The outcome of Sunday’s France presidential election did not come as a surprise to careful election observers. But, it did (or should) surprise pollsters, who pegged Emmanuel Macron’s margin of victory somewhere around 22% in the final days of the election. Instead, Macron beat far-right Le Pen by a whopping 32 point margin. That’s a very large 10 % error for pollster, and an even larger error for markets and pundits who predicted Le Pen had anywhere from 12 to 30 percents odds of victory (and I wonder what models giving Le Pen a less than 1% chance of winning would be saying if the error came in the other direction, a Le Pen over performance). The biggest loser in France, though (besides Le Pen) is conventional wisdom and elite opinion, which preached the (false) presence of “shy Le Pen” vote and cautioned the public to a surprise National Front comeback. Sunday’s polling miss may come as a shocker to some, that’s why I estimated the full margin of error in France election polls to be upwards of 15%.
Nevertheless, Macron will soon occupy the Élysée Palace, leaving us with several questions about the future of France. In the short term, those questions culminate in the June legislative elections. Before we get to speculating about the June 11 and 18 parliamentary elections, here’s a crash course on French Parliament.
French Parliament is made up of two legislative bodies: the National Assembly, which is a constituency-based directly elected body via two-round elections, and the Senate, which is indirectly elected by municipal governments throughout France. Similar to the United States, laws have to be passed by both chambers and then are presented to the President who promulgates them (which he is required to do).
The National Assembly is the first chamber up for election this year, and is often regarded as the more important chamber. It’s the one with the prime minister (who is appointed by the President), it’s the one with direct election, it’s the one with a marvelously storied past. The National Assembly also has quite a few more members than the senate, clocking in at a massive 577 legislators.
The National Assembly has similar powers to any other lower legislative chamber, like the House of Representatives or the UK’s House of Commons. According to France’s constitution, it can: initiate legislation on a variety of issues, can call for a vote of confidence in the government, and can impeach the president for “breach of his duties patently incompatible with his continuing office.”
So, wait, France has a parliament that forms the government and has the final say over its legislation, AND it has a president?
That’s right. France is a semi-presidential system, a testament to its old days in the Ancien Régime. The president is placed alongside the prime minister under a dual-executive system. The president has the powers to: appoint the prime minister, dissolve the National Assembly, call referendums for legislation, lead the army, call on the Constitutional Council for advice on new laws, appoints 3 of the 9 members of that council, and approve all of the ministers of government alongside the PM (who, again, he appoints). Macron get a better cut of political power than whoever he choses as his Prime Minister.
So, back to the questions at hand: can Macron’s party En Marche! win a majority in parliament, or will Macron have to legislate via referendum and take a prime minister from another party??
The first hints at the outcome of this year’s legislative elections are, of course, the polls. There have not yet been many polls in France for the elections to the Assembly, but one poll from May 2 by survey firm OpinionWay paints a good picture for Macron.
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This is in keeping with what we would expect given the historical context of legislative elections. In every contest since 1997, the party that wins the presidency has gone on to win enough seats in parliament to either be the absolute majority or lead a coalition government. However, that single OpinionWay poll says that Macron won’t reach the majority he needs to lead the government unilaterally. He will likely form a government with the Socialist Party, whose round one nominee Benoît Hamon endorsed Macron’s second round candidacy.
If neither of those scenarios pan out for Macron, forcing him to pick a prime minster from an opposition coalition (which would, by necessity, be a mix of Le Republicans, Socialists, and Le Pen’s Front National — inherently almost impossible to form) Macron would govern under a divided government. The French call this “cohabitation” (which is, honestly, a much cooler term than “divided government”).
Under cohabitation, Macron would probably leave general legislating to the parliament and focus most of his energy on diplomacy and defense, the two policy domains over which he has absolute control. But, an anti-Macron coalition is very unlikely to form, and Macron will probably get his way as 90% of French presidents have since the founding of the Fifth Republic.
At any rate, Macron’s leadership may soon be a non-story, as polling has proved to be fairly accurate (at least directionally) in this year’s French elections. In round one of the presidential election, polls erred by just over 1%. In round two, polls overestimated Marine Le Pen by 10% — although a large error, it points towards a possible Macron over performance in June — with an average error since 1969 of 4.6%.
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Focus may rather be placed on Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which is slated to pick up 10-20 seats in the National Assembly. Still, that would make them the second smallest party in France. Too small to yield power, but too large to call Marine Le Pen’s presidential campaign inconsequential.
In the realm of party politics, it’s hard to imagine that this election means France is now living in a four-party system. Rather, the Socialist Party seems to have been temporarily replaced by Macron’s En Marche! and the right wing of the Republican party, at least at the national level, has given way to some political priorities of the National Front. Rather, France is living under a triad of three major parties vying for power that two of them hold. Again as that single OpinionWay poll says, the progressive centrist Macron will likely lead government with the incumbent socialists in tow, mainly fighting the center-right Republicans.
Emmanuel Macron now faces the hard challenge of governing. In a country divided by intense political policy and posturing, Macron will have to be the leader many think he won’t be. Can he win seats in parliament? Appoint a prime minister who can work effectively? Will his young party platform stand the test of time?
These questions can begin to be answered on June 11, when French voters again go to the polls to elect their representatives to the National Assembly. Until then, my eyes are turned to the UK’s snap election, which will take place on June 8th and is even more flooded with hyper-confident punditry and misinformed conventional thinking.