Breaking Down The French Legislative Elections

In this guest post, Jay W Cobb explores the upcoming legislative elections, and finds that Emmanuel Macron could win the overwhelming majority of seats. You can follow him on Twitter at @JayWCobb

Since 2002, both presidential and legislative terms are five years. The legislative election takes place about a month after the presidential election, this year on June 11 and 18. Every previous cycle resulted in the incoming president winning a majority, however, since Emmanuel Macron doesn’t have an established party, the conventional wisdom is that this is a challenge for him.

France has a mixed presidential and parliamentary system. While the president appoints the prime minister and cabinet, the assembly can remove them from office. If the president does not control the legislature, he is forced to share power with the cabinet preferred by the legislative majority. This has happened before, most recently from 1997 to 2002, and is called “cohabitation”. It is therefore rather important to see if Macron will be able to appoint the government he seeks.

This article will seek to explain how the election works and why Macron’s party is likely to do very well. The tl;dr version, is that someone has to win and all the other parties are blowing it. Same story as the presidential race.

How the legislative election works

The method of election is similar to the two-round system employed for the presidential contest, with some additional twists. There are 577 single member constituencies, including some for French overseas territories and non-resident citizens. If no one candidate won a majority in the first round, the election goes to a second round. In the second round, each candidate who received 12.5% of eligible voters can compete, but has the option to stand down. In any case, the runner up gets in the second round, even if he did not get 12.5%.

The distinction of eligible voters is important. In 2012, voter turnout was 57% for the first round. This means that, on average, the threshold for second round entry was 21.9%.

To illustrate this: let’s say a constituency had exactly 62.5% turnout, giving us the neat 20% threshold. In the first round, Alain gets 35%, Bertrand gets 25%, Charles gets 22% and Didier gets 18%. Alain, Bertrand and Charles make it to the runoff.

But let’s say Alain gets 49%, Bertrand 19%, and Charles and Didier gets 16% each. While Bertrand was under 20%, still makes it to the runoff.

Parties will sometimes make deals together to not compete in certain seats so that they reach the second round in more constituencies.

Overview of current party standing:

In order of results for the presidential election first round. All polling data can be accessed here.

En Marche! (EM)

Macron got 24% in the first round for the presidency and 66% in the second round. His party has never run in or won any elections save his own for the presidency. If his results from the first round in the presidential election are replicated in the first round of the legislative election, he’ll do very well. The question is if his support will hold up, since after all he has no infrastructure or local support. Some of the candidates have previously been elected for other parties, many are private citizens, a motley bunch including award winning mathematicians and bull fighters. EM also has an alliance with the centrist MoDem party.

When you look through previous elections the following trend comes out: well-placed candidates from smaller or new parties have a very hard time in the legislative election. In 2007 François Bayrou got 18% in the first round, a very strong third place. But his MoDem party won only 3 legislative seats. In 2012 Marine Le Pen came in third place with 18%, she too didn’t manage to turn that into a legislative breakthrough. National Front (FN) won only two seats.

Had Macron come in 3rd place in the election he would likely have suffered the same fate. But he won. Most polls have EM at 24-26, with one at 22 and one 29. This is a variance but is enough for us to use the first-round presidential results as a guide. Another thing concerning EM is the reports that they won’t be running in all seats. We will know on Friday when the registration closes what the final number is. From the lists I saw these do not appear to be seats EM was going to win so I will ignore this for now.

National Front (FN)

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen got 21.3% in the first round of the presidential race and 34% in the second round. Her party, FN, is hyped up as making a breakthrough, and will likely make it to a lot of runoffs, but is still opposed by a majority of population and has trouble getting elected in the second round. Opinion polls give then from 19-22% in the second round. There’s a tradition by the old PS and UMP to abstain from three way runoffs in favor of whichever party got better, I expect this to hold between EM and LR.  I don’t have the breakdown by constituency for the second round, that would be more helpful to know where FN can win. But you can see the stark difference in the maps between first round and second round results.

Credit to Wikipedia. Yellow is Macron, dark blue is Le Pen, lighter blue is Fillon, and red Melenchon. I don’t really like the color scheme, but that’s what they use.

Les Republicains, or the Republicans (LR)

LR is the renamed UMP of Nicholas Sarkozy. The party has been the main opposition to Hollande’s PS but has been mired in scandal after scandal.  LR candidate François Fillon was initially leading the polls for both rounds and his party would have likely also won a majority in parliament. But Fillon collapsed in scandal and ended up third place, with 20% of the vote. In the recent opinion polls LR get mostly 20-22%, although one puts them at 24%. LR will get into a lot of runoffs, and will likely remain the largest opposition.

LR is running in alliance with the center-right UDI group.

La France insoumise (the Left)

Jean-Luc Melenchon received 19% in the first round of the presidential election, thanks to a last-minute surge fueled by combative debate performances. But he is more popular than his party, or even than the combined far-left. As we’ll see, Melenchon might be the best example of the “curse of the losing candidate”. Most polls have him at only 13-16%, and converting that into a lot of seats will be difficult.

(It’s time for a quick aside about Melenchon’s new party. The first sentence of its Wikipedia entry starts with “La France insoumise (represented in logo as the Greek letter phi, φ; also known in English as Unbowed France, France Unbowed, Untamed France, France Untamed, Defiant France, Rebellious France, Indomitable France, or Unsubmissive France)”. I have no patience for these silly flowery names so I’m just going to call it the “Left”. You might point out that “En Marche” is no less silly, and you’d be right, but at least the initials are easy and match the candidate’s for good measure.)

The Left isn’t in alliance with any other group, including the communists, who backed his presidential campaign. This will make it even more difficult to win seats.

Parti socialiste (PS)

The Socialists are currently the largest party in the assembly. This has been a major party for decades, but the internal rifts and unpopularity of President Hollande have destroyed it. Nominee Benoit Hamon got only 6.5% (5th place) and the PS is polling at sub 10%. With one exception, Hamon did not break 20% in any constituency. He didn’t even get 15%. The one exception is the oversees constituency of Wallis and Futuna in the Pacific Ocean where he got with 25% but still came in third place behind Macron and Fillon.

What happens when a party goes from 20-something to single digits? Ask the Liberal Democrats. It gets wiped out. And unlike the LibDems, the PS hasn’t spent years building up regional ties. The PS is headed for an epic wipeout, akin to when the Canadian Progressive Conservatives went from a majority in parliament to only two MPs in 1993. There might be several individual politicians who are able to buck the trend and win their districts with personal charisma and local ties. Will it be two or twenty? Who knows. Functionally, despite its past, PS can be considered a minor party for this election

PS is running with alliances with the Greens and various smaller left wing parties.

Minor parties:

Other parties will be running and may between them get five to ten seats. We won’t be getting into them.

Constituency Analysis

The polling so far has been sparse, but enough to give us an indication of where things stand. For the constituency analysis, I took the breakdown of the first round by constituency (it’s available on Wikipedia) and applied the following assumptions:

  1. En Marche will get at least the 24% they got in the first round.
  2. FN will get about the same vote as Le Pen.
  3. LR get slightly higher but not more than 2%.
  4. Turnout will be no higher than 62.5%, so I will use 20% as the maximum cutoff for the second round.
  5. The Left party will get around 75% of Melenchon’s vote. For example, any seats where he got say 24%, will be considered that he got only about 18% (and therefore not make the runoff).
  6. In a potential three-way runoff between EM, LR and FN, whichever of the two mainstream who did worse will withdraw to allow the other to defeat the extremist FN candidate.

This will give us a good view of the first round and who gets into the second round. I will divide the constituencies into four groups based on the kind of races they will produce:

  1. EM against the extreme parties. To keep it simple I am not detailing which are FN and which the Left, and which are even a three-way race. These are the races where LR isn’t expected to be in the runoff. 286 Seats.
  2. LR against the extreme parties. The flip side of Group A, but EM isn’t making it to the runoff. 101 Seats.
  3. EM runoff against LR. 167 seat.
  4. Extremes battling each other. FN against Left. 19.

In addition, in four constituencies –two for EM and two for LR, they will win right on the first round with over 50%.

My method of predicting the second round isn’t going to be based on hard science but just a judgement call based on the votes of the eliminated parties. If there’s a runoff between M and LR, the votes in the first round for FN will likely go to LR, while those of the Left and PS to EM. And so on.

Group A: En Marche against the extremes

In 286 seats, we can expect a runoff of EM against either LN or the Left (or both). In 37 of these, LR come in 3rd place to FN and EM and drops out to allow EM to battle FN. In the rest, LR did not do well enough to make it to the runoff. This group is a huge boost of EM over LR, because it means that in nearly half the constituencies, LR aren’t even in the runoff.

Of these seats, I’m giving FN the advantage in 15, and the Left in 14. Despite the Left getting less votes, it seems to be more concentrated. This leaves us 237 seats in which EM is likely to win. I made 33% the cutoff for FN winning second round. If you are more bullish on FN and assume they will win everywhere they get 30% in first round that shifts another 24 seats. That still leaves 213 for EM.

Group B: Republicans against the extremes 

In 101 constituencies, we can expect a runoff between LR and FN. Interestingly, the Left doesn’t get to runoff in any of these. EM either doesn’t or withdraws in favor. There are no LR v Left runoffs.  LR have the advantage for the second round in 94 and FN in only 7.

Group C: En Marche against Republicans

167 constituencies will have an EM v LR race. 96 are based on straight first round presidential numbers while 70 are seats where the Left’s 25% slide will leave LR as the closest competitor. 135 of these favor EM, 14 LR and 18 are a tossup. The reason why EM has such a margin here is twofold: firstly, these happened to be stronger EM areas, and secondly, as the centrist party EM can be expected to pick up the Left and PS vote, which outweighs the FN vote.

Group 4: le extremes

Finally, in 19 constituencies either of the extreme parties are expected to win. In 13 FN and Left will battle for the second round, while in six the runoff is unclear but the leading extreme party is still likely to win. Of these 19 seats, 10 are a tossup between the two extreme parties, while FN leads in eight and the left in one.

Final tally:

EM: 394–412

LR: 110–128

FN: 30–40

Left: 15–25

If you give the 24 seats from EN to FN in the first group then EM’s low is only 370, still 64% of the body. FN getting potentially 64 seat would be a real breakthrough but still a distant third place.

Conclusion

These numbers are still early, there is still a month to the election and things can change. As we stand now, EM is headed towards a 2/3 majority win in the legislative election. For a brand new party to win full dominance like that is utterly stunning.

It is common in political systems for the center to get squeezed. No matter what the system, whether it is first past the post, or runoff with 50%, or even the proportionate representation systems, the intensity and identification is with the parties that take a stronger stand, not with the center. The French system is no different: the right and left generally have between then the overwhelming majority of elected officials.

The centrists’ lament is that “if the centrist could only make it (out of the primaries, to the runoff, instant ranking, etc.) then they could win both the left and the right. And that appears to be what is happening in France. The center, for once, is stronger than the right and the left.