Without a parliamentary majority, the next French president will be hamstrungby Andrew Knapp / May 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read more: Triumph of the liberal
Will Emmanuel Macron govern, or merely reign? The president’s powers under the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, dating from 1958, are significant but insufficient to govern as he chooses. To do that, he needs the backing of a parliamentary majority, which he may or may not win at the legislative elections set for 11th and 18th June.
The best guide to the president’s constitutional powers is the experience of François Mitterrand in 1986-88 and 1993-95 and Jacques Chirac in 1997-2002, when they “cohabited” with hostile parliamentary majorities. In each case, as the constitution required, the president appointed the prime minister, and other ministers on the prime minister’s proposal. But because the government is responsible to parliament, he had to appoint the prime minister designated by the hostile majority—and the constitution gives the president no right to dismiss his premier.
Under Article 20 of the constitution, it is the government, that “determines and runs” national policy. The apparatus of cabinet committees, and the piloting of legislation through parliament, are run from the prime minister’s office (Matignon) not from the Élysée. In effect, France’s domestic policy was handed over to a prime minister, government, and parliamentary majority opposed to the president. The president chaired cabinet meetings, but they became a mere rubber stamp.
Lacking the veto powers of his American counterpart, the French president is no more than a critical witness in domestic policy. Only in foreign affairs does the president, by virtue of his role as commander-in-chief, chair of the National Defence Council, and guarantor of France’s treaties, retain significant power, which in practice is shared with the prime minister in the name of France “speaking with one voice.”
Because it would leave the new president hamstrung, “cohabitation,” unsurprisingly, is the preferred outcome of Les Républicains, France’s conservative party. Their temporary leader, François Baroin, has effectively proposed himself as prime minister should his party win on 18th June. But that victory is unlikely, as its candidate François Fillon came ahead in just 52 of France’s 577 parliamentary constituencies on 23rd April. And Les Républicains are divided and still reeling from Fillon’s elimination in the first round.
Under a more normal scenario, the parliamentary majority supports the president, and to a degree owes its existence to his leadership, as in 1962-86, 1995-7, and since 2002. In these conditions the president is effectively head of state, head of government, unofficial head of the parliamentary majority, and the nation’s chief policy-maker. He chooses the prime minister and ministers from among parliamentarians, technocrats, or his own advisers, and may, in practice, dismiss them. He is in a stronger position than the leader of a parliamentary democracy because he enjoys both security of tenure for five years and an unrestricted right to dissolve the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and call new elections, as well as the power (theoretically on the government’s proposal) to call a referendum or to ratify an international treaty.
Macron has so far refused to contemplate anything less than a single-party majority for the En Marche! movement: socialist and conservative figures who have shown interest in backing him have been asked to leave their parties first. An En Marche! majority would be particularly beholden to the president, since Macron created the party. His strong second-ballot performance—a full six points higher than the opinion polls predicted just after the first round—could create a dynamic that leads the voters to give him his majority.
However, Macron led in only 230 constituencies on 23rd April. The first opinion poll for the parliamentary elections, conducted by Opinion Way, point towards a third scenario, in which En Marche! wins a plurality but not a majority. On this model, En Marche! wins 249-286 seats, Les Républicains 200-210, the decimated Socialists 28-43, Marine Le Pen’s Front National 15-25, and the hard left six to eight. That would force Macron either to form a coalition, most obviously with the Socialist rump—something he would much prefer to avoid—or to attempt minority government. A comparable situation operated between 1958 and 1962 and from 1988 to 1993. In these circumstances, the president freely appoints the prime minister and government—who then face a protracted struggle to get legislation through, typically picking different majorities for different issues.
Certain constitutional dispositions facilitate this. Above all, a government can only be overthrown by an absolute majority of deputies in the National Assembly; abstentions effectively count in the government’s favour. Moreover, under Article 49-3, the government can turn a bill into a question of confidence, allowing it to pass automatically unless a motion of censure is voted—facing deputies with the choice between accepting the bill or risking their seats (a successful no-confidence motion could trigger elections). In addition, under Article 44 the government can avoid its legislation being amended out of existence by forcing a vote on its preferred version of a bill. And under Article 38 it can ask for parliament’s authorisation to legislate by decree, for a limited period in specific areas.
Taken together, these provisions allowed minority government to work in 1958-62 and 1988-93. But in the earlier period, under Charles de Gaulle, parliamentarians were disciplined by the dangers of the Algerian war, which had already toppled the Fourth Republic, while in 1988, Mitterrand’s Socialists were just short of a majority, with 276 seats out of the required 289. Moreover, since 2008, Article 49-3 can only be used for the budget and for one non-financial bill per session. That restriction could make life much more difficult for a Macron-appointed prime minister than it was for those under de Gaulle or Mitterrand.
Rarely have the French been so disgusted with their politicians, and the protracted partisan manoeuvres entailed by a hung parliament could only exacerbate that. For that reason an overall Macron majority is to be hoped for, for his sake and for France’s. Even with that, his job will be quite hard enough.