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European Elections: Three Neglected Novelties

Interview with Olivier Duhamel

INTERVIEW - 7 June 2019

The 2019 European elections’ specific characteristics, such as the wide array of voting options (34 lists), the fact that these were the first elections since the May-June 2017 sequence, and  the proportional representation system based on national lists, do partly explain their results. However, several significant and unprecedented facts have not been sufficiently highlighted. Olivier Duhamel, President of the FNSP (SciencesPo) and contributor on political and institutional issues at Institut Montaigne, answers our questions.

The increase in participation can be observed almost everywhere in Europe. What is so special about it in France?

It is key to note that, for the first time in the electoral history of the last 40 years, and therefore since the European Parliament has been elected by direct universal suffrage, the voter turnout rate for the European elections in France was higher than that in the last national legislative elections: 50.1% in the European elections of May 2019, against 48.7% in the first round of the June 2017 legislative elections, and 42.6% in the second round. The French voted more in the election of the European Parliament than in the election of the National Assembly. This certainly expresses a lack of interest in the latter in the wake of the presidential elections, but it also signals an increased interest for the European elections, which contradicts the dominant discourse.

The results were surprising due to two unexpected collapses, that of the right-wing party Les Républicans, which scored 8.5%, and that of the far left party La France Insoumise, which scored 6.3%. The Greens’ breakthrough, with over 13%, was also unexpected, although not unprecedented. As for the President's party, it is holding up with 22%. Is this result a success for Emmanuel Macron?

Let's make a few distinctions.

  1. Compared to the goal set by Emmanuel Macron himself, this is a failure, since his score was exceeded by 0.9% by the Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen’s far right party.
     
  2. If we now acknowledge the structural fact that in the European elections following a presidential election, the President's party always does less well than his own result in the first round of the presidential election, this is a success. The average loss from 1979 to 2014 was 6.5 points (from -3 in 2004 and 2009 to -14 in 2014). In 2019, it was reduced to -0.9 points. Macron is therefore doing better than his predecessors.
     
  3. Finally, let us reason in strategic terms. The establishment of the duopoly intended by Emmanuel Macron, replacing the right-left divide with an opposition between progressives and nationalists, has been successful. If it stands, it will facilitate, although not guarantee, his re-election

Is this shift in the dominant divide and the duopoly between La République En Marche and the Rassemblement National sustainable?

 It all depends on what we mean by sustainable. In the coming months, this divide will undoubtedly be maintained. In the three years between now and the presidential election, it is possible, if not plausible, that it will stand - but not absolutely certain. There could well be a revival of a renewed right of government, and ideally a new alliance between social democrats and the Greens, which would exclude La France Insoumise, in the municipal elections of 2020 and the regional and departmental elections of 2021.
 
In any case, and this is where the second novelty of the 2019 European elections in France comes in, for the first time in our history, the three leading political forces are rejecting the right-left divide. Marine Le Pen rejected it, unlike her niece Marion Maréchal, who came out on LCI on June the 2nd and clearly asserted her right-wing stance. Yannick Jadot rejected it, unlike the Greens in the past. And Emmanuel Macron built his entire party and power on this rejection, even if his voters - and in part his politics - position him to the right of the French political spectrum. Add to the 59% gathered by these three forces the results of other parties that do not fall within the right-left divide, such as the France Insoumise (6.3%) or the animist party (2.2%), and you will see that over two thirds of the voters voted neither for the right nor for the left. Meanwhile, the two parties that have been governing our country since 1958, the Gaullist and the Socialist parties, jointly fail to reach 15% of the votes, which is absolutely unprecedented.
 
Conclusion: we are witnessing a disruption that considerably accentuates the one that occurred during the 2017 presidential election, even if the specificities of the European elections contributed to it.

 

Copyright : ERIC CABANIS / AFP

 

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