Now Macron Needs to Win France's Parliamentary Elections: Q&A

  • President can only implement his plans with lawmakers’ backing
  • Chirac and Mitterand were hobbled by hostile parliaments

Emmanuel Macron.

Photographer: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

French voters go to the polls Sunday -- yet again -- and this time their verdict will decide just how much power rookie president Emmanuel Macron is going to have.

Macron already pulled off an improbable victory to become head of state last month -- the 39-year-old technocrat had never run for office and built a political movement from scratch in just a year. But under the French system he’ll only be able to enact his plans to ease restrictions on firing workers and simplify taxes if he also has control of the National Assembly.

But didn’t France just have an election?

In the U.S. electors are asked to select a slew of national, state and local representatives once every two years, but the French only vote on one thing at a time. In May they made Macron president. On June 11 and 18, they will renew the 577-seat National Assembly.

Then voters get a break. There are no national ballots in 2018, then European elections in 2019 and local elections in 2020. (The Senate will be elected this September, but only indirectly, and it has limited powers anyway.)

How does parliament fit into the French system?

The president is only powerful if he’s backed by the National Assembly. While the constitution puts certain military and foreign policy powers solely in the hands of the president, only parliament can pass laws, authorize spending, and approve the prime minister. So if the French select a parliament hostile to Macron, the new deputies could kick out the cabinet he put together last month and impose a new one. Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand both lost parliamentary elections partway through their presidential terms and spent years as figureheads.

How do French parliamentary elections work?

Mainland France is broken into 539 constituencies, with another 27 for overseas territories, and 11 for French expats around the world. A total of 7,880 candidates are running, almost 14 per seat on average. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of their constituency vote in June 11’s first round the top candidates go through to a runoff a week later. Anyone with more than 12.5 percent of registered voters’ support makes it to the second and final round, when a simple plurality is all that’s required.

What do polls tell us about the outlook?

The outgoing legislature, the 14th since the constitution took effect in 1958, had 284 Socialists, 199 members of the center-right Republicans, and 94 from other minor groups. That breakdown is probably going to be transformed.

According to an Ipsos poll June 2, Macron’s Republic on the Move! movement could win between 395 and 425 seats in its first ever election, running some candidates it has lured from the two main parties alongside centrists and political newcomers. The Republicans were projected to get 95 to 155 and the Socialists with 25 to 35. OpinionWay and Harris also see Macron’s movement winning a comfortable majority, but not quite as overwhelming.

How is a novice party on track for such a win?

Every president since direct elections were introduced in the 1960s has gone on to claim a parliamentary majority carried by the momentum of their presidential victory (though some have then lost it in elections later in their term). But the nature of Macron’s presidential victory could give him a further boost.

His centrist appeal has split both the Socialist Party and the Republicans, the two parties that have dominated French politics for decades. Not only did he win over much of their electorate, but he’s divided their leadership by poaching some of their officials for his government. 

“The election of Emmanuel Macron started a revolution,” said Dominique Reynie, a professor at Sciences Po institute. “The walls have burst and we don’t know where it’ll end. It’s shattered the rigidities that maintained party discipline and we are now in a fluid situation.”

What’s happened to Marine Le Pen?

Marine Le Pen won a third of the vote in the second round of the presidential election with her pledge to take France out of the euro and bring back border controls. But polls suggest the most her party could win in parliament is 22 seats. And it might get as few as five.

Outside of a few strongholds in the far north and south-east of the country, the FN will faces the same challenge it faced at the national level in May: voters of mainstream parties gang up against it in the second round. That resistance is even organized. Both Macron’s party and the Republicans have indicated they could withdraw candidates if their presence in the second round might help a National Front lawmaker squeeze through.

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