The Invisible Campaign

The official campaign for the French legislative elections comes to a close at midnight tonight (there is an electioneering-free 24 hours before the vote itself on Sunday – designed, in an elegantly civilized way, to give voters some “thinking time”). You, and any other French voters, would be forgiven for not realising the campaign had ever started. That is because this legislative campaign has been particularly absent from the public gaze.

But why, after such a an impassioned presidential campaign, has the legislative campaign flopped so badly? Is it voting fatigue, or something else which tells us about the way that the French choose their legislators, as opposed to their new president?

The strategy of the major political parties following the results of the presidential election was clear from the moment François Hollande was declared the winner. The Socialists, which need a majority in the National Assembly, and as far as possible an absolute majority, where they hold the majority of seats on their own without relying on their usual allies in the form of the Greens and the Radical Leftists (not actually as radical as the name suggests). Whereas the UMP conservative party would try and limit the damage to their position in the National Assembly, but also as a political party in the whole. They needed some solace after the defeat of their Leader, and also some time to be able to rebuild, picking a new leader, developing a new platform etc.

That the legislative elections follow the presidential elections is by design, according to a scheme worked out in 2002 by Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac, respectively the Socialist Prime Minister and the conservative president at the time. This results in the legislative elections bumping along in the slipstream of the presidentials, and often simply confirming the result of the more important and more high-profile election that precedes them. They are also by design an election that greatly favours the two largest parties.

Nicolas Sarkozy learnt that sometimes however the legislative election can be a election that “corrects” the Presidential result. The 2007 legislative elections produced something of a cold shower for the UMP, with a lower-than-expected number of deputies in the National Assembly, failing to secure the two thirds majority he needed to be able to change the constitution without relying on the opposition.

The latest polls indicate that the Socialists are in the lead, and comfortably so if their votes are counted with that of their leftist allies. However the question is whether the Socialists will be in a position to govern on their own, or whether they will have to rely on the votes of the Greens and the Radicals (and possibly even the Communists and supporters of Jean-Luc Melenchon). That is why the Socialist campaign has centred on the argument that they need as large a possible majority to meet the promises made in the Presidential campaign. This argument of effectiveness is rather technocratic but probably quite persuasive. The UMP on the other hand is on the back end of this argument. Faced with a visceral hatred of the so-called cohabitations (where a president of one colour has to govern in partnership with a prime minister and government of another colour – what the Americans call “divided government”), it finds itself hoping for cohabitation whilst simultaneously decrying such an outcome as potential dangerous. No one wants deadlock (apart from perhaps Jean-François Copé who, as the titular head of the UMP, sees it as his path to the presidency in 2017).

Apart from some isolated local matches (such as Hénin-Beaumount in the north, where Marine Le Pen and Melenchon are squaring off in a bad-tempered battle for political relevance is one example) the lack of a national debate over the parties’ positions is stark. The Socialists are running on Hollande’s presidential platform. The UMP seems to be running purely as an opposition force, with no program for government. Indeed when questioned, many leading figures of the UMP seem to suggest that they don’t really want to win, but simply form as large a possible opposition block to prevent the worst excesses of socialist spending.

This is potentially their most effective argument, and yet they have been uneasy making it – akin to wishing for defeat. The ambivalence of the parties themselves (many leading Socialists are somewhat uneasy about the possible repercussions of seeking as large majority as possible at the expense of partners they know they must rely on tomorrow) and explains why the voters have such difficulty working out what this election is actually for. The first round takes place on Sunday. The complicated rules about admission into the second round (out go the simple rules that apply to the presidential race and in come rules based on minimum percentages of all voters, not just those that turn out) make a series of complicated and unpredictable triangulations possible for the second round the following Sunday.

One week is not enough time to be able to debates and analyse the repercussions of those triangulations. That means that the election is something of a maelstrom between the two rounds, with all of the unpredictability that that entails.

Turnout is likely to be significantly lower this Sunday and it was in either the first or second round of the presidential election. However once the debate focuses and the blizzard-like number of candidates decreases in second round debate (in my constituency for example there are 12 candidates) turnout should recover somewhat. Whether the low turnout favours in particular party is not entirely clear. Many have suggested that the Front National should do well if their voters are magnified by Socialists and Conservatives staying home. However the opposition to the FN is so strong in 80% of the population (the other 20% presumably willing to give Le Pen and her ilk a chance) that it is unlikely that they will achieve anything beyond a small handful of deputies. Le Pen herself looks unlikely to breakthrough and win in Hénin-Beaumont.

The French are bizarrely averse to voting for multiple elections on the same day. That would save money, and increase turnout for elections such as this. Whilst it would muddy the debate (multiple simultaneous campaigns are notoriously difficult to follow, although the vast amounts of media space now available should ensure that everybody’s voice could be heard, as long as the French authorities dumped the ridiculous rules about equal airtime for all candidates) the lack of enthusiasm or even knowledge about the legislative elections surely shows that something must be done in order to raise their profile and importance.

On Sunday, the French will therefore begin the week-long process of choosing their government. That this was not done when they elected president seems odd, and something of a waste of the last month.

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