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Apr 21, 2017 | 09:30 GMT

The Battle for France Won't End With a President

The Battle for France Will Not End With the Presidential Election
(LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The decisions of France's many undecided voters will be instrumental in determining who reaches the presidential runoff.
  • But the National Assembly elections will be as important as the presidential race in shaping the country's future.
  • Should different parties gain control of the presidency and parliament, the resulting political friction could complicate policymaking.

With the fate of the European Union possibly on the line, the impending French presidential election has captured the world's attention. Popular anti-establishment candidates on both the left and right have promised to introduce protectionist measures and have threatened to take the country out of the European Union if they win. Somewhat overlooked, though, have been the National Assembly elections that will follow weeks later, even though their results will determine what the new president might accomplish in office. France's next leader will need the support of lawmakers to carry out most of the items on his or her agenda. Moreover, should one party gain control of the presidency and another win a majority in parliament, policymaking could get trickier, reducing the chances of sweeping reform in the country.

All Eyes on the Presidential Race

On April 23, French voters will choose from among 11 candidates in the first round of the presidential election. In the likely case that no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a runoff between the two top performers will follow on May 7. According to the most recent opinion polls, four candidates stand a good chance of reaching the second round: nationalist Marine Le Pen (National Front), centrist Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!), conservative Francois Fillon (Republican Party) and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon (Unsubmissive France).

Though Macron and Fillon have proposed different combinations of spending cuts, investment plans and economic reform, a victory by either wouldn't pose much of a threat to the status quo in French and European politics. A win by Le Pen or Melenchon, on the other hand, would open the door to profound change. Le Pen has pledged to apply "intelligent protectionism" to defend the French economy, and has promoted the idea of holding a referendum to decide whether France should leave the European Union. Melenchon, meanwhile, has promised steep hikes in public spending and has threatened to leave the European Union unless the bloc introduces deep reforms.

French presidential candidates

In French history, no candidate from a fringe political party has won the presidency. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine Le Pen's father and National Front founder) reached the runoff, where incumbent Jacques Chirac defeated him in a second-round landslide after other parties aligned against Le Pen. The country's electoral system will continue to play an important role in the outcome of this year's presidential election, but other factors will help to determine the final result.

A high proportion of voters are still undecided as the first round of voting draws near. Polls suggest that roughly one in three voters has yet to choose a candidate, making the outcome difficult to predict. Voter loyalty will also come into play. A recent poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion showed that 85 percent of voters who prefer Le Pen and 80 percent of those favoring Fillon are certain about their decision, while the strength of loyalties for both Macron and Melenchon hovered around only 65 percent. This suggests that those with a stated preference for Macron or Melenchon are more likely to change their minds.

Voter turnout could also be key. Should Le Pen make the second round, she could benefit from high abstention levels. If every person who chose her in the first round does so in the second, while supporters of candidates eliminated in the first round decide not to participate in the runoff, she would stand a better chance of winning. Low turnout among progressive voters — those most likely to oppose Le Pen — in a runoff would also work in her favor. Conservative voters, on the other hand, would be more likely to split their votes between Le Pen and a center-left or left-wing rival.

Legislative Elections: Not To Be Overlooked

After the presidential election wraps up, legislative elections will be held on June 11 and 18. The next president will need support from the National Assembly to make good on electoral promises, especially for disruptive measures like a referendum on EU membership. Before such a referendum could be held, the French Constitution would have to be reformed. Doing so would require a three-fifths majority in Congress, the special body formed when the National Assembly and Senate get together to vote on constitutional changes. (Any attempt by the president to organize a referendum on EU membership without congressional consent could be blocked by the country's constitutional court.) But even modest reforms in other policy areas would require lawmakers' approval.

The National Assembly holds the key to the country's governability. In the French semi-presidential system, a president coexists alongside a prime minister. Broadly speaking, the president oversees foreign and defense policy while the prime minister is in charge of domestic and economic policy (these distinctions are blurry, though; presidents often have a hand in setting domestic and economic policy). While the president appoints the prime minister, the National Assembly has the power to force the resignation of the prime minister and Cabinet. This means that the president must choose a prime minister who reflects the will of the majority in the National Assembly.

Because presidential and legislative elections take place within weeks of each other, the same party often wins both. It is possible, however, for different parties to control the presidency and the National Assembly, a situation in France called "cohabitation." It forces the president and prime minister to cooperate to avoid political paralysis. For example, in 1986 after his party failed to win control of the National Assembly, Socialist President Francois Mitterrand had to appoint conservative leader Chirac as prime minister.

What Cohabitation Would Look Like

Three of France's four most popular candidates present themselves as political outsiders. As individual candidates, Le Pen, Macron and Melenchon draw popular support, but none are the face of large parties with strong national representation. Voters could support one of the protest candidates for the presidency but force cohabitation by electing traditional party candidates to the National Assembly.

In the 2012 presidential election, Le Pen won 17.9 percent of the vote. Though that was the National Front's best showing, she failed to make the runoff. In the legislative elections that followed only a few weeks later, the National Front won only two of the National Assembly's 577 seats. The two-round voting mechanism contributed to that outcome. In many districts, National Front candidates reached the second voting round only to lose to moderates. Moreover, the National Front didn't run candidates in every district. But most important, at the national level in the legislative elections, the party received just 13.6 percent of the vote — well below Le Pen's share in the presidential election. This outcome suggests that the leader was more popular than her party.

If the party that wins the presidency fails to gain control of the National Assembly, the new president's first move would be to seek support in the body to appoint a consensus prime minister and Cabinet. That could happen by creating a formal alliance with one or more parties in the National Assembly, or through the formation of a minority government that receives support from other parties on a policy-by-policy basis. Both scenarios would require constant negotiations between the presidency and the National Assembly and complicate policymaking. The French Constitution gives the prime minister power to bypass the National Assembly, but it comes at the risk of triggering a vote of no-confidence.

An alliance between the president and parties in the National Assembly is more likely if the legislature is fragmented and no party controls a majority of seats. But should a single party win one, it could try to impose a prime minister on the president. This would severely reduce the president's influence over domestic affairs and increase room for friction between the presidency and premiership.

The French Constitution grants "extraordinary powers" to the president to take full control of the country in times of acute crisis (such as a terrorist attack), but an attempt to use those powers to ignore the National Assembly would likely spur widespread protests. The president could also try to replace the country's semi-presidential system (both Melenchon and Le Pen have raised that possibility), a move that would require constitutional reform. The National Assembly and the constitutional court each could block the attempt.

The Outcome

Despite the difficulty that candidates such as Le Pen or Melenchon would have in trying to implement their policy agendas without broad support, a victory by either one would have a psychological impact in France and abroad, causing political, economic and financial shockwaves.

Financial markets wouldn't react well to a win by either politician. The interest rates of French and other Southern European debts could climb, while the value of the euro would probably drop out of fear of another economic downturn in Europe. These disruptions would be particularly severe if savers and investors begin to worry that the eurozone will dissolve. France, Italy, Spain and others could see capital flight as those with savings in French or Southern European banks move their assets to safer havens in Northern Europe or outside the European Union, concerned that national currencies might soon replace the euro. This could force national governments, or even the European Central Bank, to introduce capital controls in the eurozone and prompt European Union to start making plans for the end of the euro.

A Le Pen or Melenchon presidency without support in the National Assembly could be fragile and short-lived. It would likely spark broad protests and destabilize France, the second-largest economy in Europe. At the Continental level, Germany's first reaction would be to try to negotiate with the new French president, but room for cooperation would be limited, considering both candidates' strong criticisms of the European Union. But while Germany and financial markets would welcome a Macron or Fillon presidency, without a legislative mandate, the candidates' ability to turn their campaign promises into policy would be limited by institutional and political constraints. So, though the outcome of the approaching presidential race is certainly significant for France and beyond, the results of the National Assembly elections that follow will also be critical to determining the country's path forward.

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