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As France goes to the polls, what are Macron's options?

Andreas Noll
June 29, 2024

The latest opinion polls suggest the far-right National Rally will come out on top in France's snap parliamentary elections. Here's what that could mean for President Emmanuel Macron and the country's political future.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the Elysee Palace
French President Emmanuel Macron has put himself in a difficult political situationImage: SARAH MEYSSONNIER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

French opinion polls suggest the far-right National Rally will likely win a majority in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, as voters go to the ballot box in two rounds on June 30 and July 7. The party came out on top in the European Parliament elections in early June, with almost twice as many votes as the centrist Renaissance party headed by President Emmanuel Macron — a crushing loss that prompted Macron to call the snap legislative elections.

If the latest polls prove true, what would this shift in power mean for Macron's ability to govern in Paris? DW answers the most pressing questions below.

Who will Macron appoint as prime minister?

The French constitution, adopted in 1958, holds no restrictions on the president when it come to selecting and appointing the prime minister. However, he must take into account the majority in parliament.

If the prime minister does not have parliamentary support, then the National Assembly — the more powerful of France's two houses of parliament — would hold a vote of no confidence. The government would then have to submit its resignation to the president.

If the National Rally wins a majority of seats in the National Assembly, Macron would have to offer 28-year-old party leader Jordan Bardella the post of prime minister.

Macron has no alternative, said political scientist Hans Stark from the Sorbonne University in Paris. "Macron is so weakened. He doesn't have much room for maneuver," he told DW.

French voters gear up for snap election

Bardella has named an absolute majority of parliamentary seats as a condition for assuming government responsibility, because without it he would be unable to implement his political program.

Should Bardella be appointed prime minister, France would enter into what it calls a "cohabitation" for the fourth time in its modern history.

How does cohabitation work?

When the president and prime minister come from different political camps, executive power in France is divided. Each much then work together for the good of the country in a so-called "cohabitation."

The first such arrangement was formed in 1986 under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. After losing parliamentary elections, Mitterrand appointed the conservative Gaullist Jacques Chirac as prime minister, followed by his party colleague Edouard Balladur in 1993.

From 1997 to 2002, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin governed under President Chirac.

Prime Minister Jospin (left) and President Chirac (right) at a summit in Berlin in 2001
Jospin (left) and Chirac (right) shared power from 1997 to 2002Image: Thomas Koehler/photothek/picture alliance

Dividing power between two different political parties predictably leads to friction and complicated decision-making processes.

The constitution does not explicitly provide for cohabitation, so the success of governing via this arrangement hinges on how well the prime minister and president work together.

How powerful can a cohabitation government be?

In France, the president typically handles national security and foreign policy, while the prime minister takes care of domestic affairs.

But under a cohabitation, presidential functions are temporarily transferred to the prime minister. This means Macron would no longer be setting the broad policy lines, and would have to share the tasks of international relations with the government.

Speaking shortly before the first round of voting, National Rally parliamentary party leader Marine Le Pen explained how her party viewed the division of power: "Commander-in-chief of the armed forces is an honorary title for the president, because the prime minister holds the reins."

A National Rally government would also have far-reaching room to maneuver on domestic policy, but these issues can also lead to power struggles between the president and prime minister, as the first cohabitation under Mitterrand proved in 1986.

On July 14, Mitterrand publicly disavowed his prime minister, announcing he would not sign Chirac's government decrees on the reprivatization of 65 nationalized banks, insurance companies and industrial enterprises.

And while no government decree can come into force without the president's signature, such a refusal can only delay such a project, not stop it.

How well would Macron and Bardella work together?

Macron has rejected parts of the National Rally's program, meaning the party could possibly try "to drive Macron into a corner until he finally resigns," Stark predicted.

However, a total blockade of the work of a National Rally government would also be unthinkable, which means Macron and Bardella would eventually have to cooperate.

National Rally party leader Jordan Bardella
As National Rally party leader, Jordan Bardella is poised to take the role of prime minister — should the far right win the electionsImage: Eliot Blondet/abaca/picture alliance

Macron would have to justify any rejection of his new government's plans, which could mean he would then call on the Constitutional Council more frequently to have laws checked for constitutional compatibility before they are publicly announced. Some National Rally projects could already fail this hurdle.

What happens if the National Rally doesn't win a majority?

Stark assumes Bardella will make good on his announcement, and the National Rally will refrain from taking over the government if the party falls short of an absolute majority.

If no other camp is able to form a majority, Paris would be in a stalemate. The president would not be able to simply dissolve parliament again, as the constitution has outlined a one-year waiting period.

In the parliament dissolved by Macron in early June, his coalition parties only had a relative majority — they held the most seats, but not more than half the votes cast. The government had therefore repeatedly invoked article 49.3 of the French constitution to ram through laws it saw as important.

The National Assembly in Paris
Will there be a clear majority in the next National Assembly?Image: Ludovic Marin/AFP/dpa/picture alliance

This article allows the government to pass a law without a vote in the National Assembly unless a motion of no confidence is passed within 24 hours.

But article 49.3 is highly controversial, and a new cohabitation government would likely be reluctant to use it.

What would break a National Assembly deadlock?

The various parties have so far held back on how they would react to a National Assembly without a majority.

Le Pen of the National Rally has previously said she would be in favor of an early presidential election, should the parliamentary elections end without a clear winner. But Macron could still not be forced to resign. He has a presidential mandate until 2027, and has said he will not step down until then. There is no clear scenario for such a deadlock, and much will depend on the political dynamics after the election.

In principle, the appointment of a non-partisan government of experts would also be a possibility. But there is no historical model for this option.

Macron could also activate article 16 of the French constitution, which gives the president extraordinary powers in crisis situations to ensure the continuity of the state. He could then enact laws and issue decrees without parliamentary approval. However, France expert Hans Stark doesn't believe article 16 is a real option for the president.

"I don't see how he could keep this up for three years until the next presidential election," said Stark. "That would basically mean that we would be in permanent crisis mode."

This article was originally written in German.