La République en Marche - from nowhere to 'premier parti de France'

In France, national elections are a marathon, not a sprint, and on Sunday 11 June, French voters went to the polls again, to vote in the first round of the general election to elect a new National Assembly.

Or at least some of them did. The turnout on Sunday was a record-busting 48.7%, far lower even than 2012 previous worst of 57.2%. I’d like to suggest a number of reasons for this.

I have mentioned in previous posts that the ball-park figure for general elections in the post-2002 era is around 60%. In fact the proportion has been dropping over time and it reflects the declining importance of the legislatives following directly after the presidential elections.  In a nutshell, the losers tend to stay at home and this time they did it in spades, even those FN voters who everyone (including the FN themselves) thought would turn out to vote without fail. The FN electorate, we all thought, was motivated and ‘fidèlisé’, largely because they told us they were. They lied.

In the second place, it underlines a growing disenchantment with politics, not to say sheer exhaustion among the electorate after what has been a long campaign. The turnout for the presidential election was already lower than ever before, so the trend was already there, though the acceleration is a cause for concern. In fact the turnout is about the same as the regionals in 2015, when the FN did very well. That threat saw the ‘front républicain’ mobilise for the second round, and the turnout rose to 58%. I cannot see anything comparable happening on 18 June.

In the third place, the opposition parties all fought very poor campaigns . I wrote last week that Marine Le Pen and the FN seemed to have disappeared (even Izvestia liked my 'more submarine than Marine' comment), but the other parties were hardly any better.

Les Républicains and their centre-right allies, the UDI, spent a great deal of their time fretting over how to position themselves in relation to Macron and the Philippe government: do we join them now or stay out, hope to win a significant number of seats and force Macron to the negotiating table?  Charged with galvanising the troops and pursuing the latter strategy, François Baroin did little more than look handsome but harassed. Once touted as a future PM, perhaps even a présidentiable, he simply failed in the clutch. On the radical left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon did what he does best, which is shout loudly.

This is the problem with French legislative elections, post-2002. The debate over a programme is finished and the parties are reduced to being more or less for or against the new president and government. Mobilising opposition is, evidently, very difficult and the parties this time have proved to be unequal to the task. That isn’t the fault of Macron, by the way.

Let’s look at some numbers. The table below shows the results for each group alongside those of their candidate (where appropriate) from the first round of the presidential election. (Brackets indicate party alliances for the presidential.)

The first and most obvious point to make is the success of LRM in pushing on from Macron’s 24% to 32%, marginally better than the last opinion polls before voting. One might call this the prime présidentiel, a bonus that comes with taking the Elysée. In comparison, in 2012, François Hollande took 28.6% of the vote in the first round in 2012, but the broad pro-Hollande alliance (Socialists, other left, Greens) took 39% of the vote in the first round of the general election. In those terms, Macron’s progress is actually quite modest, but only 19 of the presidential party’s 525 candidates did not make it through to the second round. So much for a lack of experience counting against them.

The LR/UDI alliance at least made small gains, but it’s the extremes that have suffered. The retreat of the FN, the party Le Pen branded as ‘le premier parti de France’ after the 2015 regional elections, has been a real surprise. At the end of last week, the final opinion polls had Le Pen’s party trading at 18%, so the drop to 13.2% is a major disappointment for them, although it needs some unpacking.

The FN has qualified to go through to the second round in 119 seats, a number without precedent. In twenty of these, the FN candidate was in first place, but it is unlikely that they will be able to turn these into more than five or six seats in parliament.

Le Pen herself scooped 46% of the vote in her constituency, nearly 30% ahead of the only other candidate to qualify for the run-off, LRM’s Anne Roquet. Even if every other candidate were to rally to Mme Roquet, her chances of defeating Le Pen are pencil slim.

Elsewhere, however, the margins are much tighter and the FN does not have what is known as a ‘réserve de voix’, votes to its right or left, to call upon. Thus, in most cases, it will be difficult for the Front national to overcome the ‘front républicain’. Even Le Pen’s right-hand man, Florian Philippot, who took nearly 24% of the vote in Moselle, will have his work cut out to get elected against LRM’s Christophe Arend (22%). Indeed, the results have generally been poor for candidates consdier his supporters within the party. Meanwhile, the media will focus on the contest away down south between the outgoing FN deputy Gilbert Collard and the LRM poster-girl and ex torera Marie Sara, a contest which is locked on 32% each.

Similarly, the performance of Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise has been poor, dropping nearly nine points. Mélenchon is delighted to have overtaken the PS and nearly doubled the 2012 general election score of the then Front de Gauche. He will also be pleased to have put clear red water between himself and the Communist Party. But some projections have the ‘gauche radicale’ with as few as 10 seats, not enough to form its own group in the Assembly.

For their part, what remains of the PS is, as one commentator put it, ‘a field of ruins’. With their allies they might manage 25 seats, but most of the heavyweights have been eliminated from the contest already, including Benoît Hamon.

Mélenchon and Le Pen are well placed to win seats, but without a decent-sized body of support in the Bourbon Palace, they will rattle about a bit. Do either of them really want it that badly?

La République en Marche has the opposite problem. If the party really is looking at 450 seats, then it’s difficult to know where they will hold group meetings. The largest rooms in the Bourbon Palace hold 350, maximum.  And what is more this will be a very inexperienced assembly, a problem I’ll come back to in a later post, when we know the numbers..

As perverse as it seems, with a first round share of less than one-third of the vote, it is predicted that LRM will take between 400 and 440 seats, LR 95-132, the FN 2-5, LFI 13-23 (in most forecasts) and the PS and allies 15-25.

If this happens, LRM will have the single largest majority in the history not only of the Fifth Republic, but in the history of modern France. That isn’t without its problems, but it’s a good problem to have, if you’re Emmanuel Macron.

Some more numbers to finish with. Only four seats were claimed in the first round. There is only one three-way run-off (there were 34 in 2012 and in the wake of 23 April, Le Monde reckoned there might be more than 80 this time this time). And finally, 43% of the candidates in the lead after the first round are women. Vive la parité!