There is no such thing as one-party democracy. Alternation in power must exist as a possibility. While Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory on Sunday was unequivocally a victory for French democracy, it nevertheless raises a problem. For the time being, the French electorate is divided into three major blocs. There is one bloc on the extreme left, another on the extreme right, and a third in the center. The farther one moves toward the left of the spectrum, the more intolerable a victory of the far right becomes, and vice versa. Hence by default the center will win every election, even if a substantial majority of voters are unenthusiastic about its policies or even hostile to them. A presidential system is more compatible with a bifurcated electorate than with a tripartite one, which tends to create an artificial dominance of the center. This is the perverse equilibrium with which France has been left by the convergence of the center-left and center-right in the “ni droite ni gauche, mi-figue mi-raisin” politics of Macronism.
The legislative elections are unlikely to disrupt this equilibrium entirely. We haven’t yet got much data, but what we have suggests two possible analyses. A Harris poll suggests that Macron’s LREM will hold on to its majority in the National Assembly because of the logic outlined in the first paragraph, with the repulsive force of the extremes pushing reluctant voters toward the center. But the same Harris poll also suggests a different logic if the parties of the left can reach agreement on a united approach: if LFI, EELV, PS, PCF, and NPA can unit, Harris intimates, the left bloc will command 36% of the vote, compared with 31% for the far right, 8% for the right (LR, UDI), and 24% for the center/right (LREM, MODEM, Horizons [Philippe’s fledgling party], and LR). If LR seems to you to be counted here twice, you’re right, but this is the way Harris has chosen to present its data. Given the “triangular” structure of the legislatives, where not just the two top candidates but also any other candidate receiving more than 12.5% of the vote proceeds to the second round, this bloc structure leaves room for some bargaining among all parties interested in reducing the Le Penist representation in the AN.
Of course this assumes that the left parties can come to an agreement among themselves. The idea that a united left can be conjured out of thin air by arithmetically combining the scores of the various left groupings has often led analysts of French politics into the most serious of errors. In the past, ideological differences have been the stumbling block. Today, personal differences may outweigh ideological ones: Mélenchon, whose ego can always be counted on to block out the sunlight, is insisting that he’s the suzerain to whom the others must bow. It was somewhat disconcerting to watch Ségolène Royal on LCI on Sunday insisting that Mélenchon had “earned” the right to dictate his terms to the broader left, while Manuel Valls equally adamantly tried to insist that the future of the left lies with Macron (no doubt eyeing a portfolio for himself if he can somehow deliver on that promise).
I’m not making any predictions, but I do think this would be an excellent time for Macron to remember the “ni droite” part of his self-description. He’s already given the right everything it wants except retirement reform, and as Laurent Berger of the CFDT reminded him today in a Le Monde op-ed, he’s going to need allies to govern effectively. Macron says he wants his second quinquennat to focus on youth, education, health, and the environment. His choice of prime minister will be crucial here, and he could signal his intention to honor his 2017 commitment to the left, so far observed only in the breach, by tipping his hand before the legislative elections. This could head off any flight to the extremes and alter the calculus in the triangular bargaining. The next few weeks should be revealing.