How do elections work for France’s parliament, the French National Assembly?

Author:
Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 30th May 2022

Fresh from re-electing Emmanuel Macron as president on 24 April 2022, French voters are now returning to the polls on the 12 and 19 June to elect a new parliament. Historically, presidential and legislative elections were held on two separate cycles. But this could lead to ‘cohabitation’ – where the President was of a different party or bloc to the parliamentary majority and Prime Minister. Since 2002, they have been lined up so that elections to the National Assembly happen shortly after the new presidential term begins.

This has, thus far, eliminated cohabitation, but has led to a sustained and significant decline in turnout for legislative elections – the French electorate don’t seem that enthused about having to go to the polling station four times in three months.

The Voting System

The 577 deputies of the French National Assembly are elected by the non-proportional Two-Round System in single-member constituencies – with 539 elected in France, 27 representing France’s ‘overseas’ territories and 11 chosen by French citizens living abroad. French citizens living in Britain make up the overwhelming majority of the ‘third overseas residents’ group, though it also contains Ireland and the Nordic and Baltic countries.

However, the Two-Round System that is used to elect the National Assembly differs slightly from the ‘standard’ version that is used to elect the French President. If no candidate wins a majority of votes in the first round, the top two candidates still proceed to a second ‘run-off’ election, but additional candidates can also get through if they win votes equivalent to 12.5% of registered voters – which, given average turnouts over the last 20 years, translates to roughly a quarter of votes.

Having multiple candidates in a second round is quite rare and, even when it does happen, the third-placed candidate can drop out. But, if they don’t, these constituencies are often decided by a plurality rather than a majority of voters. Aube’s first constituency, surrounding the town of the town of Bar-sur-Aube, was the only seat to have a three-way run-off in 2017, being won by Macron’s En Marche on just 36% of the vote.

In the unlikely event of a second-round election ending in an exact tie, the seat is awarded to the older candidate – a quirk of French politics dating back to the 18th century.

End of an Era?

But the continued use of the Two-Round Vote for the National Assembly is contentious. It is incredibly bad at translating France’s multi-party system into seats – frequently producing highly disproportional results (France’s recent elections have managed to be even less proportional than Britain’s!) and leaving large chunks of voters with little or no representation. These results have been blamed for France’s increasing polarisation and unusual levels of extraparliamentary opposition.

During the presidential election campaign, a pledge to introduce some form of proportionality to the National Assembly became a rare point of unity between the main candidates. We’ll have to wait to see if the promise is fulfilled. Similar pledges have been made before, though not against a background of such clear and widespread discontent at the French political system.

A shift to PR wouldn’t be particularly alien to France, who already use proportional or semi-proportional systems to elect their regional councils, municipal councils with over 1,000 inhabitants and France’s members of the European Parliament.

The Parties

Just shy of three dozen individual parties sit in the 2017 National Assembly. It is also relentlessly unstable. 15 years ago, roughly two-thirds voted for the Socialists and the UMP (now the Republicans). In April, their candidates got just 7% between them in the presidential first round.

2017 French National Assembly Results

First round Votes First round % First round Seats Second round Votes Second round % Second round Seats Total Seats Total Seat Percentage %
La République En Marche! 6,391,269 28.21 2 7,826,245 43.06 306 308 53.38
Democratic Movement 932,227 4.12 0 1,100,656 6.06 42 42 7.28
The Republicans 3,573,427 15.77 0 4,040,203 22.23 112 112 19.41
Union of Democrats and Independents 687,225 3.03 1 551,784 3.04 17 18 3.12
Miscellaneous right 625,345 2.76 0 306,074 1.68 6 6 1.04
Socialist Party 1,685,677 7.44 0 1,032,842 5.68 30 30 5.2
Miscellaneous left 362,281 1.6 1 263,488 1.45 11 12 2.08
Radical Party of the Left 106,311 0.47 0 64,860 0.36 3 3 0.52
La France Insoumise 2,497,622 11.03 0 883,573 4.86 17 17 2.95
French Communist Party 615,487 2.72 0 217,833 1.2 10 10 1.73
National Front 2,990,454 13.2 0 1,590,869 8.75 8 8 1.39
Regionalists 204,049 0.9 0 137,490 0.76 5 5 0.87
Miscellaneous 500,309 2.21 0 100,574 0.55 3 3 0.52
Ecologists 973,527 4.3 0 23,197 0.13 1 1 0.17
Debout la France 265,420 1.17 0 17,344 0.1 1 1 0.17
Far-right 68,320 0.3 0 19,034 0.1 1 1 0.17
Far-left 175,214 0.77 0 0 0

Source: https://www.interieur.gouv.fr/Elections/Les-resultats/Legislatives/elecresult__legislatives-2017/(path)/legislatives-2017//FE.html

Parties often campaign together in ad hoc alliances and sit as parliamentary groups in the National Assembly, rather than as individual parties. And just because two parties are in the same electoral alliance, that doesn’t mean they’ll sit together in the same group.

The ‘presidential majority’ alliance in this election is the centre-right Ensemble, which is primarily comprised of Macron’s La République En Marche! and the smaller, centrist MoDem. In 2017, the alliance won a 123-seat majority from less than a third of the first-round vote. Although polling even lower this time, the combination of the Two-Round Vote with their relative centrism could still hand them a majority.

Their main opposition is the New People’s Ecological and Social Union (NUPES), an alliance of all significant left-of-centre parties. It hopes to build on the unexpectedly strong performance of left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the presidential first round and enforce cohabitation on Macron. Aside from Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, the other key parties in the bloc are The Greens, the centre-left Socialist Party and the Communist Party.

The other interesting battle is for third place. Le Pen’s National Rally might have secured a record result in the presidential election and are, indeed, polling at a clear third place in vote terms. But the Two-Round System will make it difficult to translate this support into more than a small parliamentary group.

Instead, the third largest bloc is likely to be the Union of the Right and Centre (UDC), largely made up of the conservative Republicans and the moderate UDI. In the event that neither Ensemble nor NUPES win a majority, Macron will likely have to turn to the UDC parties for parliamentary support.

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