The presidential election is undoubtedly more important than the elections to the French Parliament, but that doesn’t mean that Senators and Deputies are totally powerless. For lefties like myself, the idea of a neoliberal like Emmanuel Macron, a right-wing Thatcherite like François Fillon, or a neo-fascist like Marine Le Pen is not something that we are desperate to see. This being the case, the Left needs to capture a significant proportion of the vote in the parliamentary elections. The limited powers not in the purview of the Executive can be used to guard against the ideological excesses that will follow the election of any of these individuals to the Presidency.
As I said in my previous piece, France is widely seen by political scientists as having a ‘dual executive’ and as such one would be forgiven in thinking that the President and the Parliament would have similar amounts of power. Unfortunately it is more complicated than that. Because France mixes a parliamentary and a presidential system, powers are split between three authorities: the Presidency; the ‘government’, or those ministers from the National Assembly appointed to be in the Cabinet; and the Parliament. The problem with this situation is that it makes opposing those in power quite difficult. If the President and his or her government supports a bill, they largely have control over the mechanisms of power.
Which mechanisms am I talking about? Article 34 of the French constitution states that Parliament is concerned with “matters of law”whereas the government has exclusive authority over “matters of regulation” . Not only does this constitutionally limit what the Parliament can discuss, is gives the government the ability to make as many regulatory changes as it likes without as much scrutiny as in full-blown parliamentary systems. There is also the matter of a legislative impasse. In the United States, if a bill cannot garner support in both the House and the Senate, the bill will be shelved until such a consensus is reached or it will die.
This is not the case in France. If such a situation arises in France, the government- i.e. the President and his or her ministers- can use a procedure called the ‘joint parity commission’ . This allows the government to decide that the final say on this legislation lies with the National Assembly, France’s answer to the House of Representatives. This is significant because the National Assembly is almost always comprised of deputies that are supportive of the government. In this regard, the French Senate becomes largely unable to unilaterally block government-backed legislation.
If policies that the Left opposes are to be stopped, majorities must be won in both houses of Parliament. Further, winning a majority in the National Assembly will almost certainly mean that the President, whoever it is, has to appoint a left-wing Prime Minister. This is where the real opportunity lies. If the Left can organise so that a period of cohabitation is the result of the upcoming elections, opposing horrible policies from the Élysée Palace will be much easier. Considering that many executive powers require the consent of the Prime Minister or the departmental minister concerned, a left-wing majority would seriously mitigate the disastrous policies emanating from the mouth of the President.
A President in a situation of cohabitation could get around a hostile Parliament in one of two ways: put each controversial policy to a referendum; or dissolve the National Assembly. On the first point, not only would such a move be unprecedented, it would be unclear as to whether this would be politically expedient. Although people may support individual policies of candidates that they on the whole oppose, I don’t believe this will be enough to get the result that the President would be after.
For example, if François Fillon wins the Presidency, and proposes the massive deregulation of a key industry, Fillon would have try and get support from over 50% of people in a national referendum. Given that no President has ever won their election in the first-round of voting, I don’t see many socialists, communists, or even liberals rushing to support such a policy. A right-wing President would have to convince a majority of France that their right-wing policy was just what the doctor ordered, which given France’s history seems unlikely.
On the second point, the President does have the constitutional right to dissolve the National Assembly whenever they wish, but this would also be politically risky. Firstly, the constitution would then prevent the President from dissolving the Assembly again for another 12 months. And secondly, it would not be guaranteed that an Assembly more amenable to the President would be elected.
In 1995 Jacques Chirac was elected President and a fellow right-winger, Alain Juppé, became Prime Minister. However, following unpopular budgetary cutbacks and a general strike, Chirac dissolved the National Assembly thinking that an early election would bolster his party’s position. In 1997 the National Assembly was dissolved, and the result was that a coalition of left-wing parties roundly beat Chirac’s right-wing alliance. For the next five years Chirac had to govern France with a socialist Prime Minister in the form of Lionel Jospin.
However as well as stopping the President from acting in some areas, a situation of cohabitation would allow for the discourse to be shifted to the left, both in terms of specific policies and normative principles. The President and his or her ministers may be able to put forward bills but if Parliament is using its public platform to challenge the premises of these bills, any attempt to push through this legislation by the President would be met with public outrage.
Further, if the ideological foundations of such bills were attacked, the credibility of the President would take a hit. If you are a neoliberal President and Parliament spends three years undermining every aspect of that ideology, nothing will happen if you keep proposing neoliberal policies, and defeat in the next election will be an inevitability. This is what the Left must do to prevent France from having to choose between different hues of right-wing nonsense.
To conclude, the Left shouldn’t put all its eggs in one basket. Whilst it is obvious that the Presidential election is comparatively more significant than individual elections for deputies, the cumulative election of a left-wing Parliament will go a long way to prevent France from slipping into right-wing policy frenzy. The ability of the Left to check the government is limited if cohabitation is not achieved, and this has to be the goal. A left-wing Prime Minister will necessarily mean that France will not wake up in a far-right nightmare or a neoliberal wet dream. Whoever wins the Presidency will need a compliant Parliament, and denying this compliance is the last way of denying the Right a monopoly on policy-making.