The first round of the French legislative elections was held on June 12th to compete for the 577 seats in the French National Assembly, according to a single-vote system, under which a candidate is considered the winner of the district seat if he or she obtains more than 50% of the vote in the first or second round. This first round produced disturbing results for the French president, opening the way for a system of “cohabitation” for the fourth time in the history of the Fifth Republic, in which the prime minister is from a political bloc or party opposing the president. This will ultimately be decided in the second round of voting, which is to be held on June 19.
The first round of the French legislative elections revealed a number of key trends that point to some changes in the French political landscape. The most important of these trends are as follows:
1. The Rising Importance of Political Blocs in Elections: The results of the presidential elections last April came as a wake-up call for both President Macron and the faces of the opposition that voters’ support will be largely divided between the two parties in the parliamentary elections. This is in reference to the declining popularity of the French President since the 2017 elections, and the relative increase in support for the extreme left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
This factor encouraged both of them to move towards political blocs, despite their different motives. Therefore, while the president’s party, La République En Marche, turned to political alliances due to a decline in popularity, the “Mélenchon” party turned to these voting blocs due to their high chances of obtaining a parliamentary majority. Thus, pre-election alliances produced two main blocs: the Ensemble pour la majorité présidentielle, which brings together all of the candidates who support the president’s action plan from his traditional party and other centrist parties such as Territoires de progrès, Agir, and Horizons, and the Alliance of Left Parties led by Mélenchon under the name NUPES, which is the bloc that unites both the Nouvelle Union Populaire, the Greens, and the socialist parties, who hope to nominate Mélenchon as prime minister if they win a majority in the second round.
2. Results Reflect Deep Social Polarization: The election results indicate an increase in the percentage of abstentions from voting from 51.29% in the 2017 elections to 52.49% in the 2022 elections, which is a record number of abstentions in the history of the Fifth Republic. This indicates the loss of political passion among a large segment of the right-wing and center-left supporters, in light of major setbacks that have affected their parties. As for the results, only 5 candidates won their seats during the first round, four of them from the left bloc, and one from the center bloc. According to the official results published by the French Ministry of the Interior, the centrist Ensemble bloc won 25.75%, followed by the leftist NUPES bloc with a slight difference of 25.66% of the vote, leaving the far-right National Assembly with 18.68% of the vote.
These results indicate that the left’s strategy has already succeeded in gaining support, threatening the parliamentary majority that the president enjoyed during his first term. Nevertheless, an analysis of electoral districts indicates that Ensemble could win the second round and retain the parliamentary majority, albeit it is unlikely to be absolute, based on the predictions in each district among the candidates moving on to the second round.
3. The Tactical Nature of the President’s Coalition: As the understandings that led to the formation of the centrist Ensemble coalition indicate, it is of a tactical nature aimed at ensuring the success of the president’s political movement in the legislative elections by obtaining a majority, and then dividing this bloc into multiple parties within Parliament. The coalition brings together the candidates of the president’s La République En Marche party, along with the Territories of Progress, Democratic Movement, and En Commun parties, which will merge into the president’s party by the summer.
4. Strategic Objectives of the Left’s Coalition: In contrast to the tactical nature of the president’s coalition, the left’s coalition gathers under one electoral platform, hoping to form a bloc of a strategic nature that will continue in Parliament for as long as possible. Despite the real desire of the left to unite within one faction under the dome of Parliament, the possibility of the State Council issuing an administrative decision after the elections may divide this bloc into four camps within Parliament, each representing a major party of the left: La France Insoumise, the Green Party, and the Socialist Party.
5. The Continual Split of the Far-Right: A number of analysts expected that supporters of the far-right, especially supporters of Le Pen and Zemmour, would unite under one banner to capitalize on the momentum generated by the rise in Le Pen’s popularity in the presidential elections. However, the extreme right, with its deep divisions, has deviated from all expectations and not succeeded in entering into any alliance.
6. Attempts of the Center-Right to Recover: The center-right forces continued to try to regain some of their political momentum in the legislative elections. The center-right parties succeeded in gathering under one banner that brought together the Republicans, the Union of Democrats and Independents, and centrists, but they only succeeded in achieving 11.3 percent in the first round.
The results of the first round of the legislative elections were linked to a number of primary factors, as follows:
1. The President’s Party does not automatically benefit from the vote of the left: In the second round of the presidential elections, President Macron took advantage of the automatic vote of left-wing voters who had rallied against the accession of the far-right candidate to the presidency. As for the current legislative elections, the situation has changed, with the left uniting under one banner, which prompted its supporters to vote strongly for their preferred bloc. Although this leftist mobilization led to positive results in the first round, he believes that he did not have an additional stockpile of votes that would help him win a majority, relative or absolute, in the second round.
2. Decreased Number of Candidates in Each Electoral District Compared to the 2017 Elections: In the current legislative elections, the number of candidates for each electoral district is about 11, compared to 14 candidates per district in the 2017 elections. This contributed to reducing the effect of vote fragmentation, and the success of the two main blocs in attracting the largest possible number of supportive votes within each district. It is expected that vote fragmentation will continue to decrease during the second round, with an expected rise in abstention rates among voters who adhere to certain political orientations, and whose candidates were unsuccessful in qualifying for the second round.
3. Space for the Emergence of the Center-Right: One of the factors determining vote distribution in the first round, as referred to previously, is the existence of a reasonable space for the center-right movement, despite its decline, to emerge and win a reasonable number of seats in Parliament. Thus, enabling it to form an influential bloc in Parliament needed by other political forces when adopting laws through a two-thirds majority. Therefore, it is conceivable that the center-right bloc will come in fourth place, achieving better results. This is after Pécresse, its presidential candidate, received only 4.5% of the vote in the presidential elections.
This space can be attributed to the diminishing importance of the “useful vote” phenomenon that some voters followed in the presidential elections. In this phenomenon, voters preferred other candidates from outside their original ideological currents, given their belief that their candidates would not have a chance of winning at the national level. However, in the case of parliamentary elections, the balance of political power within a single electoral district may differ radically from the balance of power at the national level.
4. Continuing Electoral Trends According to Age and Social Groups: One of the factors that contributed to these results is that the voting patterns by age and social groups that appeared in the presidential elections continued into the first round of the legislative elections. A large percentage of young people voted in favor of the left’s bloc (42% from 18-24 years old, 38% from 25-34 years old), while the Ensemble bloc received the support of about 40% of the votes of those over 35 years old, trends similar to the age distribution of the vote in the presidential elections.
Furthermore, the far-right National Rally Party received 45% of the workers’ vote, while the left bloc received 31% of workers votes, with 35% of pensioners and 41% of owners of small and medium-sized businesses voting for the presidential majority bloc. Finally, with regard to income levels, the richest voted either in favor of the Ensemble bloc by 33%, or the center-right bloc by 22%, while the poorest groups voted for the extreme right by 31%, and the left bloc by 29%. This continuity in social mass of voting patterns contributed greatly to these results.
In sum, although the legislative elections were held about two months after the presidential elections in which Macron won a second term, the political scene has witnessed radical changes that have turned the tide in favor of the left, changes that were accelerating before the presidential elections. However, another crucial factor in determining the distribution of seats in parliament is the voting behavior of Ensemble supporters in the 61 electoral districts where a left-wing candidate and an extreme right-wing candidate managed to reach the second round. These districts may tend to follow an inconsistent voting pattern, each according to its preferences without regard to the overall results, which may lead to Ensemble losing an absolute majority in Parliament.