SHARE
COPY LINK

POLITICS

Election analysis: Is there really a ‘far right voter surge’ in France?

One of the big news stories to come out of France's parliamentary elections was the unexpected success of Marine Le Pen's far-right party - so what happened and what does it mean for the next five years?

Election analysis: Is there really a 'far right voter surge' in France?
French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech after the first results of the parliamentary elections in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, on June 19. Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP

What were the results?

In Sunday’s parliamentary elections Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party won 89 seats. 

The biggest group in the parliament is president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance Ensemble with 245 seats (44 seats short of an outright majority), followed by the leftist alliance Nupes with 131 and then Le Pen’s party.

But since Ensemble and Nupes are coalitions of several parties, Rassemblement National can claim to be the largest single party (not in partnership) in the parliament.

So is there really a far-right surge in France?

Not only was the RN win big, it was also unexpected, since pollsters had predicted a third position for the party, but with a much smaller number of seats (most polls predicted between 20 and 40 seats).

The party’s 89 seats also represent a massive increase from the eight seats that it held previously.

But while the increase in seats is clearly significant, it may not represent a ‘voter surge’.

In total, 17.3 percent of the population voted RN on Sunday, compared to eight percent in the second round of the 2017 elections. First round voting also showed a similar pattern – 13.2 percent in 2017 and 18.6 percent in 2022. 

But while the party’s vote share doubled, their number of seats increased tenfold – with a major effect being the collapse of the ‘front républicain‘ (see below). 

The vote totals are also well below those seen in presidential elections, albeit that different voting systems make direct comparison difficult.

In the 2017 presidential election Marine Le Pen finished second with 33 percent of the vote in the second round. In the April 2022 parliamentary election she again finished second to Emmanuel Macron, this time with 41 percent of the vote. 

So what does the seat increase mean? 

The biggest immediate impact of RN’s success is on the party’s finances, since political parties receive funding from the State based on their representation in parliament. Le Pen’s party has been in major financial difficulties for some years, unable to pay back huge loans secured from Russian and Hungarian banks to finance to 2017 and 2022 presidential campaigns, so the extra cash will undoubtedly be welcome.

Politically, there will also be an impact.

Le Pen has already said that she will demand the chair of the powerful finance commission, which traditionally goes to the largest opposition party, although she bases her claim on being the largest single party of opposition, since Nupes (on 131 seats) is an alliance of four parties. 

Commanding a large block of seats in parliament will undoubtedly make the far-right party more of a force in national politics than previously, although the party is extremely unlikely to be approached by Macron’s team in their search for allies to build a working majority over the next five years. 

What is the Front républicain?

One of the most striking things about Sunday’s result was the collapse in many areas of the ‘republican front’ against the far right.

In all elections apart from European ones, France votes in two rounds: candidates with the highest scores in the first round go through to round two, so French voters go to the polls for a second time to decide between the second round candidates.

The tradition of the Front républicain dictates that if a far-right candidate makes it through to the second round, voters from across the political spectrum vote for whichever candidate is standing against the far-right, even if they are not a supporter of that candidate.

The ‘hold your nose and vote’ method benefited Macron in both the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections, when many voters who were not his supporters cast their votes for him in the second round in order to avoid the possibility of a President Le Pen. This also benefited Jacques Chirac in 2022 when he found himself in the second round against Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie.  

This time, though, it appears to have collapsed in many areas, with defeated candidates from both Ensemble and Nupes declining to call for voters to back their opponents against Le Pen.

This lack of a ‘blocking’ vote is a major contributor to the way RN was able to convert vote share into seats in parliament – converting 17 percent of the vote into 89 seats, compared to converting eight percent of the vote into eight seats in 2017.   

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

FRANCE EXPLAINED

Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.

SHOW COMMENTS