French Politics Since Its Presidential Election

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

After the presidential election in April which returned the incumbent Emmanuel Macron to power, France held elections on 12 and 19 June 2022 to elect the 577 members of its National Assembly.

The results turned out to be somewhat inconclusive.

Macron is the first president not to have an absolute majority in Parliament since 1977, and since none of the 4 main alliances won a majority, France has a hung parliament for the first time since 1988.

There were 4 main alliances contesting the parliamentary elections:

+ the centrist presidential majority Ensemble coalition, including Macron’s Renaissance, the Democratic Movement, Horizons, and their allies;

+ the left-wing New Ecologic and Social People’s Union (NUPES), comprising La France Insoumise, the Socialist Party, Ecologist Pole, and the French Communist Party, plus smaller groups;

+the Union of the Right and Centre (UDC), including the Republicans, the Union of Democrats and Independents, and their allies;

+ the far-right National Rally (RN).

The NUPES alliance was formed in the 2 months following the presidential election, where the left-wing vote had been fragmented.

The elections were held over 2 rounds.

In the second round, Macron’s centrist Ensemble coalition obtained the most seats (245) but fell 44 seats short of an absolute majority.

NUPES won 131 seats, while the far-right RN became the single largest parliamentary opposition party (89). UDC suffered losses, but received enough seats (64) to be a kingmaker in the next government.

Political commentators said the outcome was a blow for Macron, and had the potential for parliamentary gridlock.

Macron announced that only parties that have already been in government, together or separately – the Parti Communiste (PC), the green party Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV), the Parti Socialiste (PS), Macron’s Ensemble! and the conservative Les Républicains (LR) – can be part of a “coalition of action”.

As a result, the left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI) and the far-right Rassemblement National (RN), which have never governed, are excluded. The patchwork “government of action” is headed by prime minister Élisabeth Borne.

The war in Ukraine is potentially a decisive factor in determining this coalition’s future.

The economist Jean Pisani-Ferry says that putting maximum pressure on Russia is likely to reduce France’s national income by 20%, with personal income falling by 2%. It is hardly surprising therefore that Macron prefers to play “the statesman” when dealing with Putin.

The pressure from the Ukraine war on the French economy is reflected in the government’s decision to renationalize the country’s main electricity and nuclear company Électricité de France (EDF)—prime minister Borne said the decision was made in large part because France, though less dependent than its neighbour Germany on Russian oil and gas, could no longer rely on Russia for these.

France gets about 70% of its electricity from nuclear sources, a larger share than any other country in the world. In order to safeguard energy sovereignty the government decided to raise its holding in EDF from the current 84% to 100%– EDF is France’s largest electricity producer and operates all its nuclear-powered plants.

The government is planning to upgrade France’s nuclear capacity to compensate for energy shortfalls stemming from the cessation of Russian oil and gas imports. A badly-needed new generation nuclear reactors is part of the plan, not just to deal with this energy deficit, but also because the previous generation of atomic reactors, constructed mainly in the 1980s, is now facing progressively severe maintenance issues.

Reactors are having to be closed down in increasing numbers for repairs to be performed, thereby impacting the nation’s power output at a time when rising inflation is driving up energy costs. At present half of EDF’s existing nuclear reactors are offline.

The government has capped energy prices by forcing French energy companies to keep household electricity price rises to no more than 4% this year.

The government will also increase welfare benefits, place a moratorium on rent increases, and provide subsidies for less well-off households to buy vital food products.

The European parliament recently reclassified gas and nuclear power as “green”, a step requested by the French government. This decision, called “greenwashing” by its critics, will enable the government to tap into subsidies provided by the EU’s so-called green initiatives. The French government has already agreed to inject €2.1bn/$2.1bn into EDF’s budget.

EDF is also Britain’s 4th largest household energy supplier and is building the UK’s first new (and long-delayed) nuclear power station in a generation.

The main UK energy generation companies are:

+ British Gas (market share:18.23%; UK owned)

+ OVO (market share:15.34%; UK owned)

+ E.ON (market share:12.04%; German owned)

+ EDF (market share:10.74%; French owned)

+ Scottish Power (market share: 9.11%; owned by Spanish energy company Iberdrola Group)

+ Npower (market share: 6.53%; owned by German energy companies Innogy and E.ON)

The UK government has agreed to prolong the life of a coal-fired power station owned by EDF in Nottingham, a move hailed as “hypocritical” by its green critics, given that coal is the most polluting form of power generation.

The UK, unlike France, has not imposed a cap on energy prices, so it remains to be seen if these electricity suppliers (almost 40% foreign-owned), a sector currently enjoying record profits, will take advantage of this lack of action on the part of the Tory government.

Nothing will happen soon. The UK government has been in a state of paralysis since “BoJo” Johnson’s resignation earlier this month.

BoJo’s successor is expected to take office on 5th September, as the Tories undertake a cumbersome process for electing their next leader, who will also be the new prime minister.

This person, chosen from a pool of patently unqualified individuals, will be the UK’s 4thprime minister in 6 years.

It is thus hardly surprising that Ukania, tumbling from one clownish crisis to another, is the laughing stock of the world. France has its problems, but laughing stock it insn’t.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.