France assembly 2022: Putting the prospects for NUPES in context

The first round of the French 2022 National Assembly election is on 12 June. As readers of this blog recognize, this is an extreme honeymoon election, owing to the short time that has elapsed since the presidential election. In that two-round contest in April, Emmanuel Macron was reelected, winning 27.9% of the vote in the first round and 58.6% in the runoff.

The runner-up in the presidential contest was Marine Le Pen of the extremist National Rally, with 23.2% in the first round and 41.5% in the runoff. In a close third place was the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with 22.0%. In the period since the runoff results were known, Mélenchon has led the formation of a left alliance known as the New Ecologic and Social People’s Union (NUPES). (See the series of very helpful comments from Wilf at an earlier post, where he shared news stories about the coalition bargaining as it was taking place.) Mélenchon has not been shy about his goal, proclaiming that he is running to be premier. If this happened, it could usher in a period of cohabitation, defined as president and premier from opposing parties and the president’s party not in the cabinet. (I say “could usher in” because there’s always the possibility Macron’s party would be in a cabinet headed by Mélenchon, although if the latter actually were premier–and especially if NUPES won a majority of seats–that would be rather unlikely.)

As readers of this space will know, I find such an outcome extremely unlikely. Honeymoon elections do not work that way. They are not a second chance for voters to “check” the president. They confirm the mandate the voters have just conferred on the new (or newly reelected) president. Or do they? Maybe this will be a special case. That is what I am setting out to explore in this post.

Regarding “normal” honeymoon elections, see the post on France that I wrote in 2017, just before the presidential runoff, suggesting that Macron’s then-new party would get around 29% of the vote, and be the largest party. It actually won almost exactly that, 28.2%, and given both allies and the majoritarian two-round electoral system, Macron ended up with a large assembly majority. See the graph in that post, which also appears in Votes from Seats, and shows how nearly all elections early in a presidential term result in rather significant surges for the president’s party. The graph shows something called “Presidential Ratio” graphed against “Elapsed Time.” The ratio, RP, is simply the vote share of the president’s party, divided by the president’s own (first or sole round) vote share in the preceding presidential election. The elapsed time, E, is the percentage of the time between presidential elections at which the assembly election takes place.

For all non-concurrent elections, a best fit shows a steep slope starting at about 1.2 if the honeymoon election is immediately after the presidential election, and dropping steadily as assembly elections occur later in the period between presidential elections. It crosses the 1.00 line (indicating identical assembly and presidential vote shares) at around E=0.28, or just past the quarter mark, then drops to around 0.84 when E=0.5, encompassing the well known midterm-decline phenomenon. Given that for France in 2022 (as in 2017 and some previous cycles), E=0.017, we expect RP=1.19. Taking Macron’s first-round vote of 27.9%, his party should win around 33.1% of the votes. Presumably that would be a plurality and would again be sufficient to win a majority (or close to it) in the assembly when the two-round process is all said and done. Or should we be sure that would be a plurality this time? Let’s see.

Please remember that the equation of this line for presidential vote ratio is not a logical model (like the Seat Product Model or the Cube Root Law), and in any case, even logical model predictions get tripped up by real politics at times! Maybe this honeymoon election will be different. Macron won many voters in the runoff who would have preferred Mélenchon but felt they had to vote to stop Le Pen. There may be much more energy on the side of NUPES than is normal for an alliance that backed a loser.

So how surprising would a good performance be? I decided the best way to put a potential answer to this question in context was to go back to my dataset and augment it with votes data from runners-up and third-place presidential candidates. I have never looked into this before! So here we go…

First, let’s see what it looks like for the party of the candidate who finished second in the second or sole round of presidential voting.

We see that honeymoon elections are really bad for your party if you just lost the presidential election as the runner-up! All data points are below the 1.00 line until nearly E=0.3. The dashed curve is just a lowess (local regression) curve. I did not continue it much past the midterm, because the data get rather sparse late in the term. Not because there are no such elections (again, see the graph for presidential parties), but because the farther you go into the term, the more likely the runner-up’s party does not exist in a recognizable form. Presidential and semi-presidential systems can be that way.

In France 2022, it was Le Pen who finished second, and I do not think anyone would be surprised if her party got less than two thirds of what she won (in other words, around 15%). In fact, it will probably be much worse than that for her.

The topic of interest here, though, is the third presidential candidate’s party. Here is what that graph looks like:

Interestingly, the party backing the candidate who came in third quite often increases its support in a honeymoon election. In most cases, that probably comes predominantly at the expense of the second candidate’s party. But there is probably no reason why it could not come from the winner’s, in a case where there was a good deal of strategic voting in the presidential election (or specifically, in a runoff).

The curve is pretty level until E=0.2, with a mean of almost 1.5. Given how sparse the data are–there are lots of presidential elections with no third candidate or where the third had no party–I would not draw too much of a conclusion from this. However, note that 1.5 times Mélenchon’s vote would reach 33%, or almost exactly what we “predict” for Macron’s La République En Marche! (The exclamation point is in the party name, although you should be as excited about this convergence of their potential shares as I am!) If one were to add in the votes of the other presidential candidates whose parties since have joined NUPES, perhaps we would “predict” a voting plurality for Mélenchon.

So, while I still do not think Mélenchon is going to become premier, this data exploration has led me to believe it would not be as shocking a development as I initially assumed. It could be that this is the honeymoon election that has the ideal convergence of factors to generate an upset. And make no mistake, if a just-reelected president were to be forced to appoint as premier someone opposed to him, it would be an upset. On the other hand, polls do show it will indeed be close, at least in the first round.

France’s toxic combo of institutions finally bites

I still think Emmanuel Macron will win reelection, but it is going to be a closer fight than most prognosticators expected before this past Sunday’s first round. In the results of that vote, Macron has the expected plurality, and it was a few percentage points higher than he got in 2017 (27.8% vs. 24.0%). His runoff opponent in both 2017 and later this month, Marine Le Pen, also improved a bit over last time (23.3% vs. 21.3%). What is new–or really accelerating a trend that was already there–is the total collapse of older established parties. The Republican (mainstream right) got 20% in 2017 but only 4.8% this time, fifth place. The Socialists were already in dire shape in 2017 with 6.4%, but did even worse this time, 1.75%, despite (or because of?) running the mayor of Paris, a seemingly high-quality candidate. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise, a far left group, made the race for a runoff slot pretty close this time, coming third with just under 22% (19.6% last time, fourth place). Given just over 7% for the far-far-right Eric Zenmour, one could say there was a majority for extremes of one sort or another.

While the Economist’s forecast model still has Macron’s win probability at around 80%, it was just short of 100% as recently as 21 March. An extreme right candidate actually has a roughly 20% chance of being the next president of France.

It is never a good thing for democracy when the fate of the republic hinges on one person. But it is hard to exaggerate how absolutely essential it is that Macron win. France has been running a decades-long experiment in whether a highly presidentialized system would eventually destroy the party system. The French party system held up pretty well, despite the adoption of a relatively strong presidency with the 1958 constitution and direct election to that office in 1965. The party system did indeed become presidentialized in ways that David Samuels and I document in our 2010 book, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers. Parties reorganized themselves internally around the goal of advancing their presidential candidate, rather than emphasizing their parliamentary party organization. This presidentialization was only further enhanced by the decision in 2002 to make assembly elections follow immediately after presidential, with both elected for five-year terms. The party system’s left and right blocs, starting from the 1960s, came to be dominated by whichever party could present the successful presidential candidate–the identity of these parties changed over time on the right, but presidentialization allowed the Socialists to surpass the Communists on the left. However, with the demise of the old right and left, there is not much remaining to the party system other than presidential aspirations. Macron himself is the perfect demonstration of presidentialization–having no party at all till he was on the cusp of the presidency, and then creating one that swept into power on the heels of his own win.

The combination of direct election of a politically powerful presidency, honeymoon election of the assembly, and majoritarian electoral rules is toxic. It means that someone from outside the party system potentially can win the presidency and then, in short order, a majority in the assembly. If you get lucky with this combination, you get a Macron. If you get unlucky, you get a Le Pen (or potentially a Mélenchon).

Make no mistake. Honeymoon elections, with majoritarian rules, are the real deal. If Le Pen manages to win the runoff, there will be no “second chance” at which voters can check her with a majority opposed to her in a cohabitation via the assembly. Presidential and semi-presidential democracies just do not work that way. If she wins the runoff, we can expect her National Rally to win around 28% of the vote in the first round of the assembly (see the just-linked post or the one from 2017), and that to be a plurality. Could a broad alliance form to block her candidates, given the two-round majority-plurality system? Sure. Just don’t count on it. Do count on her getting support from various other anti-system forces and being in a much stronger position going into the second round of the assembly election than that 28% estimate implies.

Do I think this is the most likely outcome? No, I do not. I think Macron will win, and go on to win a large majority of the assembly. However, it is a bad situation for French democracy–and the world–to be dependent on this one man not slipping up in some way in the final days before the presidential runoff–especially with a major war going on in the extended neighborhood and related economic difficulties at home. France is in dangerous territory in these moments with its toxic institutional combo, and the overly high stakes that combo generates.

France 2017: Round 4 (honeymoon elections and presidentialization matters!)

Today is the fourth round of the French 2017 election process–that is, the runoffs of the honeymoon assembly election.

Following round 1 (the first round of the presidential election), I used a formula (from Shugart and Taagepera, 2017, Votes from Seats) to “predict” what the round 3 (first round, assembly election) vote percentage would be for the party of first-round leader Emmanuel Macron (on the safe assumption he would win the second round). I pegged it at 29%, based only on Macron’s first-round vote and the elapsed time between then and the scheduled date of the assembly first round.

In the actual voting, La Republique En Marche! (LREM) got around 32%, although I believe that also includes some small vote share for MoDem (which was part of a pre-election coalition). In any case, I won’t quibble about an error of ±3 percentage points. At the time, various commentators were fretting over how “weak” EM would be, what with an untested party and Macon’s having come from seemingly nowhere. Some folks even were wringing their hands over possible cohabitation. It did not take long for polls to catch up with the institutional reality, which is that honeymoon elections matter. The voting result was highly predictable.

Where I went well off the rails was in questioning whether a plurality of votes of around 30% in the first round could translate into an assembly majority. I noted that similar percentages of the vote in previous first rounds in France had translated into around half the seats, but that a safer prediction might be for Macron’s party to be just short. I was not worried about a “weak” presidency, but I thought some degree of post-electoral bargaining would be necessary.

Well, that was silly. I somehow forgot that our assumptions about how votes translate into seats in France are based on the “textbook” French V party system, whereby there are many parties, but two dominant blocs. In such a setting, a leading party (such as a just-elected president’s) with around 30% of the vote would be just far enough ahead of both its allies and the leading party of the opposing bloc so as to translate into a solid majority of seats for the alliance, but not necessarily for the leading party itself. The bloc of the loser of the second round, in the “textbook” party system, is not so far behind the president’s bloc. Therefore, you get a clear pro-presidential majority, but not a knock-out.

Two things should have given me pause. First of all, that the second round presidential candidate was of the National Front, so 2002 would be a better guide than, say, 2012. In 2002, the party of the second major bloc (i.e., the Socialists, whose presidential candidate had finished third) suffered terribly from the honeymoon cycle, and of course, the FN assembly candidates did poorly for lack of allies. This allowed just 33% of the first-round votes for the newly elected president’s party to translate into more than 62% of the seats.

Second, and more to the point, the party system of France 2017 has collapsed badly. Thus being at only 30% of the votes makes you a dominant player in what is, for the time being, a one-bloc system. If you are the centrist party in a two-round system, it does not matter that you lack allied parties in a bloc; what matters is that you have no opposing parties that combine for a coherent bloc against you. Seat projections, issued on the day of the first round of the assembly election, suggested that LREM could get over 400 seats. Some even say 475 (out of 577). LREM candidates will win by default, because in relatively few districts will there be active coordination against them. Moreover, turnout is (predictably) low today.

The following screen shot from Henry Schlechta on Twitter, shows just how dominant the LREM is in today’s runoffs. In other words, don’t let 32% of the first-round votes fool you (as it did me). With different opponents in different districts, from different political camps, there is no reason not to expect a massive majority.

Now that everyone seems to accept that LREM will have a big majority, the concerns (expressed in various news media stories) has shifted to how difficult it may be to govern with a party full of novices. Such concerns are also misplaced. That the party is full of novice politicians makes it more, not less, likely that it will stick to Macron even when times get tough. They have nowhere else to go. They owe their nominations and assembly seats to Macron. France 2017 is presidentialization on steroids!. And, remember, honeymoon elections matter.