France 2022: Why June is more important than April

Albrecht Sonntag |

In France, the presidential election monopolises all the attention. Of candidates and non-candidates, activists and voters, media and pollsters, domestic and foreign observers. That’s understandable. The playbook is irresistible: rhetorically overblown visions of society collide in a dramaturgy replete with plot twists and cliffhangers, the absence of any post-election compromise allows for a merciless showdown, and you can even be sure to get a reliable result at 8 pm sharp.

But this year around, it might well be that the whole ballyhoo may be close to meaningless. The real power of whoever is elected President on 24 April will depend to a large extent on the result of the parliamentary elections (‘les législatives’) on 12 and 19 June. And in 2022, there is no way of predicting the outcome of these. The hangover, inevitable after a nine-month binge of rumours and fake news, conspiracies and treason, revelations and promises, might be even more unpleasant than usual.

Once elected, keep fingers crossed

It is of course possible that ‘the French will be coherent and grant their newly elected president a clear majority’. That’s at least what every serious presidential candidate will pretend to be deeply convinced of. Once elected, he or she will repeat this mantra from end of April to mid-June. But what if the French don’t’ want to be coherent anymore?

It’s true that in 2002, 2007, 2012, and 2017, the self-fulfilling coherence prophecy worked out just fine. Each of the Presidents concerned – Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, and Emmanuel Macron – were able to convert their victory in May into a parliamentary majority in June. But that does not mean it will necessarily happen in 2022, too.

For Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande, the parliamentary confirmation of the presidential victory came as no surprise. They were able to draw on the support of established, traditionally hegemonic party structures that benefitted not only from long-standing roots in the constituencies but also from the majoritarian electoral system. But already in 2017, the earthquake in favour of Emmanuel Macron’s movement En Marche ! was anything but predictable. His gamble on the ‘dégagisme’ – the ‘kick-them-out’ mood of the electorate fed up with the old left and right – simply paid off.

But this time around, the road will be rockier. Even if Macron wins a second term, his troops are by no means certain to be re-elected in their constituencies. The three MPs I spoke to in detail over recent weeks are all more than doubtful. All three of them had spontaneously taken the great leap from civil society into politics, enthusiastic about Macron’s radical newness, and swept away their constituency with scores of 60%. None of them has done a bad job, but none of them believes this will necessarily be recognised in the polling stations. All the more so as Macron has ruled out to allocate any constituency before the outcome of the presidential election. Which will leave barely six weeks for campaigning.

In case Marine Le Pen achieves an improbable upheaval and becomes President, it remains very difficult to imagine a sweeping majority for a party that has never managed to transform its appeal into an appropriate number of seats, not even on the regional level. The Rassemblement National has a serious problem of human resources capable of winning a constituency and an even more serious one in finding reliable coalition partners.

What about Valérie Pécresse? Would she not be able to benefit from the great experience of Les Républicains with its long-standing active network in countless municipalities, departmental assemblies and regional councils? In principle, yes. But even supposing she manages somehow to topple Macron, there is no guarantee she would reap a nation-wide dividend in the June elections. Admittedly, she would no doubt be willing and able to form a coalition, either with what would be left of La République en Marche ! in case Macron stumbles or with the far right. Whether that would be enough (and stable over time) is another question.

The key issue to understanding this highly uncertain constellation is of course fragmentation. The party spectrum has changed spectacularly since Macron’s bulldozer ride in 2017 – helped by the patient self-demolition of the Socialist Party under Hollande’s non-leadership and the stifling of moderate voices within Les Républicains that started under Sarkozy. Why should an increasingly fragmented electorate, in which abstention rates are expected to be higher than ever and in which trust in national government bodies is below 40% and trust in political parties even lower at 21% (according to the Baromètre CEVIPOF, January 2022), have the reflex of standing like a man behind candidates running on behalf of a President who will have been actively supported by less than a quarter of the population in the first round of the April vote?

Come June, fingers will be nervously crossed. Maybe everything will turn out fine and France will be governable for the next five years.

Maybe not.

The presidentialisation of the regime

It is conventional wisdom that ‘French presidents have more power than the leader of most other advanced democracies’. But that’s only as long as the house of cards remains upright.

Sure, the constitution of the Fifth Republic grants the President the power to hire and fire the Prime minister at will and does not even force him/her to choose a personality belonging to the parliamentary majority. But that’s in theory. In practice, it would cause a major uproar and a serious legitimacy crisis to ignore the result of the parliamentary elections.

Of course, the President also has the power to dissolve the Parliament if the majority is not to his/her taste. At a time when the presidential mandate was seven years and not aligned on the parliamentary term, this was an option. Mitterrand took it very naturally after his election in 1981 and was vindicated by a clear majority. And he successfully took it a second time after his re-election in 1988. For Jacques Chirac, in 1997, it turned out to be a calamitous strategy. Following the advice of Dominique de Villepin, he called for an early election with the aim of bolstering his existing majority. The result was a smashing defeat and five long years of cohabitation with a socialist Prime minister, every staunch Gaullist’s ultimate nightmare. (An event Theresa May would have done well to study before 2017).

But the dissolution option is not even on the table anymore. Since the reduction of the presidential mandate from seven to five years (from ‘septennat’ to ‘quinquennat’) and the alignment of the two cycles, voted in 2000 by means of a referendum, the newly elected President will have to live at least twelve months with the newly elected Assemblée Nationale, like it or not.

The 2000 referendum was completed by the decision, one year later, to invert and freeze the election calendar, giving systematic priority to the election of a new president before moving on to the parliamentary vote. At the time, transpartisan promotors of the reform argued in favour of a more coherent ‘presidentialisation’ of the regime, believed to be coherent with de Gaulle’s heritage. The result was inevitably to turn the legislative elections into a kind of ‘ratification’ of the presidential election. While there were critical voices against the neglect of legislative power, especially in comparison with other Western European democracies, I don’t remember anybody speaking out against the potential fragility of the underlying assumption of the quasi-natural majority provided by an obedient electorate.

Constitutional fudge

In June 2022, what would happen if citizens decided to ignore or even deliberately refuse to confirm the president elect in the legislative ballot box?

Without a parliamentary majority from which to pick an obedient Prime minister, the President may not suffer too much damage in terms of symbolic and representative power, but his/her executive power is likely to shrink dramatically.

This forecast is backed by the evidence from three historical precedents of a bicephalous executive, nicely named ‘cohabitations’ in French, which are well worth a closer retrospective look.

All three cohabitations occurred prior to the abovementioned constitutional reform of 2000, which shortened the presidential mandate to five years. Unthinkable under Gaullist one-party rule, a cohabitation was bound to happen after the Fifth Republic successfully stood the test of its first transfer of power to a socialist President. After five years of rule, François Mitterrand lost his majority in 1986, and a right-wing government was formed under PM Jacques Chirac, who believed the position to be the stepping stone for the presidential throne in 1988.

Chirac has been much mocked for being humiliated by Mitterrand during the two years of cohabitation and the following election campaign. But that’s only half of the picture. It is true that Mitterrand adopted a de Gaulle-like ‘above-the-parties’ attitude, benefitting from the vagueness of the constitution concerning the exact distribution of competences between President and Prime ministers.

In practice, though, the President can only claim a prerogative on foreign affairs, security and defense emergencies, and, to a certain extent, European matters. These are fields where the symbolic and representative power play out in full. But on all other matters, the Prime minister can use his/her government backed by a legislative majority to pass laws that are contrary to the ideology and explicit policy preferences for which the President was elected in the first place.

Between 1986 and 1988, the Chirac government devaluated the French Franc, reduced corporate taxes and abolished the wealth tax, launched a whole wave of privatisations (including the most important TV channel), toughened security laws, and even gerrymandered the electoral map (albeit not with American ruthlessness). All the while, Mitterrand was relegated to the part of a helpless bystander. He played it very well, biding his time, posing as the intellectual elder statesman and benefitting in popularity from the growing dissatisfaction of the electorate.

The second cohabitation came about in 1993, five years into Mitterrand’s second septennat. It was a strange moment, marked by the visible physical decline of the President and an aggressive jockeying for position between Chirac and PM Edouard Balladur, both eager to be his successor at the end of a long reign. Again, Mitterrand retreated into dealing with European and international affairs, managing tensions with a more complicated, freshly reunified Germany over the forthcoming monetary union. The Socialists had all but given up on the next presidential election anyway, and media attention mainly focused on Chirac’s desperate fight to catch up with Balladur’s lead in the polls and finally obtain ‘my job of in two years’ time’, as his highly popular (and genuinely funny) puppet in the satirical Guignols TV show kept repeating.

The third cohabitation lasted for an entire five years, following the 1997 snap elections lost by Chirac. It revealed to what extent the power balance between President and Prime minister also depends on the personalities. Socialist PM Lionel Jospin, whom Chirac had no choice but to appoint, turned out to be a surprisingly strong leader, adamant about the government’s badly defined, but existing prerogatives, and even imposed his presence on EU level, as well as his full involvement in the preparation of the Nice intergovernmental conference of December 2000.

All over the five years of their mandate, Jospin’s ‘plural left government(‘la gauche plurielle’), which brought together Socialists, Communists and Greens in a remarkable ministerial line-up, implemented its policy choices like the 35-hour week, leaving the President on the sidelines. Contrary to Mitterrand, the latter did not even benefit from his position and managed to obtain less than 20% of the vote in the notorious first round of the 2002 presidential election.

All three cohabitations were interpreted in very different, if not contradictory ways. They were cited as evidence for the stability of the system and a certain flexibility of the constitution, allowing for an original type of checks and balances. But they were also condemned as a counter-productive, encumbering consequence of the constitution’s lack of precision and anticipation.

Neither view was entirely wrong, but both were firmly anchored in a landscape where power was exclusively shared between a duopoly of two hegemonic parties. There was no République en marche shoveling the left/right divide into the dustbin, there was no Rassemblement National on the threshold of power, there was no climate crisis giving the Verts a new kind of prominence (even if it is not yet reflected in votes on the national level). There was no divorce between voting behaviour in national and sub-national elections. And abstention was low.

The Fifth Republic is not prepared for a configuration like the one it will face in June 2022. It’s one of these systems that work just fine until they don’t.

This is post no. 3 of the ‘France 2022’ series.
The first two ones can be found here.
All ‘France 2017’ posts can be accessed here.

Illustrations are gratefully taken from Die Gnomen und das Kartenhaus,
published by Lothar Meggendorfer in 1910 and courtesy of TU Braunschweig.