Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The majority of the French electorate did not vote in the second round of France’s legislative elections. Susan Ram analyses the implications

The results from the second round of legislative elections held across France resound with dismal messages, not just for the parties which lost ground but also for the credibility and functioning of French democracy. After four exhausting rounds of voting since the first stage of the presidential poll back in April, France now finds itself governed by a president voted in by just 16 percent of the electorate, his dominion reinforced by an overwhelming parliamentary majority gained from elections in which nearly 6 out of 10 voters did not participate.

As with last week’s first round of legislatives, abstention on a mass scale is the big story of the day. Official data suggest that 57.36% of registered voters stayed away from yesterday’s poll. Of those who did make it to the polling booths, 6.93% returned ‘blancs’ (blank votes) while a further 2.94 % opted for ‘nul’ (none of the above). Taken together, these figures constitute a jaw-dropping 61.56% of France’s electorate.

The implications of this have not escaped sections of the mainstream media, whose assessments of Macron’s victory appear hedged with caution. Previous narratives invoking tidal waves and landslides have been replaced by more sober analyses, with pundits and editorial writers now foreseeing a potentially rocky road ahead for the Macron ‘miracle’.

Closer analysis of the results needs to be prefaced by a brief look at the state of play in round two, following the elimination of large numbers of candidates in the first round. An important point to emphasise is the lack of real choice offered second round voters in many constituencies, specifically the 274 (out of a total of 577) in which Macron’s candidates faced off against those of the traditional Right.

Macron’s La France en Marche! (LREM) was the colossus of yesterday’s field, with 453 candidates in the fray (together with 62 from its ally, the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem)). The next largest contingent of candidates (317) came from Les Républicains (LR) and allies, representing the traditional Right. The Parti Socialiste (PS) and allies survived in only 88 seats. On the Left, 67 La France Insoumise (LFI) candidates qualified for the second round, together with 12 for the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). On the fascist Right, the Front National (FN) made it through in 119 constituencies.

For large sections of the electorate, in short, the second round appeared bereft of choice and its outcome a done deal.

In line with predictions, the Parti Socialiste (PS), the long-serving standard bearer of French social democracy, was the major casualty yesterday, reduced to 29 seats in the National Assembly (32 together with its electoral partner, the Parti Radical de Gauche). This amounts to the loss of 250 seats: a calamitous outcome for the party and further evidence of its disintegration as a political force. In terms of share of the vote, the party attracted just 5.68%, a paltry showing in part explained by the fact that many of its candidates were eliminated in the first round. While key party figures, former prime minister Manuel Valls among them, clung on to their seats, others were reduced to detritus swept away by the momentum of change. One can well imagine the collective cheer raised by the French working class at the demise of Myriam El-Khomri who, as labour minister under Francois Hollande, lent her name to a raft of labour ‘reforms’ pushed through without the assent of Parliament.

As with the first round, Les Républicains (LR), the traditional formation of the Right now rebranded under a new name, emerged somewhat less battered than its centre-left counterpart. Its final tally of 113 seats (121 together with its partner, the Union des Democrates et Independants (UDI)) makes it the second most powerful bloc in the National Assembly, with 22.23% of second round votes cast (plus 3.04% for the UDI). All the same, this represents a scaling down of the 199 seats commanded by this political force in the previous parliament, a point not lost on right-wing commentators (writing in Le Figaro, Marion Mourgue describes it as a “historic reverse”).

For the anti-capitalist Left, the results appear disappointing while offering some positive prospects. The good news is that La France Insoumise now has a small but significant presence within France’s national parliament: a major breakthrough for any party of the radical Left. With its 17 seats (one of them occupied by Jean-Luc Mélenchon himself following his triumph in the 4th constituency of Bouches-du-Rhone), LFI can now form a parliamentary group on its own, thereby gaining access to specified facilities and prerogatives. It also has the option of joining forces with the PCF, which performed creditably to win 10 seats. Whether this proves possible, given the antagonisms which ruptured relations between the two organisations during the legislative elections (at least at the national level), the fact that anti-capitalist activists such as Danièle Obono and Alexis Corbière now occupy seats in the National Assembly, ready to offer Macron and company some fighting opposition, is a matter for jubilation.

Less optimism attaches to the result when viewed from the perspective of Mélenchon’s spectacular showing in the first round of the presidential polls. Rather than capitalising on the 19.6% of the national vote that was Mélenchon’s riveting achievement, the LFI has come nowhere near replicating the level of support (more than seven million votes) its presidential candidate attracted. The first round results are salutary here: despite standing in the majority of seats, the LFI notched up the support of just two and a half million voters (11.03% of the national vote). While the reasons for this failure to advance require careful scrutiny, weaknesses and divisions on the Left are evident and the LFI’s current electoral focus seems inadequate for the challenges ahead.

For French fascism, the results offer little of cheer beyond the quadrupling of its meagre presence in the National Assembly. With eight seats, the Front National (FN) has fallen significantly short of its 15-seat target and the ability to form a parliamentary group. However, its leader, Marine Le Pen, is now in parliament for the first time after winning big-time in her Pas-de-Calais redoubt, no doubt emboldened by the FN’s first-round legislative tally of close to three million votes (13.2% of the total). Bruised but far from beaten, the FN will continue its efforts to portray itself as the only ‘real’ opposition to Macron’s anti-working class offensive.

For Macron, yesterday did not deliver quite the electoral avalanche polls, pundits and party organisers had predicted. Rather than the 79% of seats foreseen for the LREM/MoDem alliance by some of last week’s futurologists, France’s youthful president, with his telegenic smile and winning ways, now commands just 350 out of 577 seats (c.60%). On the basis of this overwhelming margin, he will press ahead with his pledge to strip French workers of what remains of their rights and protections while making further depredations into the ‘Sécu’, the social security system which embraces healthcare, unemployment insurance, retirement, minimum survival income, housing subsidies and welfare for the poor.

Speaking after results were announced yesterday, Mélenchon likened the mass stay-away of voters to a national strike and called upon the French people to constitute a ‘résistance social’. Across France this evening, workers and students will be on the streets, vociferously declaring their repudiation of Macron and his new imperial dispensation. Their efforts are being mobilised by a new movement, the Front Social: a coalition of trade unionists (including fighting sections of the CGT), student activists, participants from last year’s Nuit Debout nationwide people’s assemblies, NGOs and other groups. In a Paris manif (demonstration) organised by the Front Social back in May, large numbers of LFI supporters were among the participants. Thus far, Mélenchon has not come out in formal support. I’ll keep you posted on developments.

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.