This Sunday’s upcoming French legislative elections are starting to become a large ordeal. Just a few months ago it was predicted President Emmanuel Macron’s political bloc Ensemble was generally safe for a 289-seat majority, but that has since changed. This threat has culminated less from the right end of the spectrum where his former primary foe Marine Le Pen sits, but rather the new left-wing alliance New Ecologic and Social Peoples Union (NUPES) led by the 70-year old Jean Luc-Melenchon.
The stakes are high in this election as if President Macron’s party fails to seize a majority he will either have to form a coalition or rely on smaller parties to get his agenda passed. The French National Parliament has a large role in government with being able to pass votes of no confidence, work in passing the budget, and can ask the President and Ministers questions.
Current projections by French media outlets project Macron’s party to finish just below majority territory, with some having his bloc narrowly ahead of 289. If that number falls below 250 Macron could be in for some serious trouble. Fortunately for him, the center-right La Republique (LR) have had a somewhat fluid relationship with Macron, with his former Prime Minister having close ties to LR, as he was a former member.
There is also the threat for Macron from the far-right with Le Pen, but she has had some steam come off her ever since her Presidential loss earlier this month and NUPES being characterized as Macron’s main opponent.
The Elections Background
For decades, French elections were largely contested between LR and the center-left socialist party (PS). Together, these two parties would quash lower-tier competition like Le Pen’s National Rally (RN). Most recently, the French Presidency was held by LR member Nicholas Sarkozy while he was succeeded by PS member Francois Hollande. Sarkozy would later be charged with multiple different counts of corruption earlier this decade, while Hollande finished his Presidency with abysmal approval ratings. This gave way to Emmanuel Macron.
A former PS member Macron came to light with a centrist platform under the banner La Republique En Marche! in 2016. Macron previously served as Minister of Economics, Industry and Digital Affairs between 2014 to 2016 under Prime Minister Manuel Valls of PS. Macron’s new party stood for a combination of economic and social liberalism while being extremely pro-Europe and pro-globalism. The party was a catch-all type of approach with little limitation on membership requirements and saw an influx of members from the left and right. Multiple other centrist parties like MoDem would join his coalition, creating Ensemble.
In 2017 Macron would go on to face Le Pen in the second round and trounce her, winning 66-34% and carrying all but two departments nationwide (there are 101 departments in total). His party would take control of the National Assembly later that year. Upon his victory, Macron introduced wealth reforms that gutted the wealth tax in favor of a flat tax on capital gains, a move that gained him dismay among some for being seen as benefiting the rich. Macron would later face public discontent with the Yellow Vests, a group of protestors who primarily protested Macron’s economic reforms. Macron’s approval ratings were in the gutter and his political future seemed far from certain until his pandemic response was generally well-received and he was seen as a leader. This helped him win a second term, albeit more narrowly.
Melenchon is a long-time figure of French politics, entering the French Senate in 2004. A former member of PS in the late 20th Century he would form his left-wing offshoot the Left Party. He would run the party which would have parliamentary representation but no critical power until he formed La France Insoumise (LFI) in 2016. The party won seats in 2017 but not enough to make an impact. Some of Melenchon’s priorities include lowering the retirement age to 60 (it’s 62 right now, and Macron wants it raised to 65), raising the minimum wage, and expanding civil servant jobs for just a few priorities.
Melenchon finally successfully arranged a left-wing coalition earlier this year. With PS initially refusing to join forces with a more left-wing force, they ran separately until they got trounced in this year’s Presidential Election with Paris’s PS Mayor Anne Hidalgo not even breaking 2% nationally. This coalition was also joined by EELV (the French green party), the Communist Party, as well as a plethora of smaller left-wing parties. Candidates of different parties in the coalition will run in all constituencies but never against another party in NUPES.
This is important because in France, the electoral system is devised where all candidates face off in the first round in constituencies, and the top-two advance to the second round unless one candidate breaks 50%. In the past, the left would be locked out of top-two because they would split the vote, often allowing LREM to be challenged by RN or LR. Melenchon would have had a good shot of finishing 2nd in this year’s Presidential election if it weren’t for more left-wing candidates running as well. NUPES worked well for the left in the first round, with NUPES placing in the top-two in an overwhelming number of constituencies.
Besides NUPES and Ensemble, there are the far-right. While far-right political commentator and author Eric Zemmour’s new party Reconquest failed to have a single candidate move on to the next round, Le Pens did. Her platform includes economic nationalism, an emphasis on nuclear energy, and weaker French ties with NATO among other things. She has brought her party to have softer stances on issues like gay rights (supporting civil-unions as opposed to no recognition) as well being tolerant of abortions and withdrawing her support for the death penalty to make her party seem less polarizing to the French electorate.
Le Pen and Melenchon have been dogged by accusations of Russophilla. This is in large part due to Le Pen calling for closer ties with Russia and saying Ukraine was “subjugated” by the U.S. during the current Russian invasion of the country. Melenchon is seen as less outwardly pro-Russian but his strong opposition to NATO and lack of harsh condemnation of the current war has turned some heads.
Lastly, you have the Union of the Right and Center (UDI) which is a combination of LR and smaller center to center-right parties. This bloc stands for traditional center-right policies like economic liberalism and pro-Europeanism. The bloc will likely not win the most seats but could play kingmaker if Ensemble falls below 289.
The current situation is fluid, but it will likely be a result between a small Ensemble majority to a situation where NUPES could be within striking distance.
NUPES is expected to do well in the French left two typical strongholds, southern France and eastern Paris. The south has a lot of PS residual support with the party winning most southern regions in regional elections last summer. LFI does well in the Paris area, but so do other left of center parties. The left also has support in other French cities such as Marseilles where Melenchons constituency is located.
The far-right tend to do well in industrial heartlands and more blue-collar regions. Their support stems from areas angry at the French Parisian establishment. RN also has a base of support in southwestern France where Le Pen’s husband won a Mayoralty last year. The party struggles to attract support in other regions, including the constituency-rich Ile-de-France (Paris and Paris suburbs) region.
Ensemble has a nationwide base of support with constituencies all over. Their base of support has historically been between west France with areas like Normandy providing many votes for the bloc. The party has historically struggled in southern France where the left and RN have a base of support. The party has also struggled in the Paris area recently, which has sent much concern through the party. While they did rebound in the first-round they still struggled in much of the eastern portion of the region. This region could be decisive in determining Ensembles parliamentary mandate.
Key areas to watch for context clues will be central Paris, the west coast, and southeastern France. The first two likely will be determinative of Ensembles andate while the latter will be a good barometer to see if RN can eclipse 50-seats.
Another wild card is the presence of overseas constituencies. There are 11 constituencies for French voters abroad, and 27 seats for voters in overseas departments and territories. These 38 seats could prove crucial in a close election. The voters abroad constituencies have tended to back Ensemble while the other 27 seats have been less consistent. With many of the constituencies being far away the elections there have become moderately regionalized, with many local parties aligning with bigger ones. Before there was not a clear pattern with these seats but a major shock in the Presidential election this year was Melenchon’s appeal to these voters. This is likely in part due to Melenchon discussing more sovereign and humanitarian rights for these territories. NUPES looks in a good position to win most of the overseas territories constituencies, while Ensemble is in good shape with the 11 voters abroad constituencies.
This French election is interesting in the sense it is not confirmed Ensemble/Macron will win. There was only a slight sense of suspense between Macron and Le Pen in 2022, and next to none in 2017. Ensemble failing to win a mandate could see them have to compromise and make many concessions. It is also not out of the question that Macron makes a confidence and supply arrangement or even coalition with UDI. However this could become a politically volatile decision as there could be internal dissatisfaction within both parties over the prospect. NUPES has a fairly large range of seat numbers with anywhere between 175-245 being the projected range. The latter number could see them competitive with Ensemble, especially if RN does better than expected at Ensembles cost. Current polls have Ensemble ahead of NUPES by 1-3%, but that is an insignificant number. With that in mind Ensemble could still come out first by a modest margin due to geography even if they barely place 1st or even lose out to 2nd narrowly.
This election has rejuvenated a lot of energy into French politics and could be a major blowback for the President.