The Biggest Challenge of France's Next President Will be Weakness
After the Brexit vote and the elections of Donald Trump in the United States, France’s presidential election is perceived as a new test for transatlantic and European unity. The eleven candidates present radically different economic and social plans, as well as visions for France’s role in the world. The future of the country is particularly uncertain as four of them have a chance of making the second round between the top two candidates. Yet, such ideological divergence should not overshadow one common denominator: whichever of these favorites wins, François Fillon, Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he or she may not be able to actually govern. This year, in the complex system of the Fifth Republic, the most important election may not be the one attracting all the attention.
The presidential election is only the first step to constitute the new executive power. The parliamentary elections, which will take place on June 11 and June 18, 2017, will determine the prime minister and the actual political color of the government. The risk is that of cohabitation, with the president and the government coming from two opposed parties. France experienced this situation in 1988, 1993, and 1997, and it brought such difficulties that the electoral law was changed in 2000 to bring presidential and parliamentary elections into the same cycle to reduce the chance of it happening again. Yet, despite this change, the possibility that the new president will not have the support of a strong majority in the National Assembly is increasingly probable.
Considering the apparent end of the domination of France’s political scene by one main party from the left and the right each, and the general polarization of political life, a highly divided National Assembly could be elected, leading to the unique situation in which — unlike the cohabitations of the 1980s and 1990s — no clear majority would emerge. The new president would then not only struggle to find support for implementing reforms, but the whole government would be fragile without solid support from MPs. The risk of an overall political stalemate cannot be underestimated.
In the June election, Marine Le Pen is the most unlikely to get a majority: the National Front (FN) currently has two MPs and forming the majority (289 seats) seems very unrealistic at this point, especially considering that an important faction of the mainstream right is committed to never work with the FN within a coalition. Mélenchon’s party can currently claim a dozen seats, and the support of Socialist MPs could be envisioned if he becomes president. Yet, given the general disarray within the Socialist Party as President François Hollande’s term ends, a left-leaning majority after the elections is far from certain. Aside from this, a coalition with the center-left would require Mélenchon to tone down his program significantly, especially on the EU. Finally, Macron and his party En Marche! are completely new actors in the French political landscape, and their ability to win the parliamentary elections — which by definition reveals the influence of the whole political movement and not only of its key representative — is unknown. Macron has promised to present candidates coming mostly from civil society and the private sector, as a way to “rejuvenate French political life.”
Fillon, as the leader of the mainstream conservative party, would seem the most likely to get a solid majority in June. Despite all the scandals surrounding him, his victory would undoubtedly help reunite the different groups within the French right, and give credibility to Les Républicains for the parliamentary elections. However, his low popularity since the corruption accusations came to light, (only 22 percent of the electors still have “a positive opinion” of him, and 75 percent consider that he should have withdrawn from the campaign when indicted), could lead to serious issues as France would be more polarized than ever and social movements would be particularly violent in opposition to his liberal economic agenda. Even backed with a parliamentarian majority, Fillon could also face important domestic challenges — from unions and civil servants — that would prevent him from actually implementing his reform plans.
France’s Fifth Republic was meant to provide the president with a strong mandate to rule without dealing with time-consuming parliamentary politics. The president, even in a situation of cohabitation, remains a key figure in policymaking and de jure the final decision-maker, especially in foreign and defense policy. However, as grand coalitions are traditionally foreign to French political culture, and given the deep ideological oppositions among the main candidates, it is hard to see how the presidential and legislative elections will result in a clear and amicable political situation. On the contrary, the newly elected president is likely to see his or her ability to govern limited from the very beginning. At a time when France faces unique security and economic challenges, strong leadership is particularly needed, and intense political crises may emerge rapidly in a situation of institutional blockages. Jean-Luc Mélenchon proposes to rewrite the constitution and develop a Sixth Republic. The future of the French political system may indeed be at stake in 2017.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.