France: what to expect for the assembly?

I am going to assume the polls are right and Emmanuel Macron will squeak past Marine Le Pen and be elected president in the runoff in France’s presidential election. (The polls actually suggest he will win at least 60% of the vote.) Let’s think ahead to the assembly elections, which come in June (also in two rounds).

I have seen various references to a likelihood of “cohabitation”. This is nonsense, if we define that term properly to mean cases in which the president and premier are from opposing parties and the president’s party is not in the cabinet. But let’s give people saying this the benefit of the doubt, and assume they mean the presumptive President Macron will have a difficult coalition-building task ahead of him with the assembly he will face. This is not unreasonable to assume, given that Macron has no existing party to start with.

Even this weaker prediction of a challenging assembly environment for the young “outsider” president is probably wrong. Honeymoon elections really matter, and France has had, since 2002, an extreme version of a honeymoon cycle, with the assembly election only about a month after the presidential.

This first graph is from the forthcoming Votes from Seats by Matthew Shugart (yes, me) and Rein Taagepera. Unlike most graphs in this book, this is not a logical model. That is, it is not based on deductive logic for the specific equation plotted. The equation is an empirical regression result. However, the basic idea of a honeymoon surge is itself well documented (as explained in Chapter 12 of the book, citing earlier work by me and others).

The plot is of the “presidential vote ratio” against “elapsed time”. The presidential vote ratio, or Rp, is the vote share of the president’s party in the assembly election, divided by the president’s own vote share (in the first round, if two-round system). Elapsed time is the number of months into the presidential inter-electoral period in which the assembly election took place, so 0 means a concurrent election (same day) and the more closely elapsed time approaches 1.0, the closer it is to the next presidential election (but before it).

The upcoming French assembly election will be about 1/60=0.0167 on elapsed time, E. Macron has won, according to initial results, about 24% of the first-round vote for president. So, doing the math in the (empirical) equation, we get:


In other words, if the pattern holds for France, 2017, we should expect Macron’s new party, En Marche!, to get around 29% of the vote (24*1.19=28.6). Is that even possible, given En Marche! did not even exist prior to Macron’s campaign? I do not know, and I will not call this a “prediction” given it is just an empirical pattern and not a logical model. But there you have it, for what it is worth–in the absence of any other information, I am going with around 29% of the vote.

Note that there is only one non-concurrent election with E<0.1 for which Rp<1. Even with an untested party, I like Macron’s party’s chances of getting over 25% of the vote.

For comparison purposes, a largest vote-earning party in this range would not be unprecedentedly low for France. In 2012, the Socialist Party of just-elected Francois Hollande won 29.4%, and this was the largest percentage for any party in the election by a margin of 2.3 percentage points. Hollande himself had won 28.6%, so his party had only a small honeymoon boost. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP did better, at 39.5%. Sarkozy himself had won 31.2%, yielding a boost about in line with that implied by the Rp equation.

Of course, what matters more is seats. Does the French electoral system tend to boost seat shares? Yes, we might say that it does. Despite the low shares for the largest party, the use of two-round majority-plurality in single-seat districts means that the largest party can expect quite a further boost indeed.

The second graph has plots of the seat share of the largest party (s1, left panel) and the effective number of seat-winning parties (NS, right panel) since 1958. The “expected” line is based on the Seat Product Model predictions. As explained in Votes from Seats (and also in Taagepera’s 2007 Predicting Party Sizes), these are based on logical models (deductive quantitative reasoning). They are not merely empirical regressions, but regression confirm them on a large dataset of national elections. They are:

s1=(MS)-.125 and NS=(MS)1/6.

MS=mean district magnitude times the assembly size

It might be noted that the previous honeymoon elections depicted here are 1981, 1988, 2002, 2007, and 2012. All show s1 above and NS below the expectation. In other words a less fragmented party system due to the honeymoon boost for the just-elected (or, in 1988, reelected) president.

Even in 2012, with his party on only 29.4% of the votes, Hollande almost had a co-partisan majority. His Socialists had 48.5% of the seats, thanks to the electoral system; with allies, he had a large working majority of over 57%.

The models assume a “simple” system–one with a single tier of allocation in one round using a basic PR formula. FPTP counts (any PR formula when M=1 is the same as plurality), but obviously majority-plurality does not, because it is not a one-round system. Even so, the worst we can say is that in some elections we get an actual seat-winning party that is bigger than predicted (for a simple system of the same number of single-seat districts) and an effective number of seat-wing parties that is lower than expected. The major exceptions to this generalization are from the 1970s. (Note the abrupt change in expected value in 1986; this was the one PR election of the Fifth Republic.)

Of course, the reason why we might expect s1 to be higher than predicted and NS to be lower is the the largest party benefits from alliance deals in the districts between rounds. But the expectation on seats–based, again, on the incorrect assumption that this is a plurality system–is not too far off, despite the fact that the votes are so fragmented that a party with just 30% in the first round is sometimes the biggest party.

We can assume that Macron and En Marche! will benefit from alliances against the National Front. It is harder to predict what the patterns will be with respect to the traditional right and left.

The bottom line is that I would expect En Marche! to emerge as the biggest party, based on the honeymoon cycle, with somewhere between 24% and 30% (maybe more!) of the vote, and somewhere between 40% and over 50% of the seats. I would further expect Macron to have no difficulty appointing a premier of his choice, and to have a ruling coalition that will be dependent on him for its very existence. Of course, I can’t say how effective this coalition will be at governing, or whether it will last Macron’s term, or even if my expectations will be proven totally wrong. But at the very least, let’s not wring our hands over prospects of a president hobbled from the start.

The electoral cycle (honeymoon elections) and the electoral system (majority-plurality) work very much in the incoming president’s favor, and these patterns may well hold even for a president from a new and untested party.

(I corrected a really bad mistake in the paragraph starting “Note that…”; the point of the post is not being changed, it is just being made more accurately.)

33 thoughts on “France: what to expect for the assembly?

  1. Questions:

    1) Does En Marche have enough candidates for this? I admit I don’t pay much attention, but last I heard they were planning on having a few…whatever that means

    2) Does incumbency mean anything in the National Assembly? Or at least the fact that Macron will have few, if any, incumbents running under his banner and none of them for the party that they were elected for? Or is that not a thing in France.

    FWIW, whatever the results I’d expect Macron to piece together a coalition, though not necessarily a majority.


    • My understanding is that if they fail to do well, it won’t be due to lack of candidates. I don’t think incumbency, or candidate quality more generally, is much of an issue. I can’t claim deep knowledge of these specific (and important) matters, however.

      Basically, voters will be voting on how they feel about the just-elected president. That should be good for candidates bearing the En Marche! brand, as well as for any candidates, including incumbents, with parties that are formally or even informally aligned with Macron.


  2. “Even in 2012, with his party on only 29.4% of the votes, Hollande almost had a co-partisan majority”

    Didn’t the Socialists do a deal with the Green and Radical parties, to not contest some seats against each other? Which would have made Socialist support lower than the number of ‘Socialist-aligned’ voters.


    • They did have a deal with the Greens. I am not sure about Radicals. I do not think there were many such districts in which the PS was the one to abstain from presenting a candidate. I hope some reader might have the actual numbers. (I probably have them, somewhere.)


      • Upon checking with the Interior Ministry’s dataset, I think there were about 461 ‘official’ PS candidates, out of 577 National Assembly seats (about 79%). About 48 other candidates were listed as PS-supported (Greens, Radical Left, others). I’m not able to figure out how the vote split amongst these candidates, but I’m not convinced that the 29.4% figure reflects total Socialist support.


  3. Isn’t Macron effectively the PS candidate?

    My understanding is that his emergence is tied to an unacceptable (to the Socialist leaders) pol winning the primary, combined with the fact that the brand is tarnished. So the party establishment is putting forward an “independent” candidate who is really the candidate of the party establishment. This happens periodically in the United States (not in presidential elections though). So I wouldn’t take En Marche that seriously.

    The Socialists are unpopular enough that the center-right could get a National Assembly majority anyway, despite their candidate coming in third in the first presidential round.


    • Macron announced his candidacy for the Presidency in November 2016, substantially before the nomination of the left-wing Benoit Hamon as PS candidate, who was indeed unacceptable to some in the party (including runner-up Manuel Valls, who endorsed Macron). No doubt Macron had PS support, but given the extent to which Hamon’s support was unexpected until very shortly before the primary, it is hard to see Macron as that closely tied to the PS.


      • These points are reasonable, but the fact is that Macron had the public support of the Socialist President of France, and the politician who was the Socialist Prime Minister up until last year, and who was the runner up in the Socialist primary! Hollande and Vallis are pretty much by definition the leaders of the party.

        The primary was actually a new feature, and primary voters going strongly against what most of the elected leadership of the party wants has proved to be a big problem elsewhere. Usually the way to bet in these situations is with the elected leadership. In this case, the Socialist leadership may not have put Macron up to run in the first place, since they expected their candidate to win the official Socialist Party label, but they fell behind his candidacy after losing the primary, and supported him over the nominal Socialist candidate.

        In any event, Macron’s strongest vote came in the areas that provided Hollande’s strongest vote the last time. They track very closely.


      • The populist left did considerably better than anyone expected, with JL Mélenchon almost doubling his vote since 2012, mostly at the expense of Hamon, but also the “traditional” far-left Trotskyist candidates, and to a limited degree Le Pen.

        Mélenchon has not given a direction to his supporters, instead waiting for members of his support committees throughout France to offer their opinion via online ballot. The options are

        – vote for Macron
        – spoilt ballot
        – abstention

        The option Le Pen has been deliberately excluded by the organisers. This is a contrast to 2012 when Mélenchon called for a vote against Le Pen almost immediately, and indeed unsuccessfully challenged her in her assembly district, a seat in the end narrowly won by a PS candidate.

        Le Pen herself under-performed expectations. The polls had her leading through most of the campaign. Since Sunday, she has been explicitly courting Mélenchon’s voters with left-leaning rhetoric, presenting herself as a “popular” alternative to Macron. The latter is an outsider in partisan terms, but a pure product of the French elite system otherwise (ENA, the Corps of Fiscal Inspectors, corporate banking, then deputy chief of staff to the president, and Minister). Elements of the radicalised Catholic right, Fillon’s base in the primary, have also called on their supporters not to vote for Macron, while falling short of calling for a vote for Le Pen.

        Macron made Hollande, and indeed Valls, obsolete when he refused to fade a way in polling. He occupied “their” space on the political spectrum and obliged Hollande to forget about a reelection bid. His own fortunes in tatters, Hollande opportunistically took his chance to humiliate Hamon, his nemesis for the last three years, as well as to block Mélochon, an old enemy. Macron is more a social liberal than a social democrat like Hollande, but then again did not have to manage a party with a vocal left-wing base.

        The public meltdown of the centre-right candidate Fillon, who won the primary on his reputation for probity and truth telling, and was revealed to have been suspected of fraudulently employing family members as parliamentary assistants, also helped make the race a Le Pen-Macron duel, Macron thus seems to have profited from “vote utile”, but in order to prevent a potential Le Pen-Fillon match up, the latter’s weaknes giving left-leaning voters some hope avoiding complete elimination.

        The primaries are being blamed for the debacle of the established parties. Fillon was impossible to move once his nepotism became known, and Hamon had little support among his own party’s leadership. Hollande has even even suggested that no primary should ever be held by a party in government again. (I worked a polling station for the Socialist primary, and I thought it was rather a worthwhile exercise. Hamon was not a great candidate even if he did introduce some new ideas into the campaign, though ultimately adulterating them in a doomed attempt to stem the bleeding of the party right to Macron).


  4. Mark Steyn’s acerbic comment:
    ‘… if the polls are right (and they were yesterday) Macron is a shoo-in for victory over Le Pen a fortnight down the road. If that’s so, what will determine his fate will be June’s parliamentary elections. France’s Fifth Republic is designed to be governed by a president and a national assembly of the same party, and, given that Macron’s entire raison d’être is that he is a man of no party, it will be interesting to see how he turns “En marche” from a slogan into an army of candidates. It’s not easy to pull off being an emperor with no clothes but genuine coat-tails…’
    – “Macron Bionics” (24 April 2017)

    Interesting how that plays out given that France is now 70% presidential but still 30% parliamentary executive. (It started off in the opposite proportions in 1958 but shifted over time).

    (a) An independent cannot, almost by definition, become prime minister in a parliamentary executive. (Unless, perhaps, as a technocratic caretaker pending fresh elections – eg, Greece at one point in the 1950s, or perhaps 1960s, apparently saw the chair of the central bank serve as acting premier after the King dismissed a minority Cabinet and called fresh elections). (Sometimes independents become Speaker as a sop – Tom Stott, Peter Slipper – or even a Ministerial position – Karlene Maywald, Michael Moore [the ACT one], Martyn Evans, Martin Hamilton-Smith… why do most of the examples I can think of come from South Australia? – but not premier/ Prime Minister).

    (b) An independent can be elected governor (or equivalent, eg mayor or president) in a system with a separate directly elected chief executive (aka “presidential system”), and can govern for their full term even with zero co-partisans in the legislative body. They may not get much legislation passed, but as examples like Bernie Sanders, Jesse Ventura and Angus King show, they can at least run the executive branch unimpeded.

    (c) But a French president still has to govern via a Prime Minister who needs parliamentary support. Maybe it will help Macron that French MPs cannot simultaneously serve as Ministers while keeping their seats. He could name a Cabinet filled with Bloomberg-type experts and dare the National Assembly to vote it down.. Maybe being every established party’s second choice will compensate for being no established party’s first choice. The Marquis de Condorcet, vindicated at last!


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  6. France should change it’s electoral system for the National Assembly to Proportional Representation, not allowing an extreme party to have some sort of representation is allowing the pressure to build and build until it explodes, this may be what happened in the UK with the Brexit Referendum due to the FPTP system, and the US due to it’s electoral system of primaries and plurality/majoritarian system and ironically the electoral college was suppose to thwart this, maybe a mixed member system or some open party list system. The other European countries that use PR allow the extreme parties to have representation so the pressure has some sort of outlet, but there is no outlet with plurality/majoritarian systems.

    Even if she did win, to amend the French constitution to leave the EU requires a joint sitting of both chambers, it is called Congress that needs a 3/5ths support. Doesn’t Mexico require something similar to this? How many countries require joint sittings to amend constitutions? I heard of joint sittings if the lower house can’t get a money bill through the upper house like in India or Australia after a double dissolution. Is there pros and cons to this method? Seems like joint sittings are the opposite of Norway and Iceland former practice of qualified unicameralism.


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