The most important election you didn’t hear about

One of the first posts, and not even about the presidential elections? Hold on.

All the talk of Marine Le Pen becoming president overlooks one crucial piece of information: France will also hold legislative elections in 2017, just a few weeks after the presidential race finishes. Exciting first semester of the year, isn’t it?

Why are these elections so important? When French people decided by referendum, in 200x, to change the term of the president from seven to five years, this allowed for electoral cycles — presidential and legislative — to be aligned and neatly follow one another. This is destined for the president, freshly elected, to benefit from a National Assembly (the higher chamber) that is of the same party of the President, that will immediately vote its confidence to the newly-formed government, and will make passing laws easier. In 2012, after François Hollande’s election, the legislative elections gave him 3xx MPs and a comfortable majority in Parliament.

If Marine Le Pen were to win (it hurts just to write this), the French people would therefore have to go back to the polls and “confirm” that they want the National Front (FN) to control all the levers of political power (except for the Senate) in the country. At this point, though, the National Front is still struggling to present a large enough amount of acceptable candidates for even the districts where it can win or at least be a troublemaker. Those are the limits of a fast growing party, with little to no support in civil society, and with few political cadres or territorial implantation in order to “train” potential candidates.

Even if French people have proven to be historically légitimiste, meaning they vote to confirm the party that just took power, whether they would vote in the FN remains tainted with serious doubt. It is not even a scenario the FN itself is ready for. Reports from earlier this year indicate they are themselves expecting to gain a maximum of 80 MPs out of 577. The simple majority of 289 therefore seems a huge stretch that only a resounding Le Pen victory with a very weak overall left showing would legitimize. But this is, at this point, an unthinkable scenario.

What happens if Le Pen wins a narrow victory but can’t secure a majority in the Assembly, and the conservatives instead take the majority of seats? Indulge us. The MPs would have the power to unseat the new FN government in a no-confidence vote; anything else would be a historical stain on the shirts (and some dresses) of around 300 MPs. The conservatives would then have the power to create a new government, and an unusual (that’s a diplomatic term) extreme-right/right coalition would “lead” the country. Le Pen could “dissolve” the National Assembly when she feels the timing is right and if she thinks the FN can win the next election, or live out her five years in isolation, trying to carve out some policy domain for her. Foreign and defense policy? (Scary.)

Long story short, while we can all very legitimately worry about the damage that Le Pen’s policies could do to the country:

  1. she may not even be able to get the mandate to implement them via parliamentary means;
  2. More importantly, her election may precipitate an institutional crisis like France has never seen, and which it well may not be able to recover from.

We’re in for the long haul.

(Future blog posts will follow on legislative elections: scenarios, the debate about proportional voting and how it fragilizes the current institutional balances, the FN’s strategy, etc. And of course, full coverage in May and June, as the legislative elections unfold.)

Martin M.