Will Macron lose his assembly majority?

French election season is upon us. In four rounds of elections over the next three months France will choose their President and National Assembly. The presidency is elected by two-round majority (10 and 24 April), followed closely by the assembly using two-round majority-plurality (12 and 19 June). Predictably, the news media are already starting to suggest that President Emmanuel Macron, while likely to be reelected, might be at risk of losing his assembly majority (e.g., The Economist). Will he?

What is almost as predictable as the media expressing this outcome as a real possibility is that presidents–just elected or reelected–see their parties do really well in honeymoon assembly elections. You can’t get much more honeymoon-ish than the French cycle. The assembly election occurs with approximately 1/60 of the time between presidential elections having elapsed. It just so happens that we have a formula for this.

Rp=1.20–0.725E,

where Rp is the “presidential vote ratio”– 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)–and E is the elapsed time (the number of months into the presidential inter-electoral period in which the assembly election takes place, divided by the total months comprising that period).

In 2017, there were actually news reports suggesting that because Macron at the time he was elected did not yet have a true political party, he would face cohabitation. That would mean an opposition majority, which under French institutions would also mean a premier (head of cabinet) from parties opposed to the president. This was, even at the time, obviously hogwash.

The formula suggested that, once we knew Macron’s first-round vote percentage, we could estimate his (proto-) party’s first-round assembly vote percentage–assuming he would go on to win his own runoff (which was never seriously in doubt). Given that Macron had won 24% of the vote in his own first round, that implied 29% of the vote for the party in the first round for assembly.

What did his party, branded by then La République En Marche!, get? The answer would be… 28.2%. Not too bad for a political science formula. Not too surprising, either. It does not sound impressive as a vote percentage, but when you have the plurality of the vote in a multiparty field with a two-round majority-plurality electoral system, it can be pretty helpful in terms of seats won. Even more when you are a center party, and your opponents are split between left, right, and farther right (and we should not leave out farther left, too). After the second round, LREM ended up with about 54% of the seats. When combined with a pre-election ally, Democratic Movement, the seat total was over 60% (the two parties had combined for about a third of the first-round votes and got 49% of second-round votes).

The Economist article I linked to in the first paragraph was published in the March 5 edition. I want to check how plausible its claim was, using the Economist’s own election forecast model. As of a few days before March 5, that model was basing its forecast on aggregated polls that averaged about 27% of expected first-round vote for Macron himself. In other words, a few percentage points higher than he ended up winning in the first round in 2017. The model also gave Macron at the time an 88% chance of winning the presidency. Thus on the basis of information available at the time–including the Shugart-Taagepera formula for expected presidential-party vote share–we should conclude that LREM would win about 32% of the vote in the first-round assembly election. Assuming this would be the plurality share–a very safe assumption–that would again imply a strong chance of a single-party majority of seats. Not a loss of the majority, or even the need to forge a post-electoral coalition.

Now, since that article was published, Macron has been enjoying quite a surge in the polls. As of today, the forecast model at The Economist has his odds of winning the presidency above 95%. His polling aggregate as of March 12 is up to 31% (Marine Le Pen, his runoff opponent in 2017, is a distant second with 18%). From this we could estimate the first-round assembly vote share is up to 38%.

I will caution that the formula is not a logical model. It is empirical. There is good logical basis behind the general idea of honeymoon surge (and midterm decline, for countries with such cycles). But the specific parameters of the formula do not have a logical basis. At least yet. The graph of the relationship that is shown in Chapter 12 of Votes from Seats (and also included in the 2017 “predictive” post on France) shows a couple honeymoon elections in various countries that have defied the expected surge. However, only one has an elapsed time of less than 0.1 (the specific example of a relatively early honeymoon decline was Chile 1965, in an election held at 0.083 of the presidential inter-election period.1)

So I can’t predict what LREM will get in June. But it would be a surprise if it was worse than around a third of the vote, even if Macron’s own polling surge does not hold. Given the fragmentation of the party system–which looks even higher now than it was in 2017–and the majoritarian nature of the electoral system, anything short of a majority of seats for Macron would be a surprise at this point.

The notion that voters will come out and vote to “check” a just-elected president that they maybe were not all that enthusiastic about is a hard notion for the news media (not only The Economist) to shake. But there just is not much evidence that politics in presidential and semi-presidential systems works like that.2

____
1. This election saw the Christian Democratic Party of newly elected President Eduardo Frei win a very strong plurality, 43.6%, but Frei himself had won 56%. The problem–for the formula–is that there were only two serious candidates and three total in the presidential election, whereas the PR-elected legislature featured many parties, including allies of the president running separately. The formula implicitly assumes that all parties contest both elections. This is one of the reasons I can’t call it a logical model, because such conditions have not been incorporated, and perhaps can’t be without making it too complicated to be useful. It is pretty useful as it is, even with its oversimplification and lack of true logical basis!

(By the way, in the next Chilean assembly election, held with 75% of the term elapsed, the party’s vote percentage fell to 31%. The formula suggests 37%, but given that we already know the party did worse than “expected” at the honeymoon, we should just use the expected drop from what it actually had. That would “predict” about 25% of the vote at the late-term election. So they did better than expected, actually.)

2. On this point, let me shout out a just-published article by some recent UC Davis Ph.D.s Carlos Algara, Isaac Hale, and Cory L. Struthers on the Georgia (US) Senate runoffs. Even I was skeptical that honeymoon logic could apply to those elections. And in fact it did not turn out as a Dem surge, but there was clearly no evidence of “checking the president” behavior by voters.

14 thoughts on “Will Macron lose his assembly majority?

  1. I can certainly see why some people might like honeymoon elections. Especially if you expect to become or have your candidate become president.

    But has there ever been thought on having simultaneous elections?

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    • In France? I do not know of any proposals for concurrent elections, but I also can’t claim to follow such debates.

      Honeymoon elections might not be a bad idea when combined with premier-presidentialism and a PR system for the assembly. But with a majoritarian system, I have strong reservations about them.I also would not favor them for pure presidentialism or president-parliamentarism under any circumstances that I can think of. (France is premier-presidential.)

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      • Concurrent elections could be a great reform to France’s system that could reduce the president’s power without changing the fundamentals of the system. I’m thinking in particular of making elections concurrent across the board, such that if the president calls assembly elections early, he’s also up for early election himself.

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      • I particularly like that last part.

        I’d be somewhat concerned about having assembly elections concurrent with the first round of the presidential election, given the high fragmentation France currently experiences.

        They could go concurrent with the second round, but I am uneasy about that. Maybe a good idea if they switch to PR, but not with their current assembly electoral system. Also, as far as I know, world electoral-cycle history has given us only one case of concurrence with second round (which obviously is a honeymoon election if the presidential election is decided in the first round). That was Ecuador early in its democratization, specifically 1979. If anyone knows of another such case, I am interested in learning of it!

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      • If the president is up for election whenever the assembly is, and the assembly can be dissolved whenever a government cannot be formed in which it has confidence, would such a “one down, all down” requirement effectively turn France into an old Israeli directly-elected PM parliament-ish system? (Just with the prime minister called the president, and another office holder called the prime minister.) I forget if, in your view, such a system is a weird parliamentary system, a weird presidential system, a weird semi-presidential system, or something else entirely. But I suppose it changes the dynamics; the president becomes personally accountable to the legislature.

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      • Because of the longevity of this place, I have discovered that either I don’t understand something, or that JD Mussel once upon a time argued directly against the model he argues for here: https://fruitsandvotes.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/fixed-term-parliaments-to-be-revisited/#comment-17162 (and made the Israel observation I made as well). Alan’s previous comment defines “equilateral dissolution” as where “the assembly can force a new election on the same basis as the president”

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      • Kazuaro, it is entirely possible that something occurred to me eight years ago which now escapes me. I’m not entirely sure why I made that comment back then – it’s not even entirely clear to me what I was commenting on.

        I could be wrong, but I don’t think France requires an early election if a govt cannot be formed. Instead, I believe dissolution is entirely in the hands of the president. I think that should be sufficient to avoid an elected PM model, though actual results often deviate from expectations and it’s not impossible that some kind of equilibrium would emerge not so different from Israel’s outcomes under the aforementioned system.

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      • JD is correct. Dissolution in France is entirely the president’s discretion, except that it can’t be done more than once in a year’s time. There is no automatic dissolution if a government cannot be formed.

        In that sense, it is different from the Israeli hybrid. I do indeed consider that to have been something else entirely, and not a form of either parliamentarism or presidentialism. And certainly not semi-presidentialism.

        I do have some concerns that there could be perverse effects of requiring the president in a semi-presidential system also to stand for election in the event of assembly dissolution, but I can’t claim to have a firm position on this. I like the idea in principle! I just am unsure how it might work in practice. Namibia has something like that, but given single-party dominance, we have never seen it play out.

        The other key difference is that in Israel, it was the head of government who was directly elected. In a semi-presidential system, including France, it is the head of state. That is, cohabitation is an active possibility in France (even if the current electoral cycle makes it highly unlikely–per the theme of the post), but it was not in the Israeli system, given that by definition the elected executive official was going to represented in the cabinet!

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    • JD I apologise, I think my comment came out like some kind of a “gotcha” which I had not intended. I was just happy to see that potentially we agree.

      I’m not sure that it matters whether a dissolution is required or merely possible. As far as I understand the French constitution, the government must resign if there is a successful no confidence motion. If the president can’t govern the country without a government, and the parliament is intent on vetoing any government the prime minister appoints, then at some point the only option is an election. The majoritarian electoral system might make that rather less likely than it was in Israel though.

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      • I am no expert in French constitutional interpretation, but I suspect from my reading that in such a case, a government appointed by the president remains in place, even if it has had to tender formal resignation due to losing assembly confidence. The president can dissolve the assembly, even shortly after a regular election, but not within a year of having dissolved the assembly previously.

        So, yes, I think it does matter if a new election “is required or merely possible” in the event of no government receiving an investiture vote within a set time after an election or after a no-confidence vote. In many semi-presidential systems, an election would be automatic in case of such impasse. I believe the French system, while clearly premier-presidential, gives the president the upper hand in an impasse, even if he is barred from dissolving or for some reason does not wish to dissolve the assembly.

        What I am suggesting is that an early election is not required, and sometimes may not be possible.

        I’d love to have an expert on France tell me if I am wrong in this interpretation. Don’t take my word for it! But it is how I read it.

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      • No worries, I didn’t read it like that. I was just expressing my thoughts about my previous post which you highlighted. I do not remember what I was thinking at the time.

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  2. Would France consider abolishing the two round system and use the Irish Single Transferable Vote to elect it’s President? Any other countries consider moves from 2 round to one round preferential vote to elect their President?

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  3. Pingback: France’s toxic combo of institutions finally bites | Fruits and Votes

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