The French political system is at a crossroads – News

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Unexpected Election Outcome Shows Even Very Stable Systems Can Reach Breaking Point



By Jean Pisani Ferry

Published: Wed 22 Jun 2022, 10:04 PM

It was taken for granted. Regardless of the outcome of France’s April presidential election, voters would elect MPs from the same party as the winner of this month’s general election. But, by depriving President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition of an absolute majority in the National Assembly, voters departed from the usual scenario and posed a major challenge to the French political system.

While the constitution stipulates that “the government determines and conducts the policy of the nation”, French voters show little interest in elections to the National Assembly. Turnout was expected to be extremely low, and so it was: as many as 70% of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 stayed away. So far, so predictable.

But the unexpected election outcome shows that even very stable political systems can reach a breaking point. The presidential election revealed a country divided into three roughly evenly sized blocs: the far left, the not-so-radical center and the far right. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon had the skill to build an unlikely alliance and campaign under the slogan “elect me Prime Minister”. And Macron didn’t miss an opportunity to show how distracted he was (to the point that he didn’t indicate how he’d like voters to choose between far left and far right). Perhaps most importantly, French voters are deeply dissatisfied.

The great surprise of the election to the National Assembly did not come from the left, but from the extreme right. Marine Le Pen, the flag bearer of this camp, who lost to Macron in the second round of the presidential election, hardly bothered to campaign. She had set herself the moderately optimistic goal of winning the 15 seats needed to form a parliamentarian in the new assembly. In the event, it will have 89 of the 577 seats, compared to only eight previously.

What happened is a kind of French Brexit-lite that indicates voter anger and follows many other expressions of popular resentment over the past decades. These include the 2018 Yellow Vest protests; former President François Hollande’s historically low approval ratings, which led to him not running again in 2017 and paved the way for Macron’s surprise victory; the 2013-14 red cap revolt against a road freight tax; voters’ rejection of a European constitution designed by France in 2005; and the failure of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to qualify for the second round of the 2002 presidential election.

This last result cannot therefore be ignored. The strange and almost unique French political system, which combines the election of a monarch and a parliamentary majority, is pushed to its limits. Of course, Mélenchon’s left-wing coalition may collapse; its members have already begun to compete for parliamentary positions. But the most lasting change is probably the more than tenfold increase in the number of far-right MPs. Some of them will be ineffective. But quite a few will stay, learn and leave their mark. With both the far left and the far right well represented in parliament, the French political conversation has changed irreversibly.

The immediate implication is likely political paralysis in a major European country at a time when the continent is grappling with war, a looming energy crisis, high inflation and the threat of recession – not to mention the climate emergency. . Markets that were hoping for clear choices rather than procrastination are understandably nervous. The result does not bode well for economic reforms and public finances.

But the real problem facing France is much deeper: how will the country’s political system cope with a hitherto unforeseen situation? Be that as it may, it is difficult not to conclude that France is heading towards a lasting political impasse. The ambiguity at the base of the constitutional regime can no longer be concealed.

This ambiguity reflects the uncertain role of political parties. In 1958, when Charles de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic as a quasi-presidential regime on the fragile foundations of parliamentary predominance, the parties were above all supposed to contribute to the expression of political preferences.

But every constitutional change since then has brought France closer to a pure presidential system. Highlights include the election of the president by direct universal suffrage following a 1962 referendum; the 1986 experience of so-called cohabitation, when a left-wing president governed with a right-wing prime minister; the shortening of the president’s mandate from seven years to five years in 2000; and the collapse of traditional French left and right political parties after 2017.

Because it’s like electing a king, French voters love the presidential election. What will happen in the next legislative elections does not matter to them. But it has constitutional significance because the system is essentially parliamentary. And political parties matter, unless the president has the power to do without them. As three previous periods of cohabitation have shown, the system works remarkably well if the president and prime minister belong to different parties. The president can stick to his constitutional role of appointing the prime minister, deciding when to call elections, providing military leadership and having a say in foreign affairs. Everything else is the task of the Prime Minister.

Added to this landscape is a political crisis that has led French voters to distance themselves from what they call “the system”. As in many other countries over the past 40 years, an ever-increasing proportion of working-class and middle-class voters have abstained from participating in legislative elections. For years, this has been a problem for political sociologists. Today, it has become a major challenge that no party seems able to meet effectively.

In the short term, Macron’s ability to govern effectively is highly uncertain. But the most worrying problem is that the French political system has reached its constitutional limits.


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