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An Institut Montaigne Explainer: Understanding Legislative Elections in France

An Institut Montaigne Explainer: Understanding Legislative Elections in France
 Lisa Thomas-Darbois
Deputy Head of Research for France and Resident Fellow

Though some might still be recovering from a breathless presidential election, French citizens will go back to the polls on June 12th and June 19th, 2022, to elect their representatives at the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale). This year especially, in the general sense of democratic and institutional crisis, as exemplified by the complete revamp of the left and the rise of political extremes, the legislative elections take on a new importance. What’s the future of politics in France? How likely is it that the left impose political cohabitation today? In this brief explainer, Institut Montaigne deciphers the intricate workings of the legislative election in France.

Representatives in the National Assembly: how are they elected?

MPs play a central role in the democratic process in France. As representatives of the people in Parliament, they pass the law (Article 24 of the Constitution) and form the National Assembly, the lower chamber of the bicameral system of French parliament.

Both parliamentarians, in the National Assembly and the Senate, as well as the government can initiate legislation, according to Article 39 of the Constitution. They may also initiate processes for constitutional amendments.

The National Assembly plays a marginally preeminent role in Parliament, compared to the Senate. In the event of a disagreement between the two chambers of Parliament on legislative texts, a joint committee may be convened, but if a dispute persists, the National Assembly may have the final say.

Every five years, 577 MPs are elected in the legislative election, representing each of the 577 electoral constituencies in France. Each constituency is made to represent around 125 000 citizens.

MPs are elected by direct universal suffrage by all French citizens registered on voter rolls, using a simple majority system with two rounds.

In order to be elected in the first round of voting, a candidate must obtain over 50% of ballots cast and at least 25% of total registered voters. If no candidate is elected in the first round, a second round of elections takes place one week later. 

Only some of the candidates may enter the second round of elections: the first two candidates according to first round voting as well as any other candidate who has garnered at least 12.5% of total registered voters. 

In the second round, the candidate who totals the most votes cast is elected. In the event of a tie, the eldest candidate is elected.

Because the high chamber of Parliament (the Senate) is not directly elected by the citizens, legislative elections for the lower chamber (the National Assembly) are a crucial event in the democratic process of France.

What is the presidential majority? 

The so-called "majority phenomenon" is a characteristic of the Fifth Republic which enables the confirmation of a strict majority. The majority phenomenon stipulates that the head of government must be associated with the elected majority in Parliament, if such majority exists. 

Generally, the majority in the National Assembly coincides with the political leaning of the President. In that case, we may speak of a presidential primacy, or primacy of the executive. Otherwise, when the majority in the Assembly is not aligned with the politics of the President, we are in a period of "cohabitation" (see below). The majority phenomenon remains in place, of course, but it is imperfect.

The majority group in Parliament is often considered a pipeline for government nominations, making the relationship between parliamentary majority members and government especially porous. If an MP is named to a ministerial position, the representative no longer sits in the National Assembly until the ministerial term ends.

What’s the role of opposition in the National Assembly?

A political party or organization may gather as a parliamentary group as long as they can present at least 15 MPs in agreement, which must all sign a joint written political statement and present it to the President of the National assembly.

Opposition groups are self-designated as opposing the governing majority. Minority groups are any other groups which are not self-declared in the opposition nor in the governing majority, or the smallest group in the majority. One day of sitting of the Assembly is reserved for opposition and minority groups every month.

What do we mean by "cohabitation"? 

When a majority of MPs elected to the National Assembly are from a different political party or organization than the President’s, we are faced with a period of "cohabitation". Because the Government is politically responsible to the National Assembly, the President must name a Prime Minister whose political leanings are compatible with that of the majority of the National Assembly to avoid a dissolution of government. The opposition is then constituted not by MPs who oppose government policy but rather, most frequently, of sympathetic MPs.

Cohabitation periods favor the Prime Minister and his or her government, over the President, in the political leanings of French institutions. 

Article 12 of the Constitution allows the President to dissolve the National Assembly in an attempt to regain majority in the chamber, if the political tensions with the government prove to hinder legislation too heavily. 

The head of state also reserves the right to promulgate legislation after it has been voted in Parliament. Furthermore, Article 10 of the Constitution allows the President to request a new debate in Parliament before promulgation.

France has seen three periods of political cohabitation since the Fifth Republic began in October 1958.

The first cohabitation took place from March 1986 until May 1988. François Mitterand (1981-1995), then President of the French Republic with socialist leanings had to name right-wing Jacques Chirac (RPR - Rally for the Republic, a Gaullist, center-right and conservative political party in France) to the office of Prime Minister after the legislative elections of March 1986. When he was reelected in 1988 for a second term, President Mitterrand took a gamble, dissolving the National Assembly, and won back the majority of the socialist party in Parliament. At the time, the National Assembly term lasted only five years while the presidential mandate was seven years long. When his MPs term ended in 1993, François Mitterrand faced a second cohabitation, with Prime Minister Édouard Balladur (RPR) until the end of his presidential term in may 1995.

The last cohabitation period occurred under the seven-year term of President Jacques Chirac. After a dissolution of the National Assembly elected in 1993, the left-wing coalition secured a majority in the chamber. The cohabitation lasted five years, making it the longest cohabitation in French history. 

Could we really see cohabitation in France in 2022? 

For the first time since 1997, the many parties of the political left have decided to form a coalition ahead of the legislative elections, promoting a new movement: the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES, Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale). Rallying the Greens, the Communists and the Socialists behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, with only the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) holding off from the alliance, NUPES aims to secure a majority of parliamentary seats for leftist politics. In order to do so, only one candidate from any of the allied parties will run in each of the 577 electoral constituencies. Ultimately, their goal is to force Emmanuel Macron’s hand in nominating Jean-Luc Mélenchon to the office of Prime Minister.

Though we cannot make any predictions about the outcome of June 12th and June 19th, 2022, this strategy may prove successful for a unified left. After NUPES was announced, simulations showed that 471 constituencies would take the coalition to the second round of legislative elections, besting both Macron’s party La République en Marche (448) and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (296).

This however, is no definitive win for the coalition. Even if the leftists do get to compete in second rounds, they may not win the election. What’s more, victories in the legislative run-offs do not guarantee cohabitation. According to recent estimates, NUPES is well positioned to secure 170 to 205 seats in the Assembly - somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 times more seats than what the left currently holds in the chamber. Emmanuel Macron could possibly not win the majority of seats, holding 275 to 310. It must also be noted that even if NUPES secures an absolute majority in the chamber, there is no constitutional obligation for Emmanuel Macron to name Jean-Luc Mélenchon his Prime Minister. Any other member of the leftist alliance would be fair game to head the government. 

Can deputies dissolve the government? 

The Government is accountable to the Parliament in a few different ways:

  • Permanent commissions regularly hear members of Government and can convene working groups 

The Parliament can also dissolve Government:

  • If the Parliament emits a no-confidence vote on the program proposed by the government
  • MPs may also trigger a dissolution of government if at least a tenth of the chamber proposes a motion of censure, and only once this motion is adopted by absolute majority in the chamber. Specifically, if the government attempts to promulgate a law by invoking Article 49.3, which bestows the government a right to pass a law without a vote, the Assembly may propose a motion of censure. In that case, MPs can invoke their right of censure within 24 hours of government action and eventually force the government to resign.

How did changes to the presidential mandate and the electoral calendar affect French politics? 

In 2000, a constitutional amendment on a reduction of the presidential term from seven to five years was submitted to agreement by referendum following procedures outlined in Article 89. This amendment garnered a 73.21% approval rate (of ballots cast), with a high abstention rate (70% of all registered voters). This amendment was adopted to reduce presidential terms to five years with a two-term limit.

Before this amendment was passed, the risk of cohabitation (see below) was high because of the discrepancies in the duration of the presidential term and the parliamentary terms - there was a higher probability of political opposition between the National Assembly and the office of the President. This amendment not only reduces such a risk but it also allows for a more frequent renewal of the president in office.

The amendment’s impact was further enhanced with the revision of the electoral calendar, voted as organic law on May 15th, 2001. This revision pushed the April legislative elections to June, thus timing it after the presidential election. The change allows the President to draw on his recent election to gather a parliamentary majority and enact his policy. 

These two changes contribute to the further empowerment of the President in the French regime, although cohabitation is not rendered impossible.

Co-written with Mélanie Ullmo, Assistant Policy Officer.



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