OPINION: France begins a new political era and it’s going to get messy

France has entered a new political era (or reverted to an old one) in which parliament rules but voters still demand action to ease soaring prices. John Lichfield explains the muddle that has engulfed French politics this summer and why it won't end soon.

OPINION: France begins a new political era and it's going to get messy
The French National Assembly. (Photo by Geoffroy Van der Hasselt / AFP)

People in France, and elsewhere, are suddenly fascinated by an institution which they long ignored; the French parliament.

How did the far-right Rassemblement National – supposedly beyond the pale of normal political discourse –  end up with two out of the six vice-presidencies in the new assembly?  

Why has the powerful position of chairman of the finance committee gone to Eric Coquerel, a veteran of the destroy-the-system Left (who now stands accused of behaving improperly towards women)?

Why is the Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne scared to put her new government and its programme to a vote of confidence in the assembly today? Answer: because she might lose and her government might collapse after only two days.

READ MORE: Key points: How Macron has reshuffled French cabinet for tricky second term

Why then is Madame Borne happy to face a censure motion from the Left (possibly on Friday)?  Answer: because the rules for censure motions are different and Borne and her government will win that vote or at least survive it.

There is also a single answer to all these questions. France has entered a new political era; or has reverted to an old one. Parliament is divided and therefore parliament rules. The President can no longer treat the National Assembly as his rubber-stamp or echo chamber. We have returned to the France of the 1950s or the 1930s, before Charles de Gaulle invented the supposedly all-powerful presidency (but left the ultimate power in parliament).

Parliaments, especially hung or divided parliaments, are by their nature messy or muddled. France is therefore entering a period of muddled politics at a time when it is also confronting a land war in Europe, soaring inflation, a resurgent Covid pandemic and the possibility of a global recession.

The muddle will continue for a while. President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed yesterday something that has been obvious for days: no other large bloc of deputies in the assembly elected last month is willing to enter a coalition with his minority government.

Madame Borne will therefore struggle on with her 250 deputies (39 short of an overall majority). She will try to persuade parts of the Right and Left to abstain in sufficient numbers to allow the passage of urgent business such as her anti-inflation package and new measures against the seventh (yes, the seventh) wave of Covid-19.

Only a handful of independent deputies will support her consistently. Others, on the Left and Right, will support her, or more likely abstain, from time to time. Despite the posturing censure motion to be tabled by the Hard Left today, no-one wants to bring the government down yet. No one wants another election yet. No one wants to bring government to a halt yet.

There is a strong chance that there will be a new election in the first half of next year. Until then, there will be a period of bluff and double-bluff in which the government will blame the opposition for its failure to govern effectively and the much- divided opposition will try to trip up the government (although not so much as to annoy the voters).

Ah, yes the voters. The half who bothered to vote on 12 and 19 June elected a blocked parliament. They still expect government to deliver them stuff, like continued subsidies on pump prices, gas and electricity.

In the meantime, we are all going to have to start to take the lower house of the French parliament seriously and learn about its arcane procedures and traditions. Some of the instant takes in recent days in the French media, but also in the UK and US media, have been grossly misleading.

Why DID the far right Rassemblement National end up with two out of the six vice-presidencies – or deputy speakers – in the new assembly? Part of the Left in France – but also in the UK – has accused Macron’s allies, and even President Macron himself, of making secret deals with Marine Le Pen’s Far Right while pretending to exclude them.

In truth, Le Pen’s breakthrough in the June elections entitled her to a share in the running of parliament under the parliament’s rules. Her 89 deputies guaranteed her one vice-presidency. She ended up with two because the centre-right Les Républicains  preferred to hold on to one of the lucrative positions of quaestor (the three deputies who run the assembly’s finances).

A messy deal was concocted which gave all four large blocs in the assembly a proportional share of the spoils. The Left went along with the deal at first and then part of the Left cried foul. A Macronist conspiracy? Hardly.

At the same time, the Right and Far Right are furious with pro-Macron deputies for failing to conspire with them to deprive the Hard Left – in the dishevelled guise of Eric Coquerel  – of the powerful position of chairman of the finance committee.

By tradition, each year since 2009, the ruling party has withdrawn from the vote to allow the chairmanship of this committee to go to the biggest party in opposition. The right and far right wanted the Macronistes to break that unwritten rule this year to block Coquerel. He was the radical choice imposed by the hard left La France Insoumise on the wider Left-Green bloc.

The Macronistes refused to conspire with the Right. Coquerel got the job, which will give him considerable power to embarrass the Macron government and the capitalist system. In the meantime, it has embarrassed him. He stands formally accused of behaving in an aggressively, insistent sexual way towards women, despite being a leading figure in a fiercely feminist party. He dismisses the accusations as “unfounded”.

None of the supposed, wicked backroom dealing by Macron’s alliance has won them significant new support in parliament. Elisabeth Borne will refuse to put herself through a confidence vote today because she knows that she might lose it.  

Such a vote is decided by simple majority of those voting. Even if part of the opposition abstained, Borne might lose.

A  censure motion is different. It needs a positive majority of the 577 deputies – in other words 289 votes – to succeed. The hard left LFI has insisted on bringing a censure motion on Friday and has pushed other left-wing parties to go along. Some Socialist deputies may abstain all the same.

If only 50 or so deputies abstain, Borne will survive. The centre-right (62 seats) has already announced that they will do so. So has Le Pen’s bloc of 89 deputies.

Expect, therefore, lots of new, indignant hot-takes accusing Macron of conspiracies with the Right and  Far Right – which is exactly why the LFI insisted on a censure vote in the first place.

Aren’t parliamentary politics fun?

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EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

As Iranian women burn their hijabs in protest at the country's repressive laws you might have heard people contrasting this to the French 'hijab ban' - but is the Muslim headscarf actually banned in France?

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

What are the rules? Does France have a hijab ban?

No, France does not have a ban on hijabs in public spaces. However, the rules differ when it comes to headscarves and full-face coverings and this can be confusing because both the full-face veil and the Muslim headscarf are often referred to a voile in French.

In 2010, the country brought in a complete ban on clothing that includes full-face coverings – including the burka and niqab. These cannot be worn in any public space in France, at risk of a €150 fine.

The hijab or headscarf, however, is completely legal in public spaces including shops, cafés and the streets and it’s common to see women wearing them, especially in certain areas of the big cities like Paris.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no restriction on women’s freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf.

In line with France’s laws on laïcité (secularism) it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion – including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, including schools and universities (with the exception of visitors).

Public officials such as teachers, firefighters or police officers are also barred from wearing any overt symbol of their religion while they are at work.

In 2004, President Jacques Chirac’s government banned all religious signs from state schools. While the law also banned crucifixes and kippas, “it was mostly aimed at girls wearing Muslim headscarves,” explained The Local’s columnist, John Lichfield.

Burkinis are also subject to certain rules. They are not allowed in public swimming pools in France where there are strict regulations regarding dress (Speedos only for men and compulsory swimming caps), but they are allowed on beaches and in other public spaces.

READ MORE: Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

This became a source of controversy during the summer of 2022, when Grenoble challenged the ban on the full-body swimsuit by relaxing its rules on the swimwear permitted in public pools.

In response to the challenge, France’s highest administrative court voted to uphold the countrywide ban in June. 

What about in athletics?

Some federations, such as the French Football Federation, have banned players from wearing the hijab, along with other “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa.

A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

Other sports, such as handball and rugby, have a more open position.

Are there plans to change these rules? 

Currently, there are no government plans to reverse the ban on full-face coverings including the burka and niqab or to allow the symbols of religion in public buildings, like schools.

There have been attempts to change the current legal framework on the headscarf, however.

In 2021, Senators proposed an to the government’s “anti-separatism bill” that would ban girls under 18 wearing a hijab in public. Several other amendments also targeted Muslim women – such as banning mums from wearing the hijab when accompanying school trips – however these were all defeated in the Assemblée nationale and therefore did not become law.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

Are the rules followed?

The rules around the niqab are generally followed and it has become quite rare in France.

However sociologist Agnès De Féo, believes that in the years following its ban, the full-face covering became more popular, rather than less.

She wrote that “the law had an incentive effect: it incited women to transgress the ban by embracing the prohibited object. Prohibition made the niqab more desirable and created a craze among some young women to defy the law.”

As of 2020, however, fewer women wore the niqab and burka in France than they did in 2009.

The rules around the wearing the headscarf in public buildings are generally respected, but it’s not uncommon for rules around any form of Muslim dress to be over-zealously interpreted – sometimes by accident, sometimes with a cynical political intent.

One key example was in 2019, when Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage after posting a video of himself confronting a headscarf-wearing woman who accompanied students on a field trip.

He cited “secular principles” – arguing that the headscarf’s ban in schools should also extend into school trips.

In response, the country’s Education Minister at the time, Jean-Michel Blanquer, clarified that that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children.”

There was also controversy at election time over candidates who appeared on posters wearing the hijab, although again this is perfectly legal and doe snot contravene secular principles.