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France’s critical election happens in June, not on Sunday

- May 3, 2017

The second round of France’s presidential election, on Sunday, is commanding worldwide attention. The contest pitting Emmanuel Macron’s globalist cosmopolitanism against Marine Le Pen’s France-first nationalism is important, to be sure.

But the election that will shape how the country is governed for the next five years will take place a month later, when the French elect their National Assembly, or parliament.

Outside analysts tend to discuss France’s election season as though its presidency works just like the one in the United States — the president heads the executive branch, controls government ministries and wields important legislative powers. None of this is the case in France — at least, not unless the president controls a majority in the Assembly.

Here are answers to some fundamental questions:

How is the French system different?

France has a hybrid constitution, combining a presidential government like the United States, and elements of parliamentary government, like most European democracies. The French president is popularly elected and, like the U.S. president, has some important constitutional powers. But like parliamentary systems, a prime minister — called a premier — directs the French government.

France’s president appoints the premier, but once in office, the premier can be removed only by the assembly. This means the premier answers to the parliament, not the president. And the French constitution gives the premier, not the president, greater lawmaking powers. The president, for example, has no veto power, so the assembly can pass legislation by a bare majority even over the president’s objections.

The French premier also has some tools that have no real parallel in pure presidential systems with their separation of powers. Article 49 of the French constitution allows the premier to propose legislation under a special rule — if the assembly takes no action, the proposal becomes law, but a negative vote from the assembly brings down the government. The maneuver is known as the guillotine.

Using the guillotine means the premier can raise the stakes on a government initiative while simultaneously allowing legislators to duck responsibility for controversial policies. It affords the French premier more influence to coerce wayward or ambivalent lawmakers than any U.S. House speaker could dream of.

So why is the premier largely invisible?

If the premier is so important, why is there so much attention on the presidential race and not on the parliamentary contests to follow? In part, it’s because the president’s party usually has a majority in the parliament, which means the hybrid structure of the French executive is largely invisible.

Under the French version of unified government, the president is the leader of the majority party (or coalition of parties that runs under a common banner). The president appoints a premier who is a subordinate within the party, and the premier then acts as the president’s agent — because the party demands it, not because the constitution does.

What happens when a president doesn’t have an assembly majority?

Presidents who lack an assembly majority must appoint opposition premiers who can command support in the assembly, and everything changes. The French have experienced three spells of divided executive government, which they call “cohabitation,” from 1986 to 1988, then from 1993 to 1995, and a five-year stretch from 1997 to 2002.

At the time, the French political system encouraged mismatches between the presidency and the assembly majority because the presidential term was seven years — and the assembly term was five. The French president’s greatest power is the authority to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections. Newly elected presidents, flush with victory, then called elections quickly to secure a majority and unified government.

But five years in, the honeymoon glow dims, and late-term assembly elections are less kind to sitting presidents. That’s what happened to Socialist François Mitterand, who saw electoral defeats in the assembly late in his both of his presidential terms, forcing him to endure conservative, Gaullist premiers.

The election of Jacques Chirac in 1995 ended cohabitation briefly by bringing the presidency in line with the Gaullist assembly majority. But when Chirac called an election in 1997, the voters shifted the parliamentary majority back to the left, forcing Chirac to live with a Socialist premier, Lionel Jospin, during the last five years of his presidency.

Why is political “cohabitation” so frustrating?

During cohabitation periods, the presidency diminished in stature, and the premier tended to exercise the main executive policymaking authority. For example, in the late 1980s, Chirac as premier engineered a major tax cut and privatized state-owned enterprises while the Socialist Mitterand could only watch.

But when Chirac was president, Socialist Party Premier Jospin pushed through legislation to shorten the workweek from 39 hours to 35.

Cohabitation proved frustrating to French politicians, and in 2000 Chirac engineered a constitutional amendment to shorten the presidential term and synchronize it with the assembly. Assembly elections were set to follow immediately after the presidential contest to maximize the likelihood that a president controls an parliamentary majority.

For the past 15 years, the reform has had its intended effect — no cohabitation. But there’s a new twist. We may be witnessing the collapse of France’s traditional party system. And it is the election in June, not the one in May, that will provide the next clue.

Can Macron and Le Pen come up with the Assembly numbers?

The parties of Macron and Le Pen, between them, currently control only three of the assembly’s 577 seats. So each faces a far bigger challenge than just how to win Sunday’s runoff presidential election. How can they engineer a campaign for the June elections that can deliver an assembly majority? Or short of that, can either candidate produce a fractured parliament that cannot impose a strong opposition premier and a return to cohabitation?

Neither presidential contender has a clear road map to success. Le Pen’s National Front has been shunned by other French parties for decades. Macron’s Onward party is new and lacks the organization or the roster of local leaders to run effective campaigns in over 500 electoral districts.

The rules for French assembly elections add one more measure of uncertainty. Like the presidential election, there is a second round if no candidate wins an outright majority, but in assembly elections any candidate winning more than 12.5 percent may contest the second round.

Up to now, France’s two main coalitions, one on the left and one on the right, have dominated assembly elections. But with France’s traditional parties weakened as never before — and now out of the presidential race altogether — what happens next? Voters may see little reason to remain united. In short, the electoral terrain going into a French Assembly election has never been so uncertain, yet the stakes have never been so high.

So go ahead and watch the presidential second round carefully. Macron and Le Pen are compelling, if not always appealing, personalities, and the contest matters, of course. But after the voters choose a president, French elections are going to get really interesting.

John M. Carey is the Wentworth professor in the social sciences at Dartmouth College. He is a co-director of Bright Line Watch.