Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right Marine Le Pen in April’s presidential election, but now the French president faces a threat from the other side of the political spectrum in the battle for parliamentary power.
Elections will be held across the country on Sunday to select the 577 members of the most powerful branch of the French parliament, the National Assembly, with a runoff on June 19.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far left, the head of a coalition made up of leftists, greens and communists called Nupes, is trying to win the election and prevent Macron’s party from retaining its current parliamentary majority.
Former Trotskyist Mélenchon wants to raise the minimum wage sharply and lower the retirement age to 60 years. He also wants to become prime minister if his coalition takes power. That scenario would have the power to derail Macron’s domestic agenda.
Here’s a closer look:
WHAT MUST MACRON LOSE?
A lot. If Macron’s coalition, Ensemble!, retains control, the president will be able to carry out his agenda as before. But observers think Macron’s party and allies may struggle to secure an absolute majority this time – the magical 289-seat number.
A government with a large, but not an absolute majority, will still be able to rule, but only by negotiating with MPs.
While Mélenchon’s coalition could win more than 200 seats, current projections suggest little chance of a majority on the left. According to the latest polls, Macron and his allies are expected to win between 260 and 320 seats.
Macron will have significant foreign policy powers regardless of the outcome of this poll. But a poor performance for his coalition could be an eyesore for the remainder of his second five-year term. This could spell disaster for the president’s agenda, including tax cuts, Social Security reform and raising the retirement age.
“If Macron loses control, he will be a stumbling president – mainly in charge of foreign affairs, defense and Europe. But important economic and domestic issues will be decided by the government. And if it is Mélenchon’s coalition, that will be very hostile to his agenda,” said Olivier Rozenberg, associate professor of legislative studies at Sciences Po University.
The last time France had a multi-party presidential and parliamentary majority was two decades ago, when conservative president Jacques Chirac found himself working with a socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. This fraught power-sharing scenario is called cohabitation. To prevent this and avoid a stalemate, the constitution was amended in 2000 to shorten the presidential term from seven to five years and move parliamentary elections to the same five-year cycle.
But this year’s mood is closer than in years. If Nupes gains control, Macron would be forced to nominate a prime minister from that coalition.
“Prime Minister (Elisabeth) Borne will be forced to resign, all ministers will change and be elected by the Prime Minister. Probably a Prime Minister Mélenchon,” Rozenberg said. “Difficult isn’t even the word.”
MELENCHON: THE COLORFUL RADICAL
With a strong third-place finish in April’s presidential election, the mercurial twenty-seven-year-old leader of the France Unbowed party pushed to capitalize on this popularity.
He has a radical vision for France – and a theatrical way of presenting it. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called him the ‘Gaul Chavez’ and compared him to the late Venezuelan president.
Mélenchon recently softened his tone to attract more traditional left-wing voters, adopting a resolutely eco-friendly stance, gaining support from young people more and more.
Mélenchon would like to see the Fifth Republic, founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, scrapped in favor of a Sixth Republic with the aim of making it more democratic and parliamentary, rather than the current presidential system. He also wants to lower the retirement age to 60, restore wealth taxes and raise the minimum wage by 15%.
HOW IT WORKS
The French system is complex and disproportionate to the national support for a party. Legislators are elected by district.
A parliamentary candidate needs more than 50% of the vote to be elected on June 12.
If that fails, the top two contenders, in addition to anyone who won more than 12.5% of the registered votes, will advance to a second round. In some cases, three or four people make it, although some may step aside to increase another contender’s chances.
That tactic has often been used to block candidates from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party.
Le Pen’s party, which won eight seats in 2017, hopes to get at least 15 seats this time around so it can form a parliamentary faction and gain more powers in the Assembly.
The National Assembly, the lower house, is the more powerful of the two houses of the French parliament. It has the final say in the legislative process over the Senate.
ISSUES AT GAME
Inflation is a major issue among voters as energy and food prices rise. Macron hopes his initiatives to boost growth and food production will resonate with voters. However, Mélenchon’s plans to raise the minimum wage to 1,400 euros a month will certainly appeal to workers’ voters.
Police brutality has also recently become a political hot potato after a deadly police shooting in Paris. That came a week after police chiefs were convicted of using tear gas on football fans during the Champions League final in the French capital. The left has taken advantage of the incidents to criticize Macron for brutal police methods. Still, observers say Macron is doing well in the eyes of voters on security issues, as he has historically taken a harder line than the left.
“Macron is more credible when it comes to security. A silent majority of the population is counting on him as a leader in this matter,” Rozenberg said. “This could play into his hands.”
Another factor that could benefit Macron is the predicted high abstention rate.