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France learns parliamentary democracy the hard way

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.  

PARIS — France is having to relearn parliamentary democracy, and initial signs indicate that as a nation averse to compromise, it isn’t enjoying the experience. 

When President Emmanuel Macron lost his National Assembly majority in legislative elections last month, it cast the Fifth Republic into uncharted territory. 

To be sure, since 1986, the country has had three bouts of so-called cohabitation, where a president of one political stripe has had to share power with a government drawn from the opposing camp. Since each of those administrations had a majority, however, they were still able to act with full authority over domestic affairs, while working in consensus with the president on his “reserved domain” of foreign and defense policy.  

This time it’s different. Today, no party or alliance has anything close to a majority. And though this doesn’t mean France is ungovernable, it does mean there’s a steep learning curve ahead. 

Macron’s centrist Ensemble alliance, itself composed of three parties, currently has the largest minority with 250 seats in the 577-member chamber. But it’s still 39 short of the magic number needed to pass laws — and too far adrift to be able to rely on a handful of unaffiliated lawmakers or defectors from other blocs. 

The left-wing New Ecological and Social Popular Union is the second-biggest force with 131 deputies, but its components — Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical France Unbowed, the center-left Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens — seem too divided on policy and too keen to assert independence to form a coherent group. By choosing not to stand for parliament again, Mélenchon has reduced his ability to play leader of the opposition. 

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, with 89 seats, is seeking to project a constructive image, offering to support bills meeting its criteria for the public interest, notably on mitigating the impact of the rapidly rising cost of living. But no one wants to take her outstretched hand, and Macron’s designated prime minister Elisabeth Borne — a former Socialist — would be deeply embarrassed if any of her measures passed thanks only to far-right votes. 

Finally, the mainstream conservative Les Républicains, who salvaged 61 seats from their own electoral shipwreck, ought to be Macron’s natural allies on a range of policies. But it is precisely because they are weakened, and fighting for survival as a party, that the Gaullists are unwilling to serve as a life raft for a floundering Macron — at least not yet, and certainly not all of them. 

Les Républicains still wields a majority in the Senate, the indirectly elected upper house, which can amend and delay legislation, as well as block presidential attempts to amend the constitution. 

None of this means France is in an unbreakable gridlock, however. While the winner-takes-all political culture built into the Fifth Republic constitution — which was made to measure for General Charles de Gaulle — will be hard to shake, all parties have an interest in making this parliament work, and not taking the blame for paralyzing the country. 

For six decades, the French parliament was largely an echo chamber for windy rhetoric. The opposition had little to no influence, while government lawmakers were treated as “yes men” — and they were mostly men — ushering draft legislation onto the statute book. Public opposition often had more impact through strikes and street protests than in the assembly. 

But things are about to change. 

Since Macron has found no volunteers for a formal German-style coalition based on a negotiated policy program, it’s likely that Borne will outline a limited legislative agenda for her reshuffled minority government in a keynote address, without seeking the customary — but not obligatory — vote of confidence, and put forward her first measures. This will give opposition groups scope to propose amendments and negotiate article-by-article on each bill. 

It’s a game of chicken, and it won’t be edifying to watch, but it could well work — at least for a while — especially since Borne will start with urgent measures to address the cost-of-living crisis. The left and far right may want to add more generous benefits or cuts in fuel taxes, but the government is likely to prevail since the constitution bars amendments by lawmakers that reduce state resources or increase public spending.  

The challenge for the opposition parties will be to show they can make a difference by amending government bills and using their limited opportunities to initiate legislation. Communist leader Fabien Roussel has been the first to seize such a chance by proposing a windfall profits tax on energy companies like Total Énergie to fund a gas subsidy for hard-pressed motorists. 

“Instead of asking us whether we’re ready to participate in a (coalition) government, I am asking them: ‘Are you ready to support such a proposed law?’,” Roussel told a radio interviewer. The move appeared to wrong-foot the government since the president has ruled out tax increases.  

In this new game, Macron is by no means a lame duck. He may not be allowed to seek a third successive term, but he still has the constitutional power to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections at a moment of his choosing, as well as the right to call a referendum on certain issues.  

If he can engineer the circumstances, or if they are thrust upon him — for example by a rejection of the budget — he could appeal to the country to put an end to “extremist” obstruction and give him a working majority. 

To avoid such a showdown with an uncertain outcome, however, Les Républicains and perhaps some socialists who don’t share Mélenchon’s anti-capitalist, anti-NATO agenda have an interest in keeping Borne’s government afloat, provided she makes some concessions. 

The parliamentary system got a bad name under the Fourth Republic from 1946 to 1958, when unstable revolving-door governments, formed and toppled in backroom deals, struggled to maintain the confidence of a volatile legislature in which the Communists were the largest opposition force, but had to be kept out of power during the Cold War. De Gaulle denounced it as “the regime of the parties,” and he insisted on a vertical system with a powerful presidency and a supine assembly as his condition for returning from the wilderness.  

Yet the Fourth Republic was actually a successful polity that presided over postwar reconstruction and rapid growth, enacted key social legislation, began decolonization and initiated civilian and military nuclear programs. It floundered chiefly due to the Algerian war of independence. 

Today, Macron has more power than any Fourth Republic president ever had. The return of a greater element of parliamentary government in France should be welcomed — not feared.  

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