10-Jun-22 Politics

Why Macron is likely to win again

In previewing the French parliamentary elections, structural factors are at least as important as current polling.

  • Current polling depicts a very close race in June’s parliamentary elections for the National Assembly.
  • However, structural factors point to victory for Macron’s allies.
  • Immediate market implications look set to be limited, but the precise results could matter quite a lot for European politics during the next five years and potentially beyond.

Will Emmanuel Macron pull it off again? As we previously pointed out, Macron’s ability to effectively govern will critically depend on the results of the parliamentary elections, with the first round taking place on June 12 and district-level runoff elections on June 19. At stake are all 577 seats in the National Assembly, the nominally lower but politically critical chamber. Following his re-election as president in April for another five years, it looks increasingly likely that Ensemble, a centrist alliance of political parties supportive of Macron’s agenda, will continue to dominate. As described below, that is more a reflection of structural factors than any particular signs of voter enthusiasm. While immediate market implications look set to be limited, the precise results could matter quite a lot for European politics during the next five years and potentially beyond.


1 / Few signs of voter enthusiasm

At least in theory, you might think that the race for a majority in the National Assembly should still be very much open. Back in 2017, Macron’s party then called La République En Marche (LREM) brought together pro-European centrists from both the left and the right, as well as previously unaffiliated civil society candidates. LREM was able to disrupt the traditional dynamics of party competition in France in part because its novelty allowed voters to project all sorts of sometimes contradictory hopes onto it. Five years on, it would not be surprising for some voter fatigue to set in.

French voters tend to only pay attention during the last few weeks of electoral campaigns, making late swings or even fairly sizeable polling misses quite frequent. The campaigning skills of Élisabeth Borne, the center-left technocrat recently appointed prime minister, are untested.[1] Further scandals, such as recent rape allegations against the Minister of Solidarity, Damien Abad, could upend expectations during that critical period.[2] All this could dampen the prospects of Macron’s party, recently re-named Renaissance, and potentially hurt other members of the Ensemble alliance, such as François Bayrou’s centrist MoDem party.

Perhaps most importantly, a detailed reading of the same polls and polling-based forecasts that hint at a majority for Ensemble often also suggest a decisive lack of voter enthusiasm for such an outcome.[3] There consistently seems to be even less enthusiasm for providing Macron with a majority than it did five years ago. For example, one recent poll found just 37% in favor of handing Macron a majority, with 61% against – though the same poll also suggests that a plurality of voters expects such a victory.[4] Nor does it seem that the topics currently utmost on voters’ minds favor Ensemble. Depending on how exactly the questions are phrased, concern over the cost of living and declining purchasing power in the phase of inflation tend to dominate, ahead of health care and social security, with immigration the next runner up.[5] Macron, who is famously seen as aloof and maybe a bit too internationally minded by some voters, does not seem like an obvious vote-getter in such a news environment.


2 / Paradoxically, low turn-out could favor Macron’s allies

However, elections are always an inexact mechanism of aggregating voter preferences.[6] The current state of flux in French politics, together with the vagaries of the electoral system, suggest that the outcome is a lot more certain than it might appear. The presidential election has left the once dominant parties of the traditional center-right and center-left in disarray. In the first round of the presidential election, their standard bearers were beaten not just by Macron and far-right veteran candidate Marine Le Pen, but also by left-wing fire-brand Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the TV pundit Éric Zemmour, a self-described “Gaullo-Bonapartiste”.[7] In other words, Macron not only came first with 27,9% of the vote. He was also the only one among the four top presidential candidates to run as a centrist. That’s important because in France and else-where, second round runoffs are often determined by voters wanting to keep out candidates seen as ideologically extreme, instead often settling for a disliked, but acceptable, centrist alternative.

This dynamic, which already helped Macron beat Le Pen in the presidential run-off, is also likely to be very much at play in the legislative elections. Currently, first round polling suggests a close contest for first place between Ensemble and NUPES, a new left-wing political coalition led by Mélenchon, with both at about 26% and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) at just over 20%. Translating national vote shares into seat projections in the National Assembly is a tricky business.[8] Small polling errors or even just surprisingly geographical vote patterns in the first round can have big implications in terms of which candidates make it into the run-off.

What further complicates are some of the structural features of the French electoral system. In particular, turnout in the first round is critical in determining whether there are two or more candidates in the run-off. Representatives to the National Assembly are elected in each of the 577 constituencies (out of these, 539 represent metropolitan France). To win outright in the first round, a candidate needs to obtain an absolute majority of the votes cast in his or her constituency. Provided, that is, he or she also clears a second hurdle: the first-round majority needs to constitute at least one quarter of all registered voters in the constituency. If no candidate is elected in the first round, the second round is open to any candidate who has obtained the votes of at least 12.5% of registered voters in the constituency.[9] Second round victory goes to the candidate who obtains the most votes.

These unusual provisions make modelling quite tricky. If turnout in the first round is high, most candidates winning an absolute majority are likely to avoid a run-off. However, high turn-out also means that in other districts, more third- or potentially even fourth-placed candidate can proceed into the second round. If turnout is very low, the top two candidates advance to the run-off, whether or not they cleared even just 12.5% of eligible voters.

Complicated as all this might seem, it mainly boils down to Ensemble being in a much better position to defend its majority than first round polling would suggest. It currently holds 346 seats, compared to 289 required for a majority. The critical assumption behind this assessment is that we think turn-out looks unlikely to recover by much from the record low of just under 50% it fell to in 2017.[10] That, in turn, is likely to mean relatively few outright victories in the first round and very few, if any, run-offs with three, let alone more candidates. Three-way contests, or triangulaires, used to be quite common, especially at periods that saw a highly fragmented political landscape; 1997, for example, saw 76 six such contests.[11] To get to a similar scenario, though, you need both high fragmentation (which is likely in 2022) and high turnout. The results from 2017 are a case in point: low turn-out meant just a single triangulaire, compared with 35 in 2012 elections for the National Assembly.[12]


3 / No clear alternative yet to Macron’s centrism

Unless voter enthusiasm and interest picks up strongly and is reflected in higher first round turnout, the most likely scenario in the vast majority of constituencies is thus just two candidates. That should favor Ensemble, whose current polling averages might also understate its strength by a little.[13] If so, the most plausible outcome is likely to be that Ensemble will field second round candidates in most constituencies. In many of these, the other second round candidates are likely to represent either NUPES or RN. Ensemble will thus frequently be able to portray its sole respective second round rivals as being too extreme to be acceptable to a majority of voters.

Moreover, Ensemble has had plenty of time to tailor its candidate choices and positions to local constituencies. In sharp contrast to 2017, many of these candidates are likely to also benefit from name recognition that comes with incumbency. Past parliamentary elections suggest that such factors can have a significant impact on results.[14] The same, of course, is also true of other incumbents, especially those from the center-right. Still, Ensemble looks well placed to once again attract moderate voters by transcending traditional political divides. In this, Ensemble will probably benefit from the absence of coherent policy platforms among most of its rivals.

As yet, no alternative pole has consolidated either sociologically or ideologically. There is no “logical opposition” to Macron’s centrism for disgruntled voters to coalesce around. To take one extreme example, voters feeling disadvantaged in the French overseas territories opted for Mélenchon in the first round, but for Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election.[15] On the French mainland, the divides between urban and rural voters might have left Macron highly vulnerable if a center-right presidential challenger such as Xavier Bertrand had emerged as his main rival. Instead, similar rural urban divides seem to have reproduced themselves within those rival camps.[16]

On the far-right, Le Pen’s RN and Zemmour’s Reconquête party look set to remain divided, not just by personal animosity but also vast differences in economic policy priorities.[17] What remains of the center-left and center-right political families is split on whether to seek new alliances, and if so, with whom and how closely. That too reflects deep political rifts, notably in attitudes on Europe even within Mélenchon’s NUPES alliance. Indeed, if Macron’s Ensemble were to fall short of an outright majority, he could probably cobble together parliamentary alliances with fellow centrists from different corners of the increasingly diverse French political landscape, though of course, policy cohesion might suffer. Moreover, France’s electoral system is likely to eventually produce an alternative pole and 2022 could well set of this process. A strong showing for NUPES, for example, might leave Mélenchon out of power but well positioned to consolidate the left around his ideas, while a resurgence of the RN could set of a similar trend on the right.


Conclusion

“Macron’s undeniable success in 2017”, one of the most convincing analyses of the French elections five years ago declared, “was primarily the tactical maximisation of a propitious institutional and political competitive landscape amidst voter apathy and party fragmentation, and not a popular surge of support for a political saviour.”[12] That rings true, as far as it goes. However, we have suggested above that history will probably repeat itself in 2022. In other words, factors similar to the ones identified as having made the 2017 legislative elections “peculiar” look set to once again allow Macron and Ensemble to emerge victorious. Due to low turnout in the first round, paired with high fragmentation of the political landscape, voter indifference may end up once again producing an absolute majority for Macron’s allies in the National Assembly.

Immediate market implications look set to be limited. In part, this is because in constitutional terms, the Senate, France’s upper chamber, is almost co-equal to the National Assembly (though politically less influential). So, no matter what exact results are, Macron will still need to make compromises to enact meaningful market-friendly reforms during his second term. But aside from the limited, immediate implications for financial markets and economic policies, the precise results will contain plenty of clues on France’s changing political landscape. Is the emerging alternative to Macron’s centrism going to coalesce around the RN’s far-right agenda and center on questions of French identity? Or will Mélenchon be able to revive class-based politics and left-wing, economic populism. Either outcome could matter quite a lot for European politics during the next five years and potentially beyond.  A second Macron term also looks set to offer some fascinating insights on patronal politics, French-style. Recent strike action among French diplomats in opposition to civil service reforms offers some fascinating hints of potential conflicts ahead.[18] Before too long, we are likely to return to all these issues. For now, though, it seems wiser to wait until French voters have at least delivered their first-round verdict, before speculating any further. As mentioned above, French polls have been known to show sizeable misses in the past. The same, alas, can be true of political analysis delivered prematurely.

 

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1. Élisabeth Borne, a French technocrat with a political point to prove | Financial Times (ft.com)

2. https://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/affaire-abad-l-elysee-et-matignon-auraient-ete-informes-de-la-premiere-plainte-deposee-contre-le-ministre-avant-sa-nomination-20220524

3. For an aggregate overview of the overall picture, see POLITICO Poll of Polls — French polls, trends and election news for France – POLITICO

4. Baromètre OpinionWay - Kea Partners pour Les Echos et Radio Classique - 25 mai - vague 3 (opinion-way.com). Unsurprisingly, results depend quite a lot, depending how exactly the questions are phrased. But the pattern of a plurality of voters expecting an Ensemble majority, while feeling quite unenthusiastic about such an outcome, seems to hold pretty broadly. See, for example: Présentation PowerPoint (elabe.fr)

5. See, for example, PowerPoint Presentation (harris-interactive.fr)

6. Blocking the Front National from power risks increasing its supporters’ disenchantment with the political system: Democratic Audit

7. Éric Zemmour: The far-right pundit who threatens to outflank Le Pen (france24.com)

8. For details on potential methodologies, see, for example, p. 9 in Baromètre OpinionWay - Kea Partners pour Les Echos et Radio Classique - 25 mai - vague 3 (opinion-way.com)

9. Article LO119 - Code électoral - Légifrance (legifrance.gouv.fr)

10. Résultats des législatives 2017: revivez la soirée électorale (lemonde.fr)

11. Situation politico-économique et résultats des élections législatives françaises | Cairn.info

12. Evans, J., Ivaldi, G. (2017) An atypical ‘honeymoon’ election? Contextual and strategic opportunities in the 2017 French legislative elections. French Politics, Vol. 15, pp. 322–339. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41253-017-0040-y

13. Recent polling has had Ensemble at 25-27%, i.e., at or below Macron’s share of 27.9% in the first-round presidential elections. More typically, recent legislative elections have seen a boost of around 8% for the party or alliance of a recently elected president, as Evans, J., Ivaldi, G. (2017) point out. In other words, one might expect Macron’s first round vote share of almost 28% to act more like a floor than a ceiling when it comes to Ensemble’s prospects, at least in the absence of major scandals or other unforeseen developments in coming weeks. That said, extrapolating results from one type of contest to the next is simplistic, as the composition of the electorate is likely to differ. Moreover, Macron is the first president to secure re-election since Jacques Chirac in 2002 and the first to serve out both terms since constitutional changes following a referendum in 2000 to align legislative and presidential terms. It would therefore be wrong to put too much emphasis on the 8% gain typically seen. This should not be taken as a hard-and-fast rule, given the small number of observations. But in terms of historical patterns, a result for Ensemble of 30% or above would not at all be surprising, notwithstanding current polling averages.

14. Brouard, S. and Kerrouche, É. (2013), "L'effet candidat lors des élections parlementaires - L'exemple des élections législatives" Revue française de science politique. Vol. 63, pp. 1113-1136

15. French overseas territories show their dissatisfaction by pivoting to Le Pen | Financial Times (ft.com)

16. French parties of left and right battle for survival in June elections | Financial Times

17. Logic threatens to take a back seat to revenge on France’s far right | Financial Times (ft.com)

18. French diplomats strike against loss of status | Financial Times (ft.com)

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