The French general elections June 2017: Part 3 - 7882 candidates for 577 seats...

In France, the electoral process is overseen by the Ministry of the Interior. (The Constitutional Council formally ratifies the results and handles any complaints about the conduct of elections and also scrutinizes election accounts.) In the context of the législatives, it’s the ministry that receives and processes the names of the candidates and their political affiliations. This matters, because it is on the basis of a candidate’s declaration of which party they are standing for that parties receive reimbursement of their campaign funds. All party’s that receive 1% or more of the national vote have their election expenses reimbursed. Parties also receive a sum per deputy elected. Since this is in the region of €36,000, it’s not inconsequential.

There are 577 seats in the National Assembly. The number was fixed by a constitutional reform of 2008, although all the leading candidates in the 2017 presidential election made a reduction in their number part of their platform. Some, including Emmanuel Macron, suggested also introducing an element of PR, without specifying how. Of course, these changes could not be brought in for the 2017 législatives.

The 577 seats are divided up in the following way. There are 539 for mainland France (‘la France métropolitaine’), 19 for the overseas departments, 8 for the overseas dependencies and 11 for French nationals living abroad. Until 2008, this latter group were represented only in the Senate, but the growing number of French nationals moving and working abroad led to the creation of deputies as well. While this sort of representation may seem anathema to the British way of thinking, diaspora representation is by no means unique to France, though different states provide it for different reasons.

Similarly, not all political systems provide representation for overseas territories and dependencies, but France always has done since the Second World War – and in some instance did even before then. While these territories may be the vestiges or the confettis d’Empire, they provide France with a presence on every continent, with the second largest maritime zone in the world, and their inhabitants are French citizens.

Although the constituency boundaries are redrawn from time to time, they are still based on the departmental map of France and each department has at least one deputy, so that although the number of deputies is based on head of population, there are distortions and disparities. The deputy for the Lozère, a deeply conservative department in the southern Massif Central, represents a population of 76,000, whereas there are 12 seats for the Pas-de-Calais, with a population of 1.5 million, so one deputy per 122,000 souls.

Constituencies are named and numbered according to their department. So, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the hard-left La France Insoumise, is standing in Marseille, the constituency is officially known as Bouches-du-Rhône 4eme. Similarly, Marine Le Pen is standing in her base of Hénin-Beaumont, which is officially Pas-de-Calais 11eme.

The submission of the names of candidates closed on Friday 19 May and at the beginning of the following week, the ministry announced that there were some 7882 running.  That’s an average of 14 candidates for each seat, the highest total since 2002, when there were 8444. By way of comparison, in the British general election on 8 June 2017, there are 3,303 candidates chasing 650 seats, or five per seat. This figure is lower than the 3900 in 2015 and 4,100 in 2010 and may well be a consequence of it being a snap election. What also serves to inhibit candidatures in the UK system is the £500 deposit, refundable only if a candidate gains 5% of the constituency vote. In France, there is no such initial obstacle.

Identifying a given candidate’s affiliation is not always straightforward and not all candidates make their political colours clear. Officials attempt to attribute a label to all, although in 2017, some 1400 have been given the title ‘divers’ – various. This includes 574 candidates that souverainiste presidential candidate François Asselineau claims for his frankly far-right Union Populaire Républicaine (UPR).

The table below is based on the ministry figures reproduced by Le Monde. It is immediately striking that the two largest categories (after the undefined ‘various’) are more than 900 ecologist candidates and the 660 candidates of France’s Trotskyite and other far left parties and groupings.

The ecologist candidates include the movement’s principal party, Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV), but above all underline the strength of activism, if not electoral support, at the (ahem) grass roots level. Equally, the presence of the extreme left underlines the ability of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste and Lutte Ouvrière of Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud (among others) to raise candidates. In 2012, these two parties managed 314 and 552 candidates respectively.

Perhaps more surprising to the uninitiated is the large number of ‘various right’ candidates. In fact, this is not unusual. There are half-a-million municipal, departmental and regional councillors in France, many of whom have no formal affiliation, but use the title ‘divers droite’. Some are closer to the centre-right parties and Les Républicains, but a large tranche of them lean towards the Front National and might be ripe for persuading to join a wider FN-led alliance, if and when that ever happens. As to the 182 candidates defined as ‘extreme-right’ some of these are candidates for Marine Le Pen’s father’s Comités Jeanne [d’Arc], while others regard the Le Pens as too moderate.

Le Pen’s FN is running the largest number of candidates – nearly one in every constituency. It’s one seat shy of the 572 that ran under the Rassemblement Bleu Marine banner (the FN and two small allies) in 2012. It looks impressive, but it also reflects the collapse of attempts to draw up lists of joint candidates with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France (DLF). Dupont-Aignan’s decision to rally to Le Pen after the first round of the presidential election and hers to announce that he would be her PM if elected alienated a large number of DLF’s senior figures.

In the aftermath of 7 May, rumours began to emerge that DLF had been victim to entriste infiltration from the FN, which drove a further wedge between the two. Le Pen’s declaration, on the evening of her defeat, that the refoundation of the FN and a broad electoral alliance would start then and there, turned out to be the empty rhetoric of an exhausted and defeated leader. Within a week, FN-DLF negotiations had collapsed, while talk of reinventing the FN has been put back to a party convention, possibly in early 2018.

The FN goes into the election in bad shape and alone. Le Pen herself delayed formally announcement that would stand until the eve of the closing date. Outwardly, the party claims that it has a good chance of winning anywhere between 50 and 100 seats, based on Le Pen’s performance in the presidential election. More pessimistic predictions within the party fear that they might not even manage the 15 seats required to establish their own group in the new Assembly.

Before the election, Emmanuel Macron promised that En Marche!, now recast as La République en Marche (LRM) would put up a candidate in every seat. In the event, LRM is not contesting seats against all but two of François Bayrou’s 76 Modem candidates, nor against some Socialists (Manuel Valls, Myriam El Khomri) and some of the PRG candidates too. Where these parties are contesting a seat against one another, expect a tactical withdrawal in the second round and a commitment to supporting the government.

The same might well happen to the right of LRM.  Before the presidential election, a great deal of media attention focused on left-wing defections to Macron, largely because they were better-known. (In fact, two of his key backroom figures, Jean Arthuis and Jean-Paul Delevoye are from the centre and the right.) Les Républicains and their centre-right allies, the UDI, were thrown into confusion long before the elimination of Fillon, and despite the candidate’s immediate call to support Macron, others hesitated over the startegy to adopt ahead of the second round and going into the législatives.

The appointment, on 3 May, by the LR’s policy committee of François Baroin, senator and mayor for Troyes, (and chair of the highly influential Association des Maires de France) who had once been touted as Fillon’s PM, was meant to steady a ship that had sprung leak after leak in the face of the Penelopegate scandal. Instead, Macron’s appointment of Edouard Philippe, from the Juppéiste wing of the LR, drove a wedge into the party and threatened its relationship with the UDI.

Baroin and the other party leaders such as the outspoken Eric Ciotti and Laurent Wauquiez talk of winning an absolute majority of seats, then negotiating with Macron. But it seems unlikely, and there are strong voices too in favour of an entente. In some cases, such as that of Christian Estrosi(maire of Nice and Ciotti's arch rival in the Alpes-Maritimes department) and Thierry Solère, the reward has been that LRM is not putting up a candidate in the constituencies where they are standing or where the candidate is one of their protégés.

Les Républicains go into the election alongside the UDI, but again, the numbers add up to more than 577 - 628 in fact. National agreements are one thing, but it is the balance of power on the ground that matters and in some places either LR or UDI candidates have refused to stand aside for one another, or have agreed to let the first round act as an eliminator. The problem that arises is what to do if their candidate qualifies but finds themselves in a three-way run-off against LRM and the FN… or Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (FI)

In 2012, in the wake of Mélenchon’s breakthrough success in the presidential election (11% of the vote), his Parti de Gauche went into the general election on a joint Front de Gauche platform with the French Communists (PCF) and other smaller parties, putting up 556 candidates between them. That relationship broke down in the intervening years and although the PCF voted to support him in the 2017 presidential election (against their leaders’ better judgements), the differences between the two sides proved unbridgeable ahead of the general election.

Thus it is that FI is putting up 556 candidates alone (including Mélenchon, parachuted into Marseille), while the PCF has 461 standing. The first round of the législatives will show where the power lies in the struggle on the ‘left of the left’ between the charismatic leader Mélenchon and the party machine of the PCF.

Squeezed - not to say crushed - between these two and Macron’s LRM are the Parti Socialiste (PS) and their one-time allies the Parti Radical de Gauche (PRG). While Mélenchon will be trying to tie down a good portion of the electorate that supported him on 23 April, 11 June may give us a clearer indication of how many left-wing voters in fact defected to him in preference to the PS presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon.

For the PS, the election is a question of life or death. Hamon’s score was a pitiful 6% and opinion polls at the end of May are not suggesting much of an advance on that. The PS might have hoped to stand up better to the challenges to its left and right, thanks to the continued existence of party structures, but this does not appear at the moment to be the case and it is quite possible that it will drop from 240 seats in the outgoing Assembly to barely 30. Its previous worst performance was in 1993, when it got 18% of the vote in the first round and 57 seats after the second.  In due course, the PS may disappear altogether, with a name change. Like the other parties on the periphery of LRM, the second round of the election will pose a number of strategic challenges and choices.