Record abstention in French elections as Macron secures majority

France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon with French Communist Party national secretary Pierre Laurent.
June 17, 2017

The first round France’s National Assembly elections have been marked by record abstention of 51.29% of the electorate.

The abstentionism primarily impacted on the far-right and left parties. Meanwhile, recently elected President Emmanuel Macron’s The Republic on the March (LREM) and its allies look to secure a strong parliamentary majority in the second round of elections on June 18.

This would strengthen LREM and allies capacity to carry out Macron’s agenda of regressive assaults on students, workers, the unemployed and retirees. LREM’s victory in the first round creates a significant challenge for the French left to build resistance to Macron.

LREM’s allies include the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem), along with dissident members of the right-wing The Republicans (LR) and the Socialist Party (PS). Combined, these forces received 32.32% of the vote. They are expected to ultimately win between 390-440 out of the 577 seats in the National Assembly.

The second highest result was achieved by the LR and allied right-wing parties, which received 21.57% of the vote. These traditional right-wing parties are expected to win between 70 and 90 seats in the second round.

The far-right Front National placed third with 13.20%, with the FN are expected to increase the number of seats it holds beyond its current two. There is an outside chance it could win enough seats to form a formal parliamentary group (15 seats).

Left results

On the left, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed (FI) received 11.02% of the vote, and 65 of its candidates have qualified for the second round.

The vote for the traditional social democratic party, the PS, and its allies fell dramatically from 2012, although it was up from its record low in the presidential elections. They won 9.51% of the vote and are expected to win 20-30 seats. This is down dramatically from the 331 seats they hold in the outgoing parliament, with a large number of former government ministers already eliminated in the second round.

The French Communist Party (PCF), for its part, had been heavily dependent on the Left Front electoral alliance with Melenchon’s Left Party to win its seven seats in 2012. With no alliance between the PCF and FI, it suffered a sharp decline in its electoral fortunes — receiving just 2.72% of the vote. Just 12 PCF candidates qualified for the second round.

LREM’s likely strong majority, along with Macron’s victory in the presidential election, is being presented as a rejection as the mainstream parties of the centre-left and the right, as well as an endorsement of Macron’s “modernising” agenda.

Macron is already flagging a new round of attacks on workers and their unions. These include expanding the areas that a company level agreement can undercut a sectoral agreement — along with his campaign pledge to cut France’s public sector by 140,000 jobs.

No mandate

However, while appearing a strong result, the reality is LREM domination of the vote is primarily a consequence of the decline in the mobilisation of voters of the left and far right.

Candidates backed by Macron received 1.3 million fewer votes than Macron did in the first round of the presidential election. Moreover, LREM vote constitutes a small section of the French electorate.

The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) pointed out in a statement: “With over 51% abstention, the results of the first round of parliamentary election is that of a sick and increasingly undemocratic Republic. 

“That the Republic on the March should have an absolute majority in the Assembly with the support of 16% of registered voters ... this result shows that this government has no legitimacy to rule by decree, much less to destroy our social gains, the Labour Code, or social Security”.

It is unclear what drove the sharp decline electoral support for the FI and the PCF from the first round of the presidential election. Some of the decline potentially reflects a letdown from Macron’s victory, along with difficulty in transforming Melenchon’s individual electoral appeal to the FI.

Another factor may well have been the failure of the FI and PCF to build a united left electoral campaign for the legislative elections. This division was a consequence of long running tensions between Melenchon and the Left Party on the one hand and the PCF on the other.

These tensions led the majority the PCF’s national conference in November to reject a proposal that the PCF support Melenchon’s presidential campaign. The PCF subsequently endorsed Melenchon only after a narrow membership vote in favour.

Struggle for united left 

There was widespread support for a united legislative campaign, but there was no agreement over the basis for such an alliance.

The PCF sought an alliance based on non-aggression and the ability the parties to present their own programs under their own banner. The FI, on the other hand, made the basis of unity having all candidates accepting its program, under its banner and with all public funding based on votes going to the FI.

The impact of this division was felt in a range of ways. It led to a number of the PCF candidates standing solely as FI candidates. It also led to a level of alienation of the bases of the different groups over the blame game for divisions.

The only PCF candidates who did not compete against an FI candidate in their constituency were those PCF members of parliament who endorsed Melenchon’s campaign. These were among some of the better performing PCF candidates (some receiving more than 30% of the vote in their constituencies).

However, this may also have been a consequence of them standing in seats where the PCF has continued to maintain strong links with the working class.

It is unclear exactly how much of an impact the standing of multiple left candidates in individual constituencies had on the left vote. But it is clear that the divided situation resulted in less left candidates qualifying for the second round of the elections. This weakens the ability of the left to blunt the size of the LREM’s parliamentary majority.

The FI and PCF leaderships have both made clear the pressing need for the left to unite to support the remaining left candidates. There are 80 left candidates who made it through to the second round (including PS candidates who have consistently opposed anti-worker changes to the Labour Code). There are 42 seen as being in a strong position to win a seat.

However, this number could rise if the left is able to mobilise a greater section of its base in the second round. PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent was reported in l'Humanite on June 13 as saying: “The mobilisation of leftist voters is necessary because it is thanks to the huge abstention that the Republic on the Move could get an absolute majority.”

The street

As important as the June 18 second round vote will be in establishing a parliamentary opposition to Macron, the reality will be that the main struggle against attacks on social gains in France will occur in the street.

The Front Social, established in April and including more than 100 unions and other activist groups, has called national mobilisations against Macron for June 19. Unions in Paris have also called protests for June 27, the day that newly elected MPs will take their seats, as part of their campaign against the attacks on France’s labour laws.

These mobilisations will be important steps in the building of a movement against Macron.

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