France in Flux

The rise of Macron has transformed the French political landscape – but its final shape is still emerging.

What we know

Emmanuel Macron and his political party La République En Marche! (LRM) came out as definitive winners of France’s legislative elections. LRM now holds 308 out of the 577 seats in the French National Assembly, and even 350 with its centrist ally Modem – not as big a victory as foreseen by some in the wake of the first round, but still a very comfortable absolute majority. More than anything else, it is a personal victory for Macron, who managed to secure a significantly larger electoral backing than usual for newly elected French presidents.  

The usual key players in French politics lost big. While both Les Républicains (LR) and the Parti socialiste (PS) performed better than anticipated a week ago, they still suffered a massive defeat. LR and its own ally UDI saw their numbers drop from 226 to 130, yet at least managed to save some of its key leaders. The PS and other left parties however crashed from 302 seats to a historic low of 46 seats. With most if not all key leaders of the PS pushed out of parliament, and public funds depending on electoral success to be cut, the party seems close to obliteration. Overall, 75% of MPs are new to the Assembly, an unprecedented proportion that gives a sense of how many political figures have been defeated or deterred from running for re-election.

Yet, not all challengers of the status quo were rewarded. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (FI) and its communist allies won merely 27 seats together (17 for FI, 10 for the Parti Communiste) – enough to receive legal access to a parliamentary group and all the perks that come with it, but too little to convincingly claim victory and a replacing of the PS as dominant party on the left. The Front National (FN), although quadrupling its parliamentary presence from two to eight MPs, stayed far behind the dozens of seats that seemed possible just weeks ago. Still, with both parties’ leaders, Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, moving from the European to the French Parliament following this election, we can expect increased political weight from both forces in the National Assembly.

Abstention rates reached a new record, with almost 57% this election. Furthermore, there was also a record drop between the first and second round. Whatever happened after the first round did not really affect the drivers already at play by then: voting fatigue, a sense of futility with the huge victory forecast for Macron, but also a lack of enthusiasm for LRM.


What remains to be seen

Will Les Républicains act as opposition to Macron? They would be the only ones with enough leverage to do so. Besides being the second biggest group in the National Assembly, they hold a majority in the upper chamber and most key local governments. The question is currently hotly debated within the party: should they opt for systematic opposition, or rather favour a ‘co-building’ approach with the LRM majority? The debate surrounding it, which started during the campaign already, has the potential to deeply divide the party.

A deep reorganisation of France’s political landscape is looming. It is not yet entirely clear how it is going to unfold, but the strong support for Macron by non-LRM MPs from both sides of the aisle is a clear sign of French politics’ increasing fluidity.

  • For Les Republicains, the setback of the FN and the success of the LRM mean that a split is increasingly unlikely. Yet, even if the party sticks together, many questions on leadership, strategy and doctrine remain open. The fact that some voices in LR called for talks with the FN ahead of the second electoral round shows the depth of current divisions in the party – a dispute that will take time to be settled.
  • For the Parti Socialiste, where anti- and pro-Hollande factions lost alike, even more is at stake – its next direction is as unclear as whether it will remain the central vehicle for the left-leaning opposition. The strong competition from the left has put increasing pressure on the party, and first initiatives to build new movements are emerging both within and outside the PS.
  • La France Insoumise might use the current disarray in the PS to co-opt some of its leftist MPs. But it has also issues of its own, mostly with its traditional ally, the Parti communiste.
  • The Front National is having its internal fault lines exposed to the public, such as on the dividing issue of whether exiting the Eurozone should remain a central tenet of the party’s political agenda. While Le Pen is likely to survive politically, she will have to see off increased political contestation in her party.


What's next?

Although the electoral outcome didn’t call for a cabinet reshuffle, there will be one. It is tradition that the French Prime minister quits after the legislative elections. Yet, as anticipated, Edouard Philippe was immediately re-appointed. His cabinet will eventually look a bit different however, despite the fact that all members have been re-elected and thereby avoided the obligatory resignation that comes with electoral defeat. While initially only a few minor additions were expected, media pressure about ongoing investigations have already forced the executive to change plan.

Richard Ferrand, minister for territorial cohesion and a major Macron adviser and early supporter, was officially asked to go back to the National Assembly as LRM party whip–a move broadly interpreted in the context of media revelations that linked him to questionable financial transactions in the past, making his ministerial position difficult to keep. Moreover, defence minister Sylvie Goulard requested not to be part of the next cabinet, so as to be in a better position to defend herself in a legal investigation into the misuse of publicly funded parliamentary assistants for party work during her time as member of the European Parliament. As this investigation also relates to two other members of the cabinet, both from Modem, things are still quite in flux on this front, and the new composition and political balance of the cabinet will be worth a look.

PM Edouard Philippe will face a vote of confidence in the National Assembly following the presentation of his programme scheduled for 8 July. Given his strong majority, the vote is not really an issue in itself. It will be interesting however to see if Macron manages to further divide both the left and, more importantly, the right. Some LR MPs have already hinted that they intend to lend their support to Philippe in the vote…

On substance, Macron can claim that he got himself a mandate for his agenda – which he managed to do without entering too much into details on his plans. He will now move forward on a number of bills, particularly three that have already been laid out by PM Philippe: the first delegating authority for labour law reforms to the executive, the second conveying most state of emergency provisions into ordinary anti-terrorism legislation, and the third on the moralisation of political life.

The key risk for this government is the likely weakness of the opposition, which could end up becoming a problem. The current situation, which gives so much power to someone with such a narrow political base (see first round of the presidential election), limited political capital (see the abstention as well as the vote by default component) and almost no incentive to negotiate and/or build a broader and more inclusive compromise, is a known issue in French institutions and political life. As some observers have pointed out, in France at least, the risk of “having little debate in Parliament is that the debate then comes to the streets”…

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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