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France faces political paralysis: Four scenarios for the French elections

French President Emmanuel Macron leaves the voting booth in Le Touquet, northern France, 19 June 2022
French President Emmanuel Macron leaves the voting booth in Le Touquet, northern France, 19 June 2022 Copyright AP Photo/Michel Spingler
Copyright AP Photo/Michel Spingler
By Sophia Khatsenkova
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French President Emmanuel Macron could end up with a prime minister and a government from a different party in a system known in France as "cohabitation". What is the process for forming a new government? What happens if there is no majority? How do the president's and parliament's powers compare?

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A stunning victory for France's far-right Rassemblement National in the EU elections this month left France reeling, and its President Emmanuel Macron called a snap election. In a two-round process on 30 June and 7 July, France will go to the polls to elect a new National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament.

With its unique hybrid semi-presidential government system, the potential for no clear result to emerge throws up a series of hypothetical outcomes that could plunge France and Europe into uncertainty at a critical moment of global instability.

We look at the specificities of the French electoral system and political governance. How do the French elections work? What will be the possible outcomes in Paris? What will happen if there is no majority in the Palais Bourbon, and if Macron is forced to work alongside a political enemy in the Matignon, in an awkward political cohabitation.

How do legislative elections work?

There are 577 seats in the National Assembly. The MP’s role is to propose, amend and vote on laws. 

On the first round of the elections on 30 June, French voters will choose one of the candidates running in their constituency. 

If a candidate manages to get the absolute majority vote (more than 50% of the votes with at least 25% of voters registered), they automatically win. Unlike the presidential election, the abstention rate is, therefore, decisive.

At the end of this first round, if no candidate obtains an absolute majority, a second round is organised for 7 July. 

Any candidate that has obtained more than 12.5% of the vote can advance to the run-off.

The candidate with the most votes in the second round wins a seat in the National Assembly. 

How does the French system of government work?

France has a unique system of governance described as a hybrid regime with a president but also a powerful parliament.

Unlike most other countries with a parliamentary system (think of the UK or Canada), the head of state is elected directly by the people, giving the head of state visibility and legitimacy.

The Constitution of 1958 is the one that governs France's political system called the Fifth Republic.

Charles de Gaulle was the first elected president of France under the Fifth Republic
Charles de Gaulle was the first elected president of France under the Fifth RepublicAnonymous/AP

It was adopted to curb the power of the National Assembly following government instability that rocked the Fourth Republic.

In 1962, a referendum changed the way the President was elected. From then on, the head of state was elected by universal suffrage.

“From then on, the system became more 'presidential' in the sense that citizens paid more attention to the president than to the MPs, when in fact we should be looking much more at our MPs, and we're well aware of that today,” explained Alexandre Frambéry-Iacobone, an expert in law from the University of Bordeaux.

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The new constitution granted the President specific powers such as dissolving parliament or calling for a referendum.

What are the possible outcomes of the parliamentary elections?

Outcome 1: Macron's party obtains absolute majority

In the upcoming parliamentary elections, the goal for any party is to achieve at least 289 seats to have an absolute majority in the National Assembly and thus be able to conduct their programme without having to negotiate with other parties.

If Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renaissance party wins, the President can then name Gabriel Attal as his prime minister once again. The polls suggest this is highly unlikely as Macron's faction is currently behind a broad left-wing coalition, and Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National.

Outcome 2: Macron's party gets a relative majority

If a party obtains a relative majority - that is, the largest party but without an absolute majority - they cannot govern alone and need to make alliances to pass certain laws. This was the case for Macron's party, which held 230 seats in the dissolved parliament.

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Outcome 3: Another party gets a relative majority but can't secure allies

If no party wins a majority and no ruling coalition is formed, this could lead to a state of deadlock within the government.

This would plunge France into unknown territory since this situation has never occurred. 

“In that case, it would be much more complicated to continue with major reforms that would move France forward. Instead, we'd be stuck in a form of stagnation,” said Alexandre Frambéry-Iacobone. 

One thing is certain: new legislative elections cannot be called for another year to resolve the situation.

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Faced with this political paralysis, "one solution would be for Emmanuel Macron to resign,” said François-Xavier Millet, a professor in constitutional law at the University of the Antilles.

But the president has so far ruled out this possibility. Neither Parliament nor the government can force him to do so.

Outcome 4: Another party wins the absolute majority

If another party obtains the absolute majority – either the far-right National Rally or the left-wing New Popular Front coalition, then the president will have to choose a Prime Minister from the winning coalition. The Prime Minister will then choose his or her ministers. In French politics, this is known as "cohabitation".

How did previous cohabitations work and what are the precedents?

Throughout the Fifth Republic, France has experienced three cohabitations after parliamentary elections were won by the opposition party. 

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“Not to say that it was the easiest position the presidents of the Fifth Republic who have lived through a cohabitation, but the government wasn’t in a deadlock either,” explained Alexandre Frambéry-Iacobone. 

The last time a cohabitation took place was in 1997, when centre-right president Jacques Chirac dissolved parliament, thinking he would win a stronger majority, but unexpectedly lost to a left-wing coalition led by the Socialist party. 

Lionel Jospin was named Prime minister and led the government until 2002. 

But Jospin still managed to introduce various laws the presidential camp opposed such as the 35-hour working week, universal healthcare, and civil partnership for same-sex couples. 

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How would a potential Macron and far-right cohabitation work?

Although the name of the far-right MEP Jordan Bardella has been proposed as a potential prime minister should the National Rally win an absolute majority, it is the president who chooses the head of the government. 

“We can imagine that even with a National Rally majority, if Macron feels like it, he can try to appoint Marine Le Pen (the historic far-right leader of the National Rally) who could refuse the position. This would continue until Macron finally names Jordan Bardella or someone else who would agree to do the job,” said Frambéry-Iacobone.

As a result, a French president during a period of cohabitation is forced to have a more discreet role – closer to those encountered in other parliamentary systems.

However, the President would still maintain certain powers - so-called domaines réservés - such as commanding the armed forces and foreign policy, ratifying international treaties and accrediting ambassadors. 

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But it is ultimately the party with the absolute majority in the National Assembly that will have control over France’s domestic policies. 

If a President does not agree with a certain law, he could refer the matter to the Constitutional Council (an entity that ensures constitutional principles and rules are upheld) or request a second reading from the National Assembly. 

But ultimately, if the Constitutional Council declares itself incompetent or if the MPs vote the law a second time, the head of state will have to sign it.

Who decides on EU matters?

It is the head of the government hence the parliament that decides on EU matters. These include the ministers who sit on the Council of the EU to negotiate and vote on European legislation. 

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“European affairs are not considered foreign policy. It's largely domestic policy. So it's a matter for the government to decide about European affairs,” said François-Xavier Millet. 

“But there clearly could be tension that is to be expected between the prime minister and the president in a situation of cohabitation as far as European affairs are concerned,” said Millet. 

Keep track of the unfolding drama of the French election with Euronews' comprehensive analysis and coverage.

Video editor • Ines Trindade Pereira

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