The French electoral process is designed to whittle down a field of candidates to two finalists in a second round. It is therefore odd that the second round campaign is full of speculation about the tactics of unlucky candidates who found themselves knocked out on the night of 23 April.
But speculation about the strategy of various political groupings who fall by the wayside has been rife. Partly, this is because even rolling news channels can get sick of a diet of just Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, but fundamentally the race for the Legislative elections, where the French will choose new members of the National Assembly on 11 and 18 June (yes, two rounds again), is hoving into view. Whilst the President presides, his government needs to secure a majority in the National Assembly. Who wins on 7 May is therefore only one piece of the constitutional puzzle.Knowing that François Fillon was unlikely to make it through to the second round, the Republicans have been strategising for some time; their goal being to secure a majority in the new National Assembly. This would enable them to impose their choice of Prime Minister (and therefore government) on a newly elected President – a form of split government known as co-habitation. Whilst this can create institutional instability, the President retaining certain privileged policy areas such as foreign policy and defence, where there is little ideological difference between President and PM, the country can tick along rather nicely. Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin managed rather well from 1997 to 2002. François Baroin, former Finance Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, is talked openly as the Republican’s choice for PM – he is a credible, competent moderate. He should be careful what he wishes for though – cohabitation invariably leads to the annihilation of the Prime Minister’s party at the subsequent election (see 1988 and 2002 as examples) and is a disastrous springboard to the Presidency for the unfortunate PM.
The Republicans are therefore seeking to gently encourage a Macron Presidency (which they could live with if they get a majority – Baroin and Macron would probably get on quite well) whilst keeping on board their base, half of which is still unwilling to vote Macron. Ever disorganised, party bigwigs range in their approach from full-throated support (former PM Jean-Pierre Raffarin), grudging but firm support (former primary candidate Alain Juppé), to outright hostility (current head of the Lyonnaise Region, Laurent Wauquiez). Their goal is the same however: whoever is President, they should govern.
The Socialists have no such pretensions. Knowing full well that their current count in the Assembly will be cut from 295 to possibly as little as 57 (their score in 1993), the key objective is to remain present in the debate and ensure that they are not wiped out in the legislative elections entirely. The big tent Socialists thus are adopting a number of entirely contradictory strategies to achieve this. Today, Benoit Hamon, the hapless Socialist Presidential candidate, who risked bankrupting the party with his score of 6% in the first round, finally announced that he would “with some difficulty” vote for Macron. Others within the Party had long since defected to Macron’s odd movement, “En Marche” (the key posts within the organisation, such as the General Secretary, are filled with Socialist Party elected officials). Others, such as Juliette Méadel, member of the current government and prospective Socialist parliamentary candidate in my own constituency, rallied to him when became clear that Hamon would not get through and the second round looked like a choice between Fillon or Le Pen. A small minority would rather join other groups that are openly hostile to Macron (even at the risk of Le Pen’s election) and may well peel off over time, as Mélenchon gradually separated himself from the core of the party.
It is entirely possible therefore that in the legislative elections there will be Socialists in some constituencies that will adopt or be adopted by En Marche (either explicitly or through the absence of an En Marche candidate), others standing against En Marche and the far left, and others that will oppose Macron but with the explicit or tacit backing from leftist groups. How all of these members will sit in one group in the National Assembly, let alone vote as a cohesive block, is anyone’s guess; in any case their overall numbers will be far fewer.
On the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has his eyes on the same majority that the Republicans seek. He believes, if he can get an agreement with the well anchored Communists, that he can ensure the second round in many constituencies is between him and Le Pen’s National Front. The rules also allow for triangulation (unlike the Presidential election) and so a Mélénchonite, Macronite and Le Penite second round is possible outside major cities (where the Front does less well), with the Socialists wiped off the map at the end of the first round. His strategy of continued opposition to Macron is therefore coherent – he expects to face him again in the second round of the Legislatives. Mélenchon made a show of throwing open the decision on what to do in the second round to the members of his movement, La France Insoumise. The results came back yesterday and showed a predictable split with 36% wishing to spoil their ballots, 35% voting Macron and the rest abstaining. This effectively leaves Mélenchon free to move ambiguously between the 36% and 35% towards the legislative elections, as he had always intended to do.
The Greens are likely to lose all of their 17 deputies – some have already defected to En Marche and stand a good chance of re-election, such as Barbara Pompili, with En Marche. The others largely depended on an electoral pact with a strong Socialist Party; no such protection will exist this time round. Unless the Communists can work out the same agreement with Mélenchon, they risk either being subsumed by candidates from La France Insoumise, or wiped out in the first round if they put up their own candidates. This may be the final step in the long decline for what was once a party that regularly won 70 to 80 seats, and whose influence extended far into the Socialist Party.
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan however may already have sealed his fate. Regularly referred to as the “biggest small candidate”, the self-styled Gaulist Euro-sceptic, scored a respectable 4.7% of the vote, which was an impressive increase of one million votes on his 2012 showing. With a programme that was, in its approach to Europe, largely indistinguishable from Marine Le Pen’s, it is perhaps no surprise that he has rallied to her cause – the only major political figure to do so since the first round results. However the marriage is an odd one, as he had always pitched himself as the respectable alternative to the dangerous Le Pen. His 4.7% fell short of the 5% threshold, above which candidates’ have qualifying campaign expenses reimbursed by the State, and therefore facing financial ruin he may have felt he had no choice. His party has since imploded – a swathe of senior figures have resigned in disgust at what appears to be a decision taken alone by Dupont-Aignan, an authoritarian figure who would never dream of casting a vanity on any bonfire. Perhaps it was Le Pen’s announcement that he would be her Prime Minister that flattered him sufficiently for him to risk everything. Leaks suggest that the deal done by Le Pen and Dupont-Aignan leaves him at least 50 constituencies where the National Front will field no candidate, allowing him to continue to receive state funding for his party. He will however not be able to win those seats without a party machine to get the vote out. He may even lose his town hall in time (the next municipal elections are scheduled for March 2020), which he has used as both a power base and a laboratory for his conservative ideals (lots of flower pots; not a lot of social housing).
The scramble to build a position against the next President for the legislative elections is making many a French voter’s head spin. Whilst many see the choice on May 7 as something of a choice by default, there really is all to play for in June. Tonight’s debate might touch on the question of who the next President will govern with. It should, as that could be the most important question of all.