French President Emmanuel Macron waves as he leaves a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France, after casting his vote in the first round of the two-stage legislative elections. (AP)

On June 18, a newly created political party, La République en Marche! (LREM!), won 43.06 percent of the vote in the second round of the French legislative elections. Under France’s highly disproportional electoral system, where smaller percentages of the vote can translate into a larger proportion of seats, LREM! claimed 308 out of 577 total seats in France’s National Assembly.

Though short of prior estimates, this voting outcome leaves LREM! in a dominant position, especially in conjunction with its ally MoDem, which claimed 42 seats with 6.06 percent of the vote. This effectively gives President Emmanuel Macron, elected in May, the backing of a combined 350 seats.

In an unprecedented move, this election leaves France with a single dominant party in the center — and no solid opposition forces on either side. France’s traditional electoral system, designed to favor larger, established parties and prevent fragmentation, had created solid competing blocs, usually from the traditional right and left. This pattern of representation has now been shattered.

Here are some points to explain this major shift in French politics, and why it occurred:

Institutions matter, and Macron knew how to use them to his advantage.

France’s 577-seat lower chamber is elected for a five-year term. There are two requirements for a candidate to win on the first ballot: at least 25 percent of the registered voters must cast a vote and a candidate must win an absolute majority in his or her district. This year, there were only four such first ballot winners in the June 11 voting round. Candidates with at least 12.5 percent votes of registered voters then competed in the second round on June 18.

Macron’s majority also reflects a combination of the “honeymoon cycle” (legislative elections that follow closely behind the presidential ballot tend to produce a majority supportive of the president); the frequency of elections (since October 2016, there have been three party primaries and four rounds of national elections); and part of the electorate’s desire to have stable government and avoid “cohabitation” (a divided executive where the president lacks an assembly majority).


Figure 1. Abstention rates have been steadily rising since 2002, but the 2017 results marked all-time highs in both first and second round voting.
Data: http://www.france-politique.fr/participation-abstention.htm and Ministère de l’Intérieur https://www.interieur.gouv.fr/Elections/Les-resultats

At 57.4 percent in the second round (51.3 percent in the first one), abstention was, undoubtedly, a “winner” of this electoral season. Low turnout appears due in part to voter fatigue — see Figure 1 — but there’s more to the story than the many election rounds in a short period of time. One analysis of the low turnout suggests that the “crisis of representation,” or general disaffection with politicians and politics, continues to be the main reason French voters abstain. One interpretation of this is that the French public may have little faith in political change. This would suggest the new government may be under pressure to deliver results quickly.

The decline of traditional parties, but persistence of anti-establishment leaders.

Les Républicains (LR), a party on the traditional right, came in second with 22.23 percent of the vote (113 seats). LR was severely weakened by internal strife — between those who supported the new government and those who vehemently opposed it — and by Macron co-opting conservative figures to his Cabinet. His choice of prime minister, for instance, was the mayor of Le Havre — and a Europhile with both elected office and private sector experience in the nuclear industry, and a reputation for striking compromises.

France’s Parti Socialiste (PS) was in total disarray with only 5.68 percent of the vote, giving it 29 seats. The election also witnessed losses of numerous top leaders previously associated with the presidency of François Hollande. This confirms what was already apparent in the previous rounds: Voters sanctioned the exiting administration.

Anti-establishment voices appear here to stay. Both Marine Le Pen, leader of the radical right party Front National (FN), and Jean Luc Mélenchon, leader of the radical left party France Insoumise (FI), won parliamentary seats for the first time.

Despite falling short of the 15 seats required to form a parliamentary group, the FN, by gaining eight seats in Parliament, has become a permanent fixture, with a small but solid core of voter support. Mélenchon’s FI, while still outperforming all other radical left contenders, claimed 17 seats and could have done better were it not for his strategic mistakes — he refused to endorse Macron for the presidential second round and did not join forces with the Communists. Though both Le Pen and Mélenchon will have small voices in the legislature, they will no doubt offer very vocal opposition to the governing majority, which could guarantee their continued survival despite little policy influence.

Macron’s accomplishments — what happens next?

Running as an “outsider” with savoir faire, Macron began his ascent without a party and without significant experience, and yet has managed to carry four elections in two months. He has completely transformed voter expectations, going from an unknown to a savior. He managed to mobilize under his En Marche! movement, tapping into a disaffected electorate that was frustrated by France’s right/left political system.

Macron also knew how to assemble a legislative party by crowdsourcing support and building candidacies based on five principles: gender parity; renewal of the political class; probity; political pluralism; and attachment to his governing project. Not only will these MPs, many of whom come from civil society posts, be loyal to him, but they also bring skills from the private sector and from other forms of political engagement which will prove necessary for governing.

Macron appears to have forged a strong image for himself and for France. Initial interactions with Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Theresa May show that he has specific agendas with each of these global leaders — and a keen interest in France regaining its prominence in world politics.

Less clear, however, is what Macron’s longer-term priorities will be — but he definitely knows that time is of the essence. His first real tasks will be the passage of a labor code starting in the summer and reenergizing a disillusioned citizenry.

Looking forward

The 2017 national elections in France showed that Emmanuel Macron effectively reshaped French democracy by occupying the political center. By capitalizing on voter disenchantment with traditional politics and presenting himself as a “new generation” of politician, someone more inclusive and more attuned to societal needs, Macron seems ready to start moving France forward. Whether this is a short-lived change or a real revolution in France is still an open question.

Verónica Hoyo is a PhD in political science and research associate at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS) at the University of California, San Diego.

William M. Chandler is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego.