French hard left set to make big gains in parliamentary vote

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PARIS — Less than two months after he was re-elected, Emmanuel Macron faces the prospect of a hobbled presidency due to a surge in support for the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

According to official results, the left-wing NUPES alliance backed by Mélenchon is neck and neck with Macron’s Ensemble! coalition, at 25.66 percent and 25.75 percent, respectively, in the first round of the country’s parliamentary election on Sunday.

The vote to elect representatives to the National Assembly, the parliament’s lower chamber, takes place in two rounds, with most seats set to be decided in a runoff vote next Sunday. The strong showing for the hard left in the first vote therefore won’t entirely translate into seats since the two-round system generally favors more centrist candidates.

But it nevertheless is set to eat into Macron’s parliamentary power: The president needs 289 seats to get an outright majority and be able to push through his controversial program of reforms. Currently, his coalition boasts 345 seats and projections suggest he will not only lose many of these, but is also at risk of losing his majority. While seat projections have to be taken with a pinch of salt due to the two-stage format, polling institute Ipsos predicted Macron’s coalition would get 255 to 295 seats, with 150 to 190 going to NUPES.

For Mélenchon, who came in third in April’s presidential election, Sunday’s results are already an achievement. The emergence of his left-wing bloc marks a rebalancing of politics after years of domination by right-leaning and far-right politicians.

“The truth is that the presidential party, after the first round, is defeated and undone,” far-left leader said Sunday. “In democracy, you have to convince. We have convinced a lot.”

On Sunday, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne called on voters to back Macron’s coalition, calling it the only group “capable of getting [a parliamentary] majority.”

“In the face of extremes, we are the only ones who offer a project of coherence, clarity and responsibility,” she told supporters at party headquarters. “With the situation of the world and the war at Europe’s doors, we cannot take the risk of instability and approximations.”

Mélenchon’s rise, Macron’s fizzle

Mélenchon, who opposes NATO and has pledged to disobey EU rules he disagrees with, bounced back after his third failed bid at the presidency in April, corralling other defeated left-wing parties to join the coalition, featuring the Greens, the Communist Party and the Socialists — Mélenchon’s former party. They now could become the largest opposition group in parliament if results are confirmed.

That would bump the far-right National Rally from its spot as Macron’s longtime main rival: While the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen won 39 percent in the second round of April’s presidential election against Macron, her party only secured 18.68 percent of the vote Sunday. Despite the record-high results for the far right in the presidential election, Le Pen failed to capitalize on those gains and appeared to withdraw from the political scene ahead of the legislative election.

If Mélenchon repeats the surge in support in the second round of voting and the far-left force becomes the biggest opposition group, Macron’s leadership will face vocal critics with greater legitimacy from voters’ support as well as a much bigger media presence.

It will also turn Macron’s reform efforts during his second term into a messy process of negotiating legislation with rivals bill by bill — a major hurdle for such campaign promises as pushing back the retirement age and reforming French schools as well as job benefits.

The French president had already anticipated such reforms would meet heavy opposition, particularly from France’s strong trade unions, who traditionally take to the streets to make their voices heard over policies they dislike. But his ambitions risk being greatly curtailed if he also struggles to get his legislation through parliament.

Yet that prospect didn’t seem to prompt Macron to step up campaigning ahead of the legislative vote: While Mélenchon dominated newspaper headlines in the run-up to the ballot, the French president barely campaigned and the ruling coalition was seen as being mostly on the defensive, seeking to cast Mélenchon and his alliance as a threat to the country’s economic stability and international credibility.

Sunday’s disappointing results in comparison to the 58 percent support Macron won in April have already sparked questions about the coalition’s lackluster and possibly over-cautious campaign efforts. The last few weeks have also been dominated by poor press for the president, including accusations of dithering over nominating a new government, the policing fiasco at the Champions League final and sexual assault allegations against one of Macron’s ministers.

Macron himself appeared to have taken a detached approach to the parliamentary campaign, perhaps hoping that the excitement rallied by Mélenchon would fade out.

For his part, Mélenchon had vowed to turn the parliamentary election into the “third round of the presidential election,” pitching himself as the next potential prime minister of France if he gains enough seats in the vote to secure a majority and force Macron into a so-called cohabitation government, where the president and prime minister are from different parties. While this has always been an unlikely scenario, it’s one that nevertheless seems to have galvanized Mélenchon’s supporters.

This article has been updated.

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