France’s Critical Election Happens in June, NOT on Sunday – John M Carey

France’s Critical Election Happens in June, NOT on Sunday

John M Carey – The Washington Post

The second round of France’s presidential election, on Sunday, is commanding worldwide attention. The contest pitting Emmanuel Macron’s globalist cosmopolitanism against Marine Le Pen’s France-First nationalism is important, to be sure.

But the election that will shape how the country is governed for the next five years will take place a month later, when the French elect their National Assembly, or parliament.   

Outside analysts tend to discuss France’s election season as though its presidency works just like the one in the United States of America — the president heads the executive branch, controls government ministries and wields important legislative powers. None of this is the case in France — at least, not unless the president controls a majority in the Assembly.

Here are answers to some fundamental questions:

How is the French system different?

France has a hybrid constitution, combining a presidential government like the United States, and elements of parliamentary government, like most European democracies. The French president is popularly elected and, like the U.S.A. president, has some important constitutional powers. But like parliamentary systems, a prime minister — called a premier — directs the French government.

France’s president appoints the premier, but once in office, the premier can be removed only by the assembly. This means the premier answers to the parliament, not the president. And the French constitution gives the premier, not the president, greater lawmaking powers. The president, for example, has no veto power, so the assembly can pass legislation by a bare majority even over the president’s objections.

The French premier also has some tools that have no real parallel in pure presidential systems with their separation of powers. Article 49 of the French constitution allows the premier to propose legislation under a special rule — if the assembly takes no action, the proposal becomes law, but a negative vote from the assembly brings down the government. The maneuver is known as the guillotine.

Using the guillotine means the premier can raise the stakes on a government initiative while simultaneously allowing legislators to duck responsibility for controversial policies. It affords the French premier more influence to coerce wayward or ambivalent lawmakers than any U.S.A. House speaker could dream of.

So why is the premier largely invisible?

If the premier is so important, why is there so much attention on the presidential race and not on the parliamentary contests to follow? In part, it’s because the president’s party usually has a majority in the parliament, which means the hybrid structure of the French executive is largely invisible.

Under the French version of unified government, the president is the leader of the majority party (or coalition of parties that runs under a common banner). The president appoints a premier who is a subordinate within the party, and the premier then acts as the president’s agent — because the party demands it, not because the constitution does.

What happens when a president doesn’t have an assembly majority?

Presidents who lack an assembly majority must appoint opposition premiers who can command support in the assembly, and everything changes. The French have experienced three spells of divided executive government, which they call “cohabitation,” from 1986 to 1988, then from 1993 to 1995, and a five-year stretch from 1997 to 2002.

At the time, the French political system encouraged mismatches between the presidency and the assembly majority because the presidential term was seven years — and the assembly term was five. The French president’s greatest power is the authority to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections. Newly elected presidents, flush with victory, then called elections quickly to secure a majority and unified government.

But five years in, the honeymoon glow dims, and late-term assembly elections are less kind to sitting presidents. That’s what happened to Socialist François Mitterand, who saw electoral defeats in the assembly late in both of his presidential terms, forcing him to endure conservative, Gaullist premiers.

The election of Jacques Chirac in 1995 ended cohabitation briefly by bringing the presidency in line with the Gaullist assembly majority. But when Chirac called an election in 1997, the voters shifted the parliamentary majority back to the left, forcing Chirac to live with a Socialist premier, Lionel Jospin, during the last five years of his presidency.

Why is political “cohabitation” so frustrating?

During cohabitation periods, the presidency diminished in stature, and the premier tended to exercise the main executive policymaking authority. For example, in the late 1980s, Chirac as premier engineered a major tax cut and privatized state-owned enterprises while the Socialist Mitterand could only watch.

But when Chirac was president, Socialist Party Premier Jospin pushed through legislation to shorten the workweek from 39 hours to 35.

Cohabitation proved frustrating to French politicians, and in 2000 Chirac engineered a constitutional amendment to shorten the presidential term and synchronize it with the assembly. Assembly elections are now set to follow immediately after the presidential contest to maximize the likelihood that a president controls a parliamentary majority.

For the past 15 years, the reform has had its intended effect — no cohabitation. But there’s a new twist. We may be witnessing the collapse of France’s traditional party system. And it is the election in June, not the one in May, that will provide the next clue.

Can Macron and Le Pen come up with the Assembly numbers?

The parties of Macron and Le Pen, between them, currently control only three of the assembly’s 577 seats. So each faces a far bigger challenge than just how to winSunday’s runoff presidential election. How can they engineer a campaign for the June elections that can deliver an assembly majority? Or short of that, can either candidate produce a fractured parliament that cannot impose a strong opposition premier and a return to cohabitation?

Neither presidential contender has a clear road map to success. Le Pen’s National Front has been shunned by other French parties for decades. Macron’s Onward party is new and lacks the organization or the roster of local leaders to run effective campaigns in over 500 electoral districts.

The rules for French assembly elections add one more measure of uncertainty. Like the presidential election, there is a second round if no candidate wins an outright majority, but in assembly elections any candidate winning more than 12.5 percent may contest the second round.

Up to now, France’s two main coalitions, one on the left and one on the right, have dominated assembly elections. But with France’s traditional parties weakened as never before — and now out of the presidential race altogether — what happens next? Voters may see little reason to remain united. In short, the electoral terrain going into a French Assembly election has never been so uncertain, yet the stakes have never been so high.

So go ahead and watch the presidential second round carefully. Macron and Le Pen are compelling, if not always appealing, personalities, and the contest matters, of course. But after the voters choose a president, French elections are going to get really interesting.

John M. Carey is the Wentworth professor in the social sciences at Dartmouth College. He is a co-director of Bright Line Watch.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On May 6, 2017 at 5:22 am

    Le Pen Deployed Bluster and Bigotry in the TV Debate. Sound Familiar?

    Natalie Nougayrède | The Guardian UK

    Imitating Trump’s tactics may have backfired for Le Pen, with polls showing Macron coming out on top – but rational debate took a hiding in the process

    Marine Le Pen tried to imitate some of Donald Trump’s antics during Wednesday night’s TV debates. She managed to channel his aggressiveness, contempt for facts, provocations, rabid boastfulness and bouts of unleashed absurdity. But, unlike Trump, Le Pen won’t be elected president this Sunday.

    And the reason for this is that: on top of the differences between national electoral systems, Emmanuel Macron, her opponent, managed this week to preserve a much stronger lead than Hillary Clinton did in the last days of the USA campaign.

    If this final French presidential TV debate offers any lessons, it is that alternative facts, used as a political weapon, are here to stay in the fabric of western democracies. They are the vehicle whose purpose is to channel popular anger.

    Just like Trump, Le Pen – although she laughed nervously at times – aimed to be taken seriously, but not literally, by voters. By failing to explain her policies, or even to make sense of them, she sidestepped questions, constantly spread confusion, and even veered on the edge of insanity.

    The crux came towards the end of the debate, when she started swaying her arms, eyes bulging, accusing Macron of mocking her supporters and treating them as “invaders” – a video that quickly became viral on social media.

    It brought to mind, but in an entirely unhinged version, Trump’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s “Basket of Deplorables” line – although Macron had all along smartly avoided that kind of vocabulary. Le Pen’s point, like Trump’s, was to say she alone spoke for people who feel despised or demonised.

    Another echo of Trump came when Le Pen wondered whether it might soon be revealed that Macron had an offshore bank account “in the Bahamas”. This morning, in a radio show, she said she “had no proof”, seemingly retracting the insinuation, but meanwhile pro-Le Pen social media had picked up on the theme.

    The whole stunt smacked of desperation – Le Pen had clearly been losing ground during the TV debate – but those who followed the USA campaign will have been reminded of Trump’s call for more hacking of Clinton’s emails.

    Insinuate there is more mud to throw around, dirty your opponent with conspiratorial allusions, and hopefully something will stick: that was her formula (the backdrop being that Macron’s team had repeatedly warned the voters, these last months, about Russian-connected cyber-attacks).

    Yet more parallels with Trump were on offer when Le Pen accused Macron of sympathies for a Muslim activist group, and said she would immediately expel all those suspected of links with radical Islam: there was a whiff of “Muslim Ban” in the air.

    Macron pushed back by saying she was setting the stage for an atmosphere of “civil war” in the country. But recklessness, hyperbole, bigotry and white-man’s anger were the toxic substances Le Pen deliberately sought to capitalise on.

    Sound Familiar?

    Of course, media fact-checkers were busy dismantling most of her claims on the euro and on industrial policy, but Le Pen’s gamble was that brutal cynicism and vulgar personal attacks – including on Macron’s private life, when she said “playing the teacher and the student” wouldn’t work out with her – would help demonstrate she’s in tune with popular rage.

    It may have all backfired – a post-debate poll showed she’d lost the battle. Unlike in the USA, winning the popular vote hands you the election in France. But because this is a one-on-one contest – unlike Brexit which was less personalised – it was fascinating to watch a 48-year-old scion of the French far right seek to emulate the man who upended USA politics.

    That Le Pen reached the runoff was long predicted, whereas, in the early stages, few believed Trump would become the Republican candidate. Le Pen avoided referring to Trump as a model (although she pointed to Brexit as an achievement) because she well knows he’s unpopular in France.

    Trump had recently tweeted the French election would be “interesting”, and his close adviser Steven Bannon has a fascination for Charles Maurras, an early 20th-century ideologue of the French far right. Le Pen’s efforts to detoxify her party make it impossible for her to quote Maurras. But many of her recipes were the same as Trump’s: a string of lies, bluster, and a constant effort to speak to the gut, not the mind.

    With just three days left before the vote, it would now take an immense, unforeseen event for the cards to be entirely reshuffled. France will likely spare itself a far-right presidency – which is not to say the country’s deep-seated problems have evaporated.

    If this TV debate showed something, it is that rational, constructive, argumentative discourse, of the sort that liberal democracy must rely on to exist, increasingly looks like an endangered species.

  • Clyde Duncan  On May 6, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    Marine Le Pen is Facing a Victorious Defeat

    Christine Ockrent | The Washington Post

    On Sunday, Marine Le Pen will not be elected president of France. Emmanuel Macron will win. At 39, Macron, the centrist candidate, will carry the majority of popular votes and send the world a vibrant message of hope, optimism and openness, contradicting all predictions about yet another populist takeover of the democratic process in the West.

    This is not wishful thinking. After a long, unpredictable and bitter presidential campaign, while French public opinion may be deeply divided — and the political landscape radically altered — the institutions have held forth. Together, Macron and Le Pen have defeated France’s political establishment as if they were no part of it — he one of its finest specimens, she the heiress to the National Front movement that has been around for 44 years.

    Pollsters, whose estimates were correct two weeks ago, all forecast Macron’s victory by a wide margin. How wide? The figures that will be officially proclaimed Sunday night will decide his capacity to reform the country. Parliamentary elections are due next month.

    If the results confirm the same political fragmentation that showed on the first presidential round, the maneuvering will be tricky. The next prime minister, whose identity should be known in the coming days, would need support on a project-by-project basis. But the dynamics of a strong Macron victory might bring his movement En Marche, which was created just 13 months ago, a rather large majority at the expense of both mainstream parties, mostly the socialists.

    Last Wednesday, the two candidates took part in a TV debate. It turned into a confrontation of unprecedented rhetorical violence. Le Pen adopted the same disruptive tactics Donald Trump used facing Hillary Clinton, playing with ”alternative facts” over most issues, her tone also reminiscent of the traditional far right arguments of the 1930s. She went for the jugular, caricaturing Macron as an oligarch, a Rothschild banker, François Hollande’s copycat and German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s puppet.

    Labelling Merkel the candidate of decline and fear, Macron stuck to rational arguments, trying to demonstrate Le Pen’s lack of coherent economic proposals and his own presidential stature. He won the fight. Her aggressiveness and lack of understanding of the issues shocked many of her supporters, who complained anonymously on social media. Even her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, said, “She didn’t rise to the occasion.”

    Even if she has lost some ground in the latest polls, Le Pen’s poor TV performance will not alter her remarkable achievement. Sunday, almost 12 million French citizens will likely put her name in the ballot box — roughly three times the 4.8 million that her father and founder of the National Front had gathered in 2002. He made it to the second round, sending a political shock-wave throughout the country. At the time, a “Republican front” uniting 82.2 percent of French citizens of all persuasions allowed Jacques Chirac to crush the far-right veteran.

    Fifteen years later, there will be no such counter-surge. Most of the ethical arguments that prevailed against the putrid anti-Semitic, Petainist rhetoric of the National Front have faded. The young generation does not remember. The older French citizens don’t care anymore, frustrated as they are by the failed promises of mainstream political parties. Forget about the inconsistencies of the National Front candidate’s program, her wavering about getting out of the European Union and exiting the euro, her incapacity to finance her economic projects, her unrealistic approach to immigration:

    Anger and hatred of the political establishment have taken over in France. In growing numbers, coming from all sides of society, not only the underprivileged, her supporters have come to believe that Le Pen can overthrow “the system” and do the job.

    It is a tribute to her personal skill. For the past 15 years, Le Pen has transformed a fringe far-right movement into a major political force, fostering a personality cult around herself. She has managed to keep her niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, a rising political star, under tight control. Together with her closest adviser, Florian Philippot, a polished, media-savvy “énarque,” she has conducted a kind of ideological laundering, expelling her father from his own party and sending him to his political death. Changing the narrative, cleaning up the movement of its anti-Semitic blurbs, stirring up anti-Muslim fear instead, Le Pen has succeeded in “un-demonizing” the National Front.

    Her favourite arguments belong to the usual catalogue of contemporary populism:

    Decline, identity, nationalism, protection against immigration and globalization, rejection of Europe — for the people, as President Trump would say, she has managed to put them in the national debate.

    In the land of Descartes, emotion now prevails. Marine Le Pen will lose this presidential race, but her imprint is here to stay.

    Get this comment from “dcvoter15”:
    Christine Ockrent gives too much credit to Donald Trump. During the campaign, Trump’s so called “populism” was directed heavily towards giving attention to those who had lost out from globalization in the previous two to three decades, keeping jobs at home, building a better economy in the weakest areas. He also promised that his health insurance would be better, more comprehensive, cheaper, “beautiful.” He narrowly won because of his pitch on jobs and trade, and he made clear that good health insurance was here to stay. Too bad Trump’s promises were total lies. He has no jobs plan. And the health plan passed by Ryan’s Republicans this week with his total support, does the opposite of what he promised, making millions of his own supporters completely vulnerable. His tax plan is the most tilted to the rich in American history — and, no surprise, benefits himself and his business. Trump knows this and is fighting to keep as much secret, misunderstood or confused as possible. That’s what the “fake news” campaign is really about. This is a betrayal — not the kind of stuff on which movements are built.

    Also: Some may have recalled how Trump was stalking Hillary Clinton during the debates, sniffing and blowing his nose like he was just another junkie needing a fix after snorting the stuff up his nose ….. and they elected him.

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