Parliamentary Elections in France: The End of the Beginning

19.06.2017

It is obvious that democracy is ill in France. The increasing transfer of competences to the European Union and its bureaucracy, a movement, which the newly elected President wants to amplify, is part of this crisis of representative democracy in France, writes Valdai Club expert Jacques Sapir.

The level of abstention reached a historic record during the second round of the legislative elections in France. With its 56% - 57%, the abstention crossed a historic threshold. This data raises doubts about the representativeness of the Assembly, even though a large majority stands for La République en Marche, not to mention MODEM. It weakens the power of Emmanuel Macron, while the latter, together with his Prime Minister, intends to implement extremely brutal reforms. This abstention rate shows that the latent political crisis in France since the mandate of François Hollande is not over. Even if it can not be expressed in a vote, it will continue to corrode.

Massive abstention

This is an unprecedented level of abstention. First, the figure reached nearly 8 points higher than in the second round of the legislative elections in June 2012. The voters also did not want to reverse the movement of the first round, when abstention had already been very large, reaching 51.3%. When in 1981, in 1988, and even in 1997, the abstention rate was high (for that time) in the first round, voters had corrected it in the second round.

We can see, that abstention has steadily increased since 2002, when the constitutional amendment brought the mandate of the President of the Republic back to 5 years and made him the head of the Parliamentary majority. But in this trend the second round of June 18, 2017, marks a real break by the quantitative leap, both in general and in relation to the results of the first round.

It is obvious, that democracy is sick in France. The increasing transfer of competences to the European Union and its bureaucracy, a movement which the newly elected President wants to amplify, is part of this crisis of representative democracy in France. You have to be blind, or too ideological, to refuse to see this. The loss of state sovereignty results in a strange process between the people and the institutions. Therefore It is necessary to resolve this crisis or to be confronted with its most unpleasant consequences.

This abstention also means the discontent of French people confronted with a political offer that seems largely unsatisfactory. The formation of a "bloc" uniting the center-left and the center-right could appear as a master stroke. But this manipulation has its reverse side; seeing lack of credible alternative, voters sulk the elections. In a way, this extraordinary abstention is a warning to both the government and the President. It corresponds to a form of strike by the voters. If the President's party, La République en Marche, did not take into account the fact that this abstention was also a vote of no confidence against him, he would be mistaken.

The causes of citizens' strike

The political offer, or more precisely the parties that competed in this election, did not correspond to what the French hoped for.

The manipulations, which sought to make the La République en Marche a new force, could not long conceal the fact that this "new" party is a heterogeneous assemblage of old-timers of French politics and inexperienced "newcomers", carefully drifted by "coaches" with unclear political background.

It could also have resulted in a mobilization of the opposition parties against the President. But on this point, it is clear that these parties have failed to attract voters. One can understand it with the "Republicans":  we do not yet know whether they are meat or fish, whether they belong to the presidential majority or to the opposition. Indeed, it may be thought that some of the Republicans members will support the government, or at least approve its most debatable laws, for example, in the social field. But this phenomenon also strikes two parties which could be thought to represent the opposition to the political system.

For France Insoumise movement, despite an honorable result with 19 deputies, the gap between its program and the militants who carry it in the constituencies, is an inevitable problem for an extremely young movement. This movement, which had made more than 19% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections, could indeed expect better. Aware of this problem, Jean-Luc Mélenchon turned to a violent denunciation of the reforms promised by Emmanuel Macron. But this return to a policy of denunciation is not convincing, because the voters feel, even if it looks confused, that the problems are of a different magnitude. It was, and it is always just to denounce a bad labor laws coming up with the promises by Emmanuel Macron, but that could not be enough. There has been a problem of credibility, be it institutional proposals or domestic policy, integration policy, the relationship with radical Islamism and the fight against terrorism.

For the National Front, the situation is about the same. Of course, it made a breakthrough in the mining basin of northern France, a breakthrough that balances its successes in the south of France. But it sees the number of votes shrink strongly from the first round of the presidential election, when Marine le Pen was in 2nd place with more than 21% of votes. She certainly pays for her mistakes in the presidential campaign, and the disastrous debate. However, the evil is deeper. The National Front pays for its lack of professionalism, which leads to an obvious lack of credibility to govern the country. This explains the abstention of many of its voters after the presidential elections. This lack of professionalism also explains why this party is not able to articulate a positive element to the denunciations in its discourse, which unfortunately became too late and too scattered. To move forward, one must be able to articulate a project in a coherent way. That is what the voters are waiting for.

Political crisis and crisis of legitimacy

The media, who carried the campaign for Emmanuel Macron against his opponents, played their part in this abstention. This is very likely, but insufficient as an explanation. Remember the attitude of the same media during the 2005 referendum. That time they had been unable to influence the French vote.

The truth is that Emmanuel Macron and his movement were ready, had a strategy of conquering power, when their sovereignist opponents were not, divided, and were not able to formulate a true strategy.

But this failure is only temporary, and the victory of Emmanuel Macron and his party proved to be extremely fragile. The crisis of legitimacy that flows from the huge scale of abstention could quickly erupt if this government decides to take action with the brutality it foresees.

The political crisis in France is not yet over. We do not see the end, nor even the beginning of the end. What has just ended with the election of the National Assembly is really only the end of the beginning.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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