Is the French political system today facing a period of chaos?

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The French political establishment is in shock after Sunday’s legislative elections. The results were unexpected for two reasons. First of all, no one expected such a a failure for French President Emmanuel Macron. Most polls suggested that Macron’s Ensemble electoral alliance would win 265 to 270 seats and might even secure another absolute parliamentary majority, allowing Macron to easily pass legislation.

But Together far from reaching this number of seats. And second, Marine Le Pen’s Radical Right National Rally has achieved a much bigger political breakthrough than expected. Here’s what that means.

Election results weaken Macron — and strengthen Le Pen

In April, Macron was re-elected president. Some believed that this victory would be reflected in the June legislative elections, ushering in a phase of relative stability for France and signaling a period of reconsolidation for the European Union. It is now unlikely.

Macron won in France – but Le Pen got closer than before

Instead, the newly elected French National Assembly, the legislative body that plays a decisive role in supporting the executive and passing laws, will be split into four major groups. The pro-Macron alliance, Together, won 246 seats (42.6%), well below the 289 seats needed for a majority. The left-wing alliance NUPES, led by the leader of the radical left party La France Insoumise (LFI), Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and comprising Communists, Socialists and Greens, elected 142 deputies (24.6%). The moderate right Les Républicains (LR) won 64 seats (11%), and the radical right Rassemblement national (RN) won 89 (15.4%).

It was an unexpected defeat for Macron. Pollsters also did not expect Le Pen’s RN to do so well – predicting the party would win 30-50 seats. Although Le Pen ran for the presidency in the last elections, his party fared poorly in the legislative elections, winning only two and eight seats respectively in the last two elections. LR fielded weak candidates and was hurt by France’s two-round electoral system. This election marks a historic success for the party.

The French political system could experience a period of chaos

The French political system was designed to create a stable executive headed by the president. However, it adapted to periods of “cohabitation”, when the president represented one party and the majority in the National Assembly (and the prime minister) a different coalition.

Sunday’s election, however, created a potentially new set of issues. There is no obvious majority in the National Assembly that could form its own government. Both the radical right and the radical left have enough strength to destabilize the government, but neither is able to form its own government, and each has little in common with the other to form an alliance.

That means any government will have to include Macron’s core group, but it’s unclear how that might happen. The French party system is aligned around three “poles” – centre, right and left – which are roughly equal in size. Ensemble and NUPES each got around 26% of the vote in the first round, while RN got around 19%. The radical parties dominate the left and right poles.

People wrote off the French centre-right.

It’s new. The two-round electoral system means that only candidates who have sufficient support advance to the second round and have a chance of being elected. In the past, people generally voted against their least preferred (usually radical) option, giving more moderate parties an advantage, so moderate-left voters might support a moderate-right candidate (and vice versa) in the second round. . This time, ideological differences have greatly weakened this pattern.

Estimates by Harris Interactive, a polling institute, suggest that of the 280 constituencies where a centrist Ensemble candidate ran against NUPES, only about a quarter of RN supporters voted for Macron’s candidate. An equal number voted for the NUPES candidate, while half of this group did not vote. Similarly, 45% of NUPES supporters abstained in the 107 constituencies where Ensemble ran against the RN; only 31% voted for the centrist candidate, while 24% decided to support the extreme right.

Macron has limited options

In this situation, Macron has few options to pass the legislation. Assembly can become unmanageable. Institutional reforms have made it harder for a government with fragile parliamentary support to pass bills, while an opposition politician will be in charge of the powerful parliamentary finance committee; RN has already made an offer for the position. The RN and LFI will be able to seize the Constitutional Council (specialized judicial body) for examination.

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Macron could dissolve the Assembly and declare early elections, hoping for a different electoral result. However, doing it now would likely make the situation worse, so he’ll have to wait to consider this option. In the meantime, a coalition between Ensemble and LR (with a total of 320 seats) could offer Macron a way forward. Yet LR is internally divided, and its internal right wants to distance Macron’s party so it can better compete on security, sovereignty and immigration and win back the votes of right-wing voters who have drifted towards supporting the RN in recent years. This means that an Ensemble/LR government — to be politically possible — would have to veer sharply to the right. It would force Macron to abandon most of his centrist policies and make room (and voters) for his leftist opponents.

The political instability emerging from these elections affects not only France, but also the European Union. The radical right and the radical left in France are eurosceptic (as is part of LR). They will likely force Macron to moderate his plans for a stronger EU For a brief period, the EU seemed to find renewed unity to support Ukraine. This unity now seems increasingly threatened.

Macron will likely defend his foreign policy. International affairs are “reserved” for the president, which will likely allow him to shield the Western alliance from the “softer” approach to dealing with Vladimir Putin that Le Pen and Mélenchon advocate. Both were explicit Putin supporters before the war. Yet the political uncertainty after Sunday’s election will likely be felt far beyond France’s borders.

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John Capoccia (@gcapoccia1) is Professor of Comparative Politics at Oxford University. His research and teaching interests focus on democracy, political extremism, theories of political institutions and European politics.

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