Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

The French Election’s Only Sure Thing Is Gridlock in Parliament

Neither Le Pen nor Macron’s outsider parties are likely to win in the legislature. How would they govern?

Every French presidential election back to 1981 has been followed by the winner’s party going on to take control of parliament. Chances are high it won’t happen this time.

The two front-runners for the voting that begins April 23, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, head non-establishment political movements that are unlikely to get majorities in the legislative elections that follow in June. Should either become France’s president, they’d be forced to seek uncomfortable alliances with rivals, or risk five years of limbo.

France will look very different depending on whether they can enact their agendas. Le Pen wants to return to the franc, leave the European Union’s single market and change the constitution to institute priority for French citizens in jobs and welfare — measures that are opposed by a majority of the French. Macron wants to cut government spending, reduce the scope of the wealth tax and eliminate a housing tax that funds local government — all of which he might have trouble getting through a fractured parliament.

“Our primary worry is not that Marine Le Pen wins the election and takes France out of the euro zone, but that because of a volatile coalition France abandons reforms and loses the confidence of Germany and its other European partners,” said Stephane Monier, head of investments at Lombard Odier private bank in Geneva.

France’s most unpredictable election in a generation looks like it could deny the two main party groupings, now called the Republicans and the Socialists — a place in the May 7 runoff for the first time in the 59-year-old Fifth Republic. Of the four contenders whom polls suggest have a chance to make it through to the second, decisive, round, just one — Republican Francois Fillon — has the backing of an established political force with proven credentials in contesting legislative elections.

But that’s no guarantee his party will control parliament.

Fillon, at 19.5 percent in Bloomberg’s composite of polls, is fighting for third place with maverick Jean-Luc Melenchon, who’s backed by a hodgepodge of leftist parties that haven’t agreed to present a united slate of parliamentary candidates. Though Fillon leads an establisment party, he’s been weakened by an employment scandal. 

To drive his point home, he held a rally Sunday attended by all 577 of the Republicans’ candidates for parliament.

“Doing the job requires a coherent parliamentary majority. I have it,” Fillon told his followers at the Porte de Versailles in southern Paris. “With the union of the right and the center, I am the only one who can act without each time having to cook up parliamentary dishes of impotence and compromises.”

Fillon’s supporters have used the specter of political instability to criticize Macron, who, polls show, would defeat Le Pen in the May 7 runoff, as would Fillon.

“Macron is a return to the Fourth Republic, where every law involves horse trading,” Eric Woerth, a former minister who is part of Fillon’s campaign, said March 2 when Macron unveiled his program. The Fourth Republic collapsed in 1958 after 21 revolving-door governments in 12 years.

Macron insists he can win the parliamentary elections as well the presidential. “I’m amazed there are still people who doubt we can win a legislative majority,” the former economy minister said at a press conference March 28.

If he wins the presidency but not parliament, he still has options.

Macron’s fledgling party, On the Move!, says it will field candidates in every one of France’s 577 parliamentary constituencies by the May 19 filing deadline. Le Pen’s National Front ran 572 candidates in the 2012 parliamentary elections — but only managed to elect two of them.

Even though On the Move! is barely a year old, Macron’s path to some sort of workable majority is easier than Le Pen’s, said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K.

“He could end up with a large enough cohort of deputies to make them the core of some sort of coalition of the willing, drawing in allies from the more centrist-minded Socialists and Republicans,” he said. “It could be a vote-by-vote affair or it could have more stability, depending on Macron’s pulling power.”

As for Le Pen, even if she defies the odds to win the presidency, the Front is unlikely to overcome opposition to its anti-European Union policies or its far-right extremist past. She evoked that this week when she said France bore no responsibility for the 1942 roundup of Jews in and around Paris by French police at the request of the occupying Nazis.

“Given how fatal the two-round system is to the FN, and the anyone-but-FN reflex that kicks in in many local runoffs, she could hope for just a small handful of deputies who would never have the critical mass to impose themselves as a coalition core,” Shields said. “That way lies constitutional crisis.”

Pascal Perrineau, a professor at Sciences Po institute in Paris, calculates that the Front could win between 48 and 68 seats in the National Assembly, well short of the 289 needed for a majority. Some right-leaning Republicans could ally with the FN, but most would stay away, he said.

As for Macron, he’s insisted on absolute gender parity and said half his candidates must come from civil society, not the ranks of politicians. “He’s complicated his task to the point he’s made it almost impossible,” Perrineau said.

Two French presidents, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, lost legislative elections while in office, and went several years with little control over domestic policy. Mitterrand couldn’t prevent privatizations and Chirac couldn’t stop legislative passage of the 35-hour workweek. The French constitution gives more independence to presidents in foreign affairs.

“France is a semi-presidential system, not a presidential system,” said Perrineau. “If the winner of the presidency doesn’t have a majority in parliament, then it’s not really a victory.”

—With assistance from Hayley Warren

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