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Why You Still Need To Care About The French Elections

12/06/2017 14:01
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Europe is no longer holding its breath over France. The presidential election battle, more unconventional and high-stakes than ever, came and went with Macron's victory over Marine Le Pen, provoking a great sigh of relief over the entire continent. International media outlets have placed their attention elsewhere, looking for the next critical battleground of the far right's global campaigns - or perhaps even turning from election coverage all together. Understandable, many would say. 2016 and 2017 have been a marathon as far as world-changing elections go, and election fatigue lies heavy over readers worldwide. Just listen to the collective groans from the UK's electorate.

It is easy to miss out that France has not finished with its Earth-shaking political events of the year. The so-called 'third-round', or the legislative elections, are taking place in two rounds on 11 and 18 June, and they have as much potential to redefine French and European politics as the presidential election.

Even at Sciences Po, the French epicentre of political study where I have spent the past year, the people around me are less than enthusiastic to discuss the stakes that characterize this 'third round'. While it can be considered a fairly stable rule in politics that parliamentary elections, being 'second-order' are less headline-grabbing than presidential, heavily personalized ones, a failure to recognize the importance of the French legislative election will lead to a dangerous knowledge gap about the conditions that will define Macron's presidency over the next five years.

This indifference does not hold true for everyone at Sciences Po, however. Madani Cheurfa, secretary general of the Sciences Po CEVIPOF research institute, said in an interview that the legislative elections "will indicate what will be the practice of power for the next five years to come in France".

"The legislative elections will show if Macron will have a large majority or a coalition. This would make us enter into a France where the practice of power will be more animated, more intense."

This question would normally not be a major cause of concern in France - but we live under post-normal politics, and 2017 was never going to be a conventional election year. In the presidential elections, both of the political forces that have governed France for decades were eliminated in the first round. Though Macron's party La république en marche! is expected to do well, the personalized dynamics that saw Macron win over Le Pen with about two-thirds of the vote will not necessarily work for his fledgling party in the legislative election. Remember that many only voted against Le Pen, not for Macron.

While Macron's party has attracted big names to defect to his side from left and right, he is still gambling on uncertain ground. It's far from certain that the advantages normally given to an incumbent president in the legislative elections will take En Marche far enough to achieve the majority that Macron needs to effectively pass his policies. His main rivals no longer come from the mainstream. It is Jean-Luc Mélenchon's La France Insoumise movement as well as the Front National that pose the greatest challenge to Macron. Mélenchon is running for a seat in Marseille, a leftist bastion, pitting himself against a Parti Socialiste candidate - a party for whom this election means life or death.

Meanwhile, the Front National, and indeed Marine Le Pen herself, are seeing these elections as their second chance. Le Pen is running for a seat in the north of France where she won 8.2 percent of votes in the presidential election. Though the polls deem it unlikely, it is possible that the FN will win enough seats to form its own parliamentary group, which would be a critical step towards legitimizing the FN even amidst post-presidential infighting. The FN would thus both be following a trend of its European far-right counterparts gaining a large share of legislative seats and symbolically paving the way for those that have yet to see such success in national elections, as one of the most high-profile of its kind in Europe. This is only one of many reasons why the threat from the FN cannot yet be discounted, and why Europe would be hasty to draw a sigh of relief.

Most likely outcomes will bring a significant shift in France's political culture. If Macron does not obtain an assembly majority, the country's domestic agenda will be in the political opposition's hands. Experts such as Cheurfa predict that this will lead to a more adversarial tone in French politics, more similar to the British style.

More importantly, the French legislative elections is an example of the kind of flailing, confused, almost traumatized reshuffling of a country's political landscape that we should expect to see see many times over the next few years. Parallels can be cautiously but not unjustifiably drawn to the turmoil that might define the 2018 midterm elections in the US, or the general election taking place today in the UK. How do you work the typical political games of coalitions and alliances when nothing works like it's supposed to?

That's why we all still need to pay attention to France. We have not yet entered the aftermath of the reinvention of French politics, even as the presidential elections have finished. If international media meant to raise up the presidential rounds as an example of what the rest of Europe can expect over the next few years, it needs to realize that the race has not yet reached its finish line.

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