The winner of the second round of the French presidential election this Sunday will go on to fight what is commonly referred to as “the third round” in legislative elections on June 11th and 18th.
Traditionally, French voters have proved consistent in giving their new president a majority of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. Since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958, there have been only three exceptions or periods of cohabitation, when the president was forced to govern with a prime minister from the opposite side.
That tradition has been reinforced by the move, under Jacques Chirac, from a seven- to a five-year term, and the reversal of the calendar, so that legislative elections follow rather than precede the choice of president.
The difficulty of obtaining a parliamentary majority was used as an argument against both candidates in the presidential run-off
But there is unprecedented uncertainty regarding the "third round" next month. For the first time, the two "parties of government", the Socialists and conservative Les Républicains did not make it to the presidential run-off. They comprise the two largest factions in the outgoing assembly, with 285 Socialists and 199 Les Républicains deputies.
The difficulty of obtaining a parliamentary majority was used as an argument against both candidates in the presidential run-off: the centrist Emmanuel Macron, who polls indicate will win by about 18 percentage points; and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
Macron's movement, En Marche, was founded in April 2016 and, like Macron himself, has never participated in any kind of election. If Macron wins, there are four possibilities, says Prof Pascal Perrineau of the Institut des Sciences Politiques and one of France's leading political scientists.
Macron says he is convinced that En Marche will win an absolute majority of 289 of 577 deputies.
The second-best outcome for Macron would be a simple majority of seats for En Marche and a strong showing for potential allies in the Socialists and Les Républicains. Although short of the magic number of 289, he could form a stable governing coalition with them.
Coalition governments are common in Europe, and have occasionally occurred in France. In 1958 de Gaulle won a simple majority of 38 per cent of seats in the National Assembly and negotiated with left and right to reach 50 per cent of votes.
The third possibility would be a messier, more divided Assembly. In that case, Macron would be obliged to negotiate shifting "majorities of ideas". In 1988, Michel Rocard, one of Macron's heroes, was forced to do exactly that, working sometimes with communists, sometimes with centrists, to govern with different majorities on specific projects.
In any of the first three eventualities, Macron would name the prime minister of his choice. He says he has two individuals in mind, one a man, one a woman, but he has so far declined to identify them.
The fourth and last possibility – which experts say is not the most likely – is that Macron could be forced into cohabitation with Les Républicains, if the conservatives win a majority of seats. A victory for Les Républicains would constitute revenge for the elimination of the party's candidate, François Fillon.
The former finance minister François Baroin, who is leading Les Républicains’ campaign in the legislative elections, outlined the party’s argument for the June elections after the first round of the presidential poll.
“If the French want an unequivocal alternation, if they want to turn the page of [the outgoing president François] Hollande and Macron, they will choose a right-wing and centre-right government. In that case, I am available to lead the government,” Baroin said.
The defeated far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has also portrayed the legislative election as an opportunity for revenge. “I think France will get rid of Marine Le Pen in this [presidential] election, and we, in a month, will together get rid of Macron’s policies,” he said on May 1st.
The strength of Le Pen's Front National in the future Assembly is another unknown. France's two-round, majority system was designed to keep small and extremist parties out of government. The Front National has only two deputies in the outgoing assembly. Based on Le Pen's performance in the first round, the party could win 40-100 seats, enabling it to form a parliamentary group.
Separation of powers
To preserve the separation of powers, the French president is not even allowed to visit the National Assembly, where the prime minister and his party’s group leader represent him. The next Assembly may comprise four large groups corresponding to the four front-runners in the first round: centrists, conservatives, extreme right and extreme left.
Sixty per cent of Macron voters surveyed in a Cévipof poll published yesterday said they chose Macron by default, because they didn't want any of the other candidates on offer
Lack of voter enthusiasm could militate against an absolute majority for En Marche. Sixty per cent of Macron voters surveyed in a Cévipof poll published yesterday said they chose Macron by default, because they didn’t want any of the other candidates on offer.
May 19th is the deadline for declaring candidacies for the legislative elections. If he is elected on May 7th, Macron reportedly wants to take office within a week. The impression he makes in his first month in office will affect the legislative results.
“Because he has never been a politician, there is a naive side to Macron,” Perrineau says. “He could win an absolute majority, but it won’t be easy, because many of his candidates are totally unknown.”
Yet whatever the legislative results, Perrineau concludes, Macron will not be paralysed by them. “Even with a right-wing majority, he would reach an understanding,” Perrineau concludes. “At worst, it will be a little more complicated than he imagines.”