Finding the political balance in the new National Assembly is a complicated business

I have already written, briefly, about the results of the second round of the French general elections for The Conversation and the article can be found here. The results show a very clear victory for Emmanuel Macron and his La République en Marche (LRM) movement, with more than 300 of the 577 seats available. This gives the PM Edouard Philippe more than adequate room for manoeuvre in a National Assembly where 289 constitutes the majority.

But, as events have shown over the last few days, unpacking how the numbers really fall is by no means straightforward. Unlike British politics, where party seats won in a general election map pretty much straight onto parliament and the only real distinction is between government and supporters on the one hand, and the opposition on the other, the French system, like many others in  Europe, is rather more fluid.

Deputies (and senators) sign-up to a parliamentary group, but for a group to exist, it must have a minimum of 15 members. That number is important to keep in mind. Sometimes groups simply take the name of a party – le groupe socialiste, le groupe des démocrates et indépendants – or they might take a name that reflects a composite identity of several small parties or  individual deputies - groupe radical, écologiste et citoyen, for example. So, when we look at the election results, we might think the Assembly looks like one thing, but what eventually emerges might be quite different.

The groups have their own structures and organisation, usually comprising a committee with a chair and vice-chair(s), secretaries and so forth, depending on size. Most important of all, they provide representation to the Conférence des Présidents, in essence the executive committee of the National Assembly that includes the Speaker (a far more important and politicised role than its UK namesake), the chairs of the political groups, the chairs of the Assembly's standing committees and other key figures and which draws up the legislative timetable in collaboration with the government.

Time allocated in debates is also allocated on the basis on a group's size and each group decides which of its deputies will speak in which debate.

First, let’s look at the numbers published on the interior ministry website. These represent the broad tickets that winning candidates stood on.

Source: Le Minstère de l'Intérieur NB: The Parti radical de gauche isn't radical, is barely on the left and scarcely constitutes a party.

Source: Le Minstère de l'Intérieur
NB: The Parti radical de gauche isn't radical, is barely on the left and scarcely constitutes a party.

Going from top to bottom, it looks as though there are five main groups: a ‘radical left’ or ‘gauche de la gauche’ of 27 (Communists and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise); a moderate left of around 45 (Socialists, Radicals, Ecologist and ‘divers gauche’); 306 LRM; 42 MoDem; and 135 on the right (Les Républicains, the UDI and ‘divers droite’). Apart from these there is a ‘hard right’ of 10 (Debout la France, FN and 1 extreme right), 3 undefined ‘divers’ and 5 regionalists. In this last category are three Corsican autonomists and two independentists, one from Martinique, the other from French Polynesia.

But deputies are notionally free to join whichever group they wish. There is, moreover, no system of discipline in place that even remotely looks like the whipping system of the UK parliament. Indeed, the constitution prohibits the mandat impératif, that is to say that deputies vote according to any outside orders. A deputy is a national representative, not the representative of a specific interest... (theoretically).

So, there will be an LRM group and it seems likely its president will be Richard Ferrand, the local government minister re-elected in his Breton constituency on Sunday, but subject to an investigation about misuse of influence . Given Macron’s determination that his government will be squeaky-clean, Ferrand’s days in government looked numbered, so this gave him an elegant, soft landing and it was no real surprise when he announced on Monday 19 June, that he would not ask to be retained in the imminent reshuffle. (Under French protocol, when a new parliament is elected, the PM resigns and is, usually, asked to form a new government. It isn't unusual for ministers to be chopped and chagned, but the scale we have seen in the last few days is.)

Originally we had assumed there will be a separate MoDem group and that that would be chaired by Marielle de Sarnez, minister for European affairs who has asked not to be retained for Philippe II, as the French call the new administration. Sarnez, her party leader François Bayrou and armed forces minister Sylvie Goulard have each chosen to leave the government (due to be reshuffled in any case) in order to defend themselves against accusations that their party MEPs siphoned off funds from the European parliament into fake jobs to help fund the  party in France. But it is not at all clear that MoDem deputies want Sarnez and many of them know they owe their election to Macron. Still, in the press conference explaining his decision to stand down as justice minister, it was clear that Bayrou expects there to be a separate MoDem group, loyal to Macron. For his part, Bayrou now returns to being simply the mayor of Pau.

Les Républicains were the first to elect their ‘new’ president, on Wednesday 21 June, although when I say new, in fact they re-elected Christian Jacob, who chaired the group at the end of the last parliament. Jacob defeated Damien Abad by 62 votes to 32, which immediately shows that some 20 votes have gone missing.

They can be found in a breakaway group, under the title Les Républicains constructifs-UDI-Indépendants, launched by the LR's Thierry Solère and Jean-Christophe Lagarde of the UDI, that will have somewhere in the region of forty deputies. Solère is a ‘deuxième ligne’ but well-connected and highly-regarded politician, close to Bruno Le Maire (the finance minister). Last autumn, Solère chaired the committee that oversaw the right-wing primary, a role Gilles Boyer, campaign manager for Alain Juppé and best friend of Edouard Philippe, describes in his account of the primary, Rase Campagne, as being a mistake and fatal to Le Maire’s chances of making a significant impact. Solère was among the two- or three-hundred right-wing politicians who, in the wake of Macron’s victory on 7 May called on the right to fall in behind the new president. The appeal stalled, but now it is bearing its fruit.

Above all, the Solère-Lagarde group will hope to appeal to LR deputies who find, in due course, that the main party group strays too far towards the hard right or succumbs to ‘la tentation de l’extrème droite’. On Tuesday evening (20 June 2017), leading pro-Macron LR figure and mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, appearing on Europe 1’s Club de la Presse, warned against the ‘porosité’ between the right of his party and the FN…

The FN is way off forming its own group at the moment, but Marine Le Pen, who is making her parliamentary debut, has already voiced the hope that a new group might emerge in the next few months, with her at its head and the 8 FN deputies as its core. That will follow the broad and deep review of the party that Florian Philippot has announced and which is due to report in July.

The party will then have the summer and autumn to reflect on how the review’s conclusions can be taken forward. Le Pen seems to have recovered some of the energy that disappeared between the two rounds of the presidential election, but for the time being, she and her colleagues will form part of the 'non-inscrits' group, which has no formal organisation as such, but does have representation at meetings of the Conférence des Présidents.

At the other end of the political spectrum, some of us had blithely expected the PCF to bury their differences with Mélenchon and join a broad radical left group with LFI. That seems not to be happening. On Wednesday (21 June), André Chassaigne, Communist deputy for Puy-de-Dôme (industrial Clermont Ferrand) announced that he and his ten comrades (they gained one from somewhere) would not join Mélenchon, but that they have recruited four overseas deputies and will form their own group.  So, the Noisy One will have a group of his own and might recruit a few deputies from the left of the ‘moderate’ left, but he keeps changing his mind as to whether he will chair it or not.

The Socialists are all still walking around counting their lucky stars, but it seems that they are intent on systematic opposition to the government. That doesn't really matter to Macron. He destroyed the 'gauche de gouvernement' before the elections. Now he's destroying the right. It's his own version of the Schlieffen Plan.

Early next week, deputies will convene to elect their President (Speaker) and the members of the National Assembly's bureau (vice-presidents, secretaries, questeurs). They will also apply for membership of the standing committees, which do most of the legislative leg-work, and also elect the chairs of those committees, or commissions, as the French call them. I can't begin to tell you how excited I am about this.

In the meantime, here's a map of who won what seats where. I'll come back to this in a future post.

Source: Le Monde, 20 juin 2017

Source: Le Monde, 20 juin 2017