Macron’s Next Challenge
He won reelection, but now his party is trying to fending off major competition from far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon in parliamentary elections.
Left-wing voters helped Emmanuel Macron defeat far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in the runoff vote of France's presidential election in April, making him the first head of state since 2002 to get a second term. However, now the French National Assembly is up for reelection a mere two months after the presidential vote. The schedule of the parliamentary election was changed in the early 2000s to avoid so-called “cohabitation”—the partisan gridlock that resulted from having a different party control the legislative branch than the one holding the executive branch. In the French system, the National Assembly (equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives) approves the government—and thus the prime minister—while the president retains the right to veto legislation. Cohabitation took place in France in 1986-1988, 1993-1995, and 1997-2002. The constitution was changed to bring both elections closer together and assure that the president always had a comfortable majority.
That said, the proximity of the two elections is not a guarantee for Macron to secure a majority in Parliament this time around. Far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who came in third behind Macron and Le Pen in the first round of the presidential vote) has secured a broad left-wing alliance between, among others, his own Green Party, the Socialist Party, and the French Communist Party. This alliance currently polls between 27 and 31 percent, compared to Macron's centrist coalition, which rakes in between 24 and 28 percent in the surveys. Mélenchon has called his new and unprecedented alliance NUPES (translated into English: New People's Ecologic and Social Union), while Macron’s group calls itself “Ensemble” (Together).
What is NUPES’ chance of ousting Ensemble from control of France’s 577-seat National Assembly? According to current polling, Macron will preserve his absolute majority in Parliament by reaching 300 seats (he needs 288 needed to govern without non-alliance support). As with the presidential election, France’s electoral system utilizes a two-round system in its districts. While NUPES is ahead in the first round of preferred candidates, their contenders square off with a disadvantage in a runoff vote against Macron's allies.
A lot of these votes come down to local notoriety: being a local personality, having a reputation or being an incumbent MP can change the vote of the French. Two other factors are also at play: Lower voter participation will make it hard for small parties to make the cut, and Mélenchon's NUPES coalition isn't bulletproof since several known Socialist Party politicians disagree with the far-left agenda and would not constitute a unified group in Parliament.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon pulled off a significant achievement in bringing together France's divided left-wing into one alliance, but it takes a deeper understanding of the man to grasp the implications of the vote. Mélenchon has run for president three consecutive times (in 2012, 2017, and this year). Despite his failed attempts, his party is popular with unions, the working class, and left-wing student youth. Still he often undermines his own popularity: As a somewhat choleric character, he is known for his long and aggressive tirades. One of his former advisors descibed him to Politico as sometimes mad and paranoid and that “he is a scale model of a charismatic dictator.”
It isn’t merely the descriptions by his former advisers that paint the image of a populist. Mélenchon’s dress code is designed to appeal to the working class—he buys his white shirts at kitchen equipment wholesalers, matched (usually without a tie) with dark workers’ jackets, for a cost not exceeding $100. It’s a stark difference to Macron, whose made-in-France tailored suits come in at more than 10 times the amount.
Mélenchon’s foreign policy also promises a more amicable relationship with countries such as Russia or China. During the search for COVID-19 vaccines, the far-left politician said that France should look to Moscow, Beijing, and Havana to get its hands on solutions to the crisis. He also voted down a motion in the French Parliament describing the treatment of Uyghurs in China as a genocide. In 2013, after the death of Venezuela's dictator Hugo Chávez, Mélenchon welcomed the election of successor Nicolás Maduro and wrote in the French communist newspaper Humanité that “the Bolivarian revolution is a source of inspiration for us.” Up until the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Mélenchon had rejected what he called the “hostile” approach of President Macron toward Moscow.
Yet despite the largely disqualifying foreign policy proposals that Mélenchon holds, his platform resonates with a large set of French voters, who are feeling the effects of inflation on their cost of living. The measures the government in Paris has taken in the past are seen as insufficient to address the exploding cost of food and energy, despite the fact that the treasury is currently subsidizing low-income households that cannot pay the bills.
France's first round of parliamentary elections begins on June 12. Even if Macron managed to maintain his majority, he still faces a hostile parliament opposition that will build up momentum for elections to come.
Bill Wirtz is a political commentator from Luxembourg, covering EU politics and policy. He tweets in German, French, and English at @wirtzbill.