Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

France: Towards a Year of Uncertainty?

It is still too early to decide how Emmanuel Macron might be remembered by history. But one distinction he is unlikely to win is that of “master of timing.” Yet his entourage claims that his decision to call an early general election was a master stroke in good timing.

This is how the argument goes:

With the ultra-right National Rally topping the polls in the European election, Macron saw the danger that it would also win the next presidential election in 2027. So he decided to bring the parliamentary election forward so that the ultra-right’s youthful standard-bearer Jordan Bardella would get the premiership and more than two years in which to be exposed as a disagreeable and incompetent figure, thus allowing Macronists to keep the presidency with a new candidate of their own.

But what if things don’t happen the way Macron the super-strategist fantasized?

In the European election, Bardella’s list won what many see as a “stunning victory” with over 31 percent of the votes and 30 of the 81 French seats in the European Parliament.

President Macron’s coalition received only 14.6 percent of the vote, translated into 13 seats. A normal reaction would have come in the form of ”too bad, but so what?”

European elections have never been part of the mainstream of the French political process. These elections are held on a single-round proportional representation basis which magnifies the rewards as in the first-past-the-post system the British have.

Held under a different electoral system parliamentary elections in France do not mirror Euro-elections.

Here a two-round voting system means 577 separate constituency elections affected by a variety of factors beyond a straight ideological duel.

To win a majority and thus get to name a prime minister, a party or coalition of parties must win at least 289 seats.

No party or coalition of parties has won that many seats in the first round of any parliamentary election in France.

That means you need coalition partners to secure a majority in the second round. Without that, the votes you get in the first round are simply wasted ballots.

Throughout the Vth Republic, that is to say, since 1958, the system has favored the non-ideological “parties of government”, that is to say, groups that simply wished to govern rather than impose what the French call “a projet de societe”

Gaullists and their centrist allies along with Social Democrats and radical party associates were the main beneficiaries of the system while the ultra-right National Front, now renamed National Rally, and Communists were the losers.

In the 1969 presidential election, the Communist candidate Jacques Duclos won almost 22 percent of the votes. But the party’s share of parliamentary seats seldom rose above five percent.

In the 2002 presidential election, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen won almost 18 percent of the votes. But in the following parliamentary election, his party ended up with only two seats.

His daughter and successor as party leader Marine Le Pen steadily increased the party’s share of votes in presidential and European elections but it was not until 2022 that the National Rally won 89 seats in the National Assembly, still far from the 289 majority needed to get a majority.

Can Bardella increase the 31per cent he has won in European elections to the 51 percent he needs to cohabit with Macron as prime minister?

Most bet that he can. I am not so sure.

Bardella himself says he won’t accept the premiership unless he gets the magical 289 seats.

If we add the 5.3 percent won by the now vanishing Re-conquest Party Bardella would still remain below 40 percent. Supposing he gets a further 4 percent from the badly split Republican Party’s 7.3 share in the European vote he would still not reach the 51 percent needed to win in 289 constituencies.

All that however is mathematical rather than political reasoning.

In the first round of the European elections, the Bradella-Le Pen party never broke the 51 percent glass wall in any constituency. Thus the fight will have to take place in 577 constituencies many of which are held by well-entrenched old Gaullist, Socialist, and Communist barons who may not be easy to dislodge.

The creation of a new left coalition named the New Popular Font, after the 1936 coalition of French Communists and Social Democrats, this time also including the ecologists, makes Bardella’s task more complicated.

Both the National Rally and the New Popular Front get much of their votes from the working-class electorate. This makes it difficult to guess how that electorate might split in the second round of voting if a National Rally candidate faces a New Popular Front adversary.

Waving the Palestinian flag and adopting an anti-Israel posture the New Popular Front also heavily depends on Muslim voters who may not choose the anti-Muslim National Rally over Macronists in the second round.

Couldn’t Macron woo those voters in the second round by anti—-Israel gesticulations?

Anticipating that Macron has already excluded 74 Israeli firms from the annual armaments fair held near Versailles. He has also hinted at a formal recognition of a putative “State of Palestine.”

Projections are that in at least 100 constituencies a second round would pit either a Macronist or a Popular Front candidate against a National Rally one. Will Macronists not try to make a deal with the Popular Front to defeat the National Rally?

The New Popular Front is already split over who to suggest as prime minister, and its chances of winning a majority of seats are already smaller than that of either the National Rally or the Macronist coalition.

In a further 80 constituencies, the National Rally candidate may face a Popular Front challenger in the second round. Will Bradella’s dyed-in-wool anti-left voters not see Macronists as the lesser evil?

The smaller parties including most of the Republicans may also prefer either a Macronist or a Popular Fronter to a Le Penist whom they have designated as “ the enemy” enemy for decades.

If Macron’s calculation was to bring Bardella into the tent to destroy his political future, he may end up with a big disappointment.

The election he unnecessarily provoked could produce a hung parliament in which no party has a majority.

That could make France ungovernable for at least a year as the president cannot dissolve the parliament within a year of a previous dissolution. Macron could be hoisted by his petard.

France is the only European Union nation with a system in which the president has virtually unlimited powers when he enjoys a majority in the National Assembly. With that, the president can play polo or even politics but certainly not poker as Macron has done.

Without that, the French presidency isn’t worth a bucket of lukewarm spit as President Harry Truman defined vice presidency in the United States.