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French Parliamentary Elections 2017

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Turnout worries for Macron in French parliamentary election

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French President Emmanuel Macron leaves the polling station after voting in the first of two rounds of parliamentary elections in Le Touquet, France, June 11, 2017. REUTERS/Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has called for high turnout in this Sunday’s parliamentary election which is expected to give President Emmanuel Macron’s new party a large majority. But if turnout is as low as in the first round (49.7%), the government’s legitimacy will be in question.


"Go to vote!" Philippe said while campaigning in southern France late on Thursday. "It's the same message here as everywhere else: no one should abstain. In France voting is not obligatory... it is a right and a responsibility."

While the number of people voting in legislative elections in France has been steadily declining over the last few decades, turnout plummeted to its lowest in 60 years in last Sunday’s first round.

It was partly due to voter fatigue. Over the last eight months the French have been called to vote in two lots of primaries, then presidential and now parliamentary elections.

But low voter turnout also signals “the massive indifference of the French electorate to the parliament itself” sociologist Albert Ogien told RFI.

He says the situation has worsened since 2007 when the schedule for elections was reversed, putting presidential before parliamentary elections.

“It brought about a kind of feeling that the parliament is secondary to the president, that he decides, he makes the policies. This presidential system seems to have killed the feeling that the parliament has a democratic role in making politics in France.”

So when the parliamentary elections finally come “voters think the big decision has [already] been made,” says Anne Jadot, political scientist at the University of Lorraine.

“They were not convinced by the campaign motto that ‘this could be the third round of the presidential election’, for them […] the real important election, in their view at least, was over.”

The fact that the president Emmanuel Macron is a 39-year old centrist who was unknown to most people just three years ago, has further contributed to making these elections feel like an extension of the presidentials; such is the fascination with France’s newest political kid on the block.

The 'No' voters

The low turnout affected some categories of people more than others.

“It’s especially more popular [working class] voters and younger voters who did not bother voting,” says Anne Jadot. “It’s estimated that about two thirds of those below 34 did not turn out. And since both extreme left and extreme right parties attract more working class and unemployed people, [those parties] were especially hit by what is called ‘differential abstention’.”

The far right National Front and far left La France Insoumise did indeed suffer big blows, securing 13 and 11 per cent respectively in the first round. Both parties had hoped to perform well and become a strong force of opposition in parliament.

If current polls are proven right Marine Le Pen’s party is expected to win between 1 and 5 seats and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise between 8 to 18 seats, meaning they couldn't be sure of forming a parliamentary group.

While Melenchon has a good chance of winning his seat in the southern port city of Marseille, nationwide the movement has suffered a big blow. And yet just a month ago the firebrand was talking about becoming Prime Minister in a cohabitation government.

“When Melenchon said after the second round of the presidential election ‘it is possible I can be Prime Minister’, it was not realistic,” says sociologist Nicolas Framont. “In the French tradition of presidential and parliamentary elections this never happens. A lot of young people voted for him,” Framont continues, “and they no longer thought this time we can make it.”

Bad news for all parties, including REM

REM and its Modem allies are tipped to win a landslide (between 440-470 of the 577 seats), with the Republicans and its allies on 70-90 and the Socialists 20-30. But if turnout rates are as low as last week REM won’t be able to claim a clear mandate for its platform of reforms, beginning with the controversial work reform bill to simplify France’s complex labour code and make it easier to hire and fire.

Many opposition leaders have stressed the danger of Macron facing little opposition or scrutiny from parliament under a constitution that give the president considerable powers.

Even REM’s minister for parliamentary relations, Christophe Castaner, said “we don’t want a majority to have an easy time of it, we want a majority that will reform".

And at a meeting in Paris in February Macron himself said an absolute majority would not be desirable, comparing it to “a hold-up”.

With the prospect of no effective opposition within Parliament, it could spill out on to the streets.

“Some predict that the fight is going to erupt in the streets in the autumn,” Albert Ogien told RFI. “I don’t know whether the opposition will have sufficient forces to go and oppose the government in the streets but as far as legitimacy in parliament goes, the opposition does not exist and the legitimacy of a government comes from the fact that in parliament there’s an opposition which opposes its rule. This won’t happen.”

The new president is set to have the future parliament on his side, but not necessarily the people. Past experience shows that most reforms in France are blocked not in parliament, but through street protests.