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Will ‘drifting’ Macron need conservatives to save his majority?

The French parliamentary elections' first round on Sunday put Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Ensemble group barely ahead of the leftist coalition NUPES under firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon – a disappointing result for the freshly re-elected president. But Macron’s centrist alliance is expected to get a second-round boost as swing voters rally to moderates – while a relatively strong performance for France’s conservatives gives them a chance to assure Macron a National Assembly majority.

For two decades French parliamentary elections – or the législatives, as they are called in France – have seen the newly (re)elected president sail to a National Assembly majority on the back of their victory in the race for the Élysée Palace. At the outset, observers expected this month’s polls to conform to type.

But unusual législatives should perhaps have been foreseen, after an unusual campaign overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and an unusually anti-climactic victory for the president.

‘Macron ended up drifting’

The first round gave an aberrant result indeed: Macron’s Ensemble("Together") has only scraped first place, barely ahead of the left-wing Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (“New Ecological and Social Popular Union”, or NUPES) coalition, with 25.75 percent for the former and 25.66 percent for the latter, according to figures provided by the interior ministry.

Even after Mélenchon came a close third in April’s presidential election first round, the most dreamily optimistic French socialist would have been brave to expect such an outcome – given the hitherto dire state of the French left, which saw its historic vehicle, the Socialist Party, dwindle into irrelevance.

A controversial figure whom swathes of the electorate detest for his hard-left policies and sometimes conspiratorial rhetoric, Mélenchon is nevertheless a formidable campaigner with a gift for creating and riding momentum.

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By contrast, the famously zestful Macron seemed atypically lethargic after his re-election – waiting a month to name his new Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and reshuffle his cabinet.

“Macron looked to float to victory and in the end he ended up drifting,” noted Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University. It is a “remarkable performance” for NUPES, Smith continued, and in large part they got it because amid Macron’s drift “they looked dynamic; they had the wind in their sails during an otherwise lacklustre campaign”.

The Stade de France fiasco on May 28 reinforced the sense of drift and dented Macron’s appeal amongst voters of all stripes, added Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester.

For many French voters, he observed, Macron has “big appeal as a competent administrator and technocratic leader”. Crushes at the Stade de France entrances and police tear-gassing of Liverpool fans – followed by the deletion of official CCTV footage – “did something to that image”.

Second-round boost for Macron?

Nevertheless, the vote share figures are nowhere near as cut and dry in giving the législatives results as they are for the présidentielles, because in these polls the nationwide performance depends on parties’ scores in each of France’s 577 seats. And deals between like-minded parties will play out differently across that tapestry of constituencies. Disappointing performers often drop out to leave a final two, but all candidates scoring over 12.5 percent are eligible to enter the June 19 second round.

Indeed, Ipsos projections expect Macron’s Ensemble to perform far better than NUPES in the all-important run off. Ensemble is forecast to get 255 to 295 seats (with a fair proportion won by MoDem and Horizons, centrist outfits allied to Macron but not controlled by him). NUPES are expected to get 150 to 190 seats.

Macron’s centrism will provide a boon as candidates drop out and their voters have to choose a better-performing candidate in the run off, said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University: “The support of losing candidates should play mostly to the advantage of Macron’s centrist alliance, allowing its candidates to pick up support on centre right and centre left depending on the opposition they face.

“The winner-takes-all electoral system in each constituency, with a high qualifying bar for the second round and the need to attract voters of eliminated candidates, favours more moderate parties over more radical,” Shields continued. “This is where Macron’s centrist positioning pays dividends and where the limited reserves of wider support for both the NUPES and [Marine Le Pen’s far-right] Rassemblement National [National Rally, or RN] will prove costly.”

Conservatives in ‘stronger position’

Still, it looks like the new National Assembly will be a far cry from the Macroniste-dominated parliament created by the 2017 législatives, as the Ipsos projections shows Ensemble could well miss out on the 289-seat threshold for an absolute majority.

Macron will be all too aware that anything less than a hefty majority makes him dependent on loyalty from veteran MoDem leader François Bayrou, not to mention Édouard Philippe – the Horizons leader and Macron’s popular first PM, who sees himself as “loyal but at liberty” and has his eye on his own expected presidential run in 2027.

The president famously pulled Philippe out of France’s traditional conservative party Les Républicains (LR), before the centrist Macron moved rightwards along with the centre ground of French politics on issues like immigration and security.

LR have performed far better than expected after their catastrophic présidentielles performance under Valérie Pécresse. The Ipsos figures suggest their alliance got nearly 13.7 percent of the vote (compared to 4.8 percent for Pécresse). The pollsters predict 50 to 80 seats for LR in the second round – easily enough to make them a weighty bloc in the National Assembly.

“The relatively strong performance of Les Républicains is owed to how firmly the party remains embedded in some of its electoral heartlands, where LR candidates ran locally focused campaigns in these elections,” Shields explained.

Outgoing LR leader Christian Jacob said repeatedly during the campaign that his party would not back Ensemble candidates – although on Sunday he proffered a more ambiguous call for “no votes” to go from LR to the far left or far right, avoiding any mention of Macron.

Given Macron’s rightwards pivot in his first term, speculation has long abounded that he would reach some sort of deal with LR – rumours that have only intensified thanks to LR ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy strongly backing Macron in the second round and meeting him at the Élysée after his re-election.

“I think there will have to be alliance-building,” Andrew Smith said. “If Macron falls just short of the 289 seats needed for a majority, there may well be a lot of overtures to those Macron-compatible LR members. Their législatives first round performance puts LR in a stronger position to have political influence – and draws Macron towards them.”

‘A lot of people disengaged’

Indeed, alliance-building looks to be the name of the game in French politics after unity under Mélenchon propelled the left out of the doldrums.

The législatives first round have made this a stark lesson for the far right, Andrew Smith noted: “If the left demonstrated the boons gained from unity, the far right demonstrated the dangers of disunity, as warring continued between the Rassemblement National and Eric Zemmour – profiting neither.”

Marine Le Pen’s party got 18.9 percent in the first round, Ipsos projections say – a score expected to whittle down to 20 to 45 seats in the second round, as other voters rally against the far right in the so-called front républicain. For his part, Zemmour failed to meet the second round threshold in his campaign to win the St Tropez constituency.

Such a performance suggests a reversal of the far right’s momentum that saw Zemmour briefly surge in the polls last autumn, then Le Pen beat her previous first round performance before narrowing Macron’s lead in the runoff.

“Le Pen didn’t throw her all into the législatives, perhaps because she assumed that they would give Macron a majority again,” said Andrew Smith.

But the second round projections show RN more than doubling their number of National Assembly seats after they got a mere eight in the 2017 législatives. Crucially, the projections suggest they will easily surpass the threshold of 15 MPs needed to form their own official parliamentary group.

After the rise of NUPES over the past two months, Le Pen’s canny, submarine-like presidential campaign seems like it belongs to a different moment in French politics. However, the poor turnout in the législatives first round – a record 52.49 percent, according to the interior ministry – points to a disillusionment with the political system from which she could benefit in the second round: “Le Pen’s momentum does seem to have dissipated – but the abstention rate shows a lot of people disengaged from electoral politics, people who could be attracted to her anti-system rhetoric out of a desire to shake things up,” said Andrew Smith.

Artmotion S.Africa

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