would allow EDF to get out of the serious difficulties that the company is facing?

 

Will France's image and presence on the international scene be affected?

 

France's attractiveness has improved significantly in recent years under the leadership of Emmanuel Macron. Foreign investment in France has increased.  France has become one of the most attractive destinations for investment in Europe. Investors do not like uncertainty and disorder very much. There is therefore a small risk that the pace of foreign investment in France will slow down in the face of this new political situation. The public authorities will have to see to it by multiplying their declarations of reassurance.

 

I don't have too many doubts about France's foreign policy and the country's ability to influence the international scene. Even if Emmanuel Macron did not win these legislative elections as he might have wished, he did not lose them completely either. Many of his colleagues, who lead large democratic powers, are not in a better position than he is either because they lead complex coalitions (Germany, Italy) or because they are politically weak (UK, USA). This does not prevent them from acting on the diplomatic stage.

 

It should not be forgotten that both foreign policy and defence policy are the preserve of the President of the Republic. Few decisions in these areas are taken by Parliament. Europe, the war in Ukraine, NATO, the China/USA conflict and France's African policy are all debates on which political parties can and will express themselves. But the voice of France is one. And those who would take the responsibility of weakening the country on the international scene for reasons of domestic politics by weakening the presidential voice, would risk paying a price.

 

"This second five-year term begins with great uncertainty. It may be a new magic trick for President Macron. It can give a new impetus to France or turn it into a painful Calvary." That was the conclusion of an editorial I wrote last week. Hopefully, there is a middle way between the two, and the political class as a whole will be up to the task of finding it.

 

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A pioneer in economic intelligence, ESL & Network (ADIT group) is a French economic intelligence and public affairs firm that assists the leaders of large French and international groups and companies in their strategic decision-making.

 

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