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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Emmanuel Macron tested as France’s parliamentary election gets underway

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PARIS — French voters headed to the polls in the decisive round of parliamentary elections on Sunday, as President Emmanuel Macron’s absolute majority hung in the balance.

If he loses control over the lower house of Parliament on Sunday, it could obstruct his second term at a time when Europe faces profound challenges prompted by the war in Ukraine.

Surveys suggest Macron’s party and his allies could lose dozens of seats and may fail to reach the 289-seat threshold they would need to govern without having to build a coalition with political opponents.

Macron beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential election runoff in April, securing another five-year term. But he has since faced an emboldened and more united left-wing opposition, composed of the Greens, the Socialists, the Communists and the party of far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Many leftist voters primarily cast their ballots for Macron in April to prevent a far-right victory, not because they supported Macron’s proposals.

Under Mélenchon’s leadership, the left-wing alliance, called the New Ecological and Social People’s Union and known by its French initials as NUPES, has portrayed the parliamentary election as an extension of the presidential election. The parliamentary vote usually tends to favor the president’s party and allies, but the alliance views it as a realistic opportunity to influence Macron’s second term without empowering the far-right.

Although French presidents wield more power over foreign policy and other areas than their counterparts in many other European countries, Macron still needs a parliamentary majority if he wants to implement his political agenda over the next five years.

“The whole Fifth Republic has been designed in order to prevent a situation of instability in Parliament,” said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice, referring to the French political system that has been in place since the late 1950s.

If Macron were to lose his majority, it would “create, for the first time since 1958, a very strong instability in Parliament,” he said.

After his reelection in April, Macron promised to unite the country, and he made gestures to leftist voters whom he had disappointed during his first term, during which he shifted to the right on various issues. But those moves appeared to have come too late for him to regain lost support. In the first round of the parliamentary elections last weekend, Macron’s alliance and his left-wing challengers finished neck-and-neck. It was the worst parliamentary election result for an incumbent president in more than half a century.

As the possibility of a hung Parliament became increasingly realistic in recent weeks, Macron doubled down on his criticism of Mélenchon and appealed to voters to allow him to pursue his agenda. “Nothing would be worse than adding French disorder to the world’s disorder,” he said last week.

Despite his bloc’s weak performance last Sunday, Macron spent much of the past week outside France, traveling to Romania to visit French troops on the eastern NATO flank and then heading to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Macron’s Ukraine trip briefly put the war back into the political spotlight in France, but polls suggest that other issues such as the rising cost of living, the impact of climate change and health care are more important to voters.

French voters’ focus on social and domestic issues has played into the hands of Mélenchon, whose foreign policy proposals remain controversial in France and across the European Union. The far-left leader has wanted to pull France out of NATO, and he has argued in favor of France deliberately ignoring E.U. law. On Friday, Mélenchon said that if he is elected prime minister after Sunday’s vote, he would naturalize WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who could soon be extradited from Britain to the United States.

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Mélenchon remains unlikely to be elected prime minister — a role that, unlike the president’s position, relies on a parliamentary majority. But his alliance could still make deep inroads into French politics and become a forceful opposition.

Abstention rates could play a key role in Sunday’s vote. Whereas turnout dropped to a record low in last weekend’s first round, some observers anticipate a possible rebound in participation this Sunday because more constituencies remain competitive than five years ago.

In France, parliamentary seats are not distributed proportionately. Instead, the two-round system is designed to result in a runoff vote between the two leading candidates in their respective constituencies, barring the rare event of a clear first-round victory. In practice, this favors bigger alliances such as Macron’s bloc or Mélenchon’s left-wing alliance over smaller or more isolated parties like Le Pen’s National Rally.

Even though Le Pen drew 41 percent of the vote in the presidential election, her party is estimated to win only a few dozen out of the 577 parliamentary seats.

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Le Pen has refused to form an alliance with her far-right competitor, Éric Zemmour, whose party failed to qualify any of its candidates for the second round.

Mélenchon’s success at forming a broad left-wing alliance has stunned some observers, but the alliance’s long-term survival chances remain in doubt.

The parties’ strong performance last weekend largely reflected a desire among many leftist voters in France for more parliamentary representation, even if it requires concessions. Leftist voters worry that Macron is unlikely to follow through on his promises to take their concerns more seriously in his second term.

Yet the leftist bloc’s rise could force Macron to shift further to the right after Sunday’s vote.

If Macron lacks a large number of seats, one of the only options for him could be a coalition with the center-right Republicans party. Another alternative could be to build ad hoc alliances for each proposed bill.

But compromises across ideological lines are rare in the French Parliament, said Martigny, “and especially for Mr. Macron, who is not a man of compromise.”

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