a renewed interest in the 2022 general election?

The formation of a historic alliance by the French left and their goal of gaining a majority in the National Assembly are making the general elections once again central.

But can we really speak of renewed interest in Parliament in France?

The regular erosion of electoral mobilization since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, falling from about 80% in the 1970s to almost 40%, underscores the lack of interest in this institution.

Political and media mobilization

From a political and media point of view, once the presidential elections are over, all attention will turn to the parliamentary elections. From the evening of the second round of the presidential election, the losers of that race called for a move to the so-called “third round.”

The election campaign opens a new political sequence. On the left, the challenge is to create a real union for a parliamentary majority.

Negotiations between rebellious France, the PCF, EELV and the PS characterize the daily news between programmatic agreements and ideological breaks.

For La République en Marche (renamed “Renaissance”), the challenge is to transform the presidency process by winning a majority in the National Assembly. While early forecasts suggest a close race between the Macron and the united left, Emmanuel Macron is personally investing in every inauguration of next June’s general election. Also for the presidential party and its allies, the logic of unity did not go without difficulties over the distribution of candidatures, forming the banner “Together” for the presidential majority.

A renewed interest in the general election?

Undoubtedly, once elected, a President of the Republic needs a majority in Parliament, at least in the National Assembly, to translate his electoral platform into legislative action.

Although the 1958 Constitution provides that the government “determines and directs the policies of the nation” (Art. 20 C) and that the “Prime Minister shall direct the actions of the Government” (Art. 21 C), we should not forget that If “The government, being subordinate to the President of the Republic, cedes to him, voluntarily or not, its power to determine the policies of the nation”, as the constitutionalist Guy Carcassonne recalls. In summary, except in cases of cohabitation, the head of government is only the “conductor” playing the score written by the President of the Republic.

But do voters take part in general elections? If you believe the abstention numbers, rather less. Since 1993, the abstention rate has only increased between parliamentary elections, exceeding 50% in 2017.

A parliament that is marginalized in the institutional structure

An analysis of the institutions of the Fifth Republic can explain this disinterest on the part of Parliament. It will have escaped no one’s notice that the Fifth Republic is structured around a streamlined parliamentarism, that is, all the provisions of the 1958 Constitution designed to frame Parliament’s powers in order to increase government agency.

Specifically, a restrictive definition of the area of ​​law (meaning that the Constituent Assembly has listed precisely the areas in which Parliament can legislate, the rest falling directly under the government’s power to regulate, Art. 34 C and 37 C ); the blocked vote (the government submits to a single vote all the amendments it has selected, Art. 44.3 C); Passing a law without passing Parliament, under the guise of the government’s obligation, except in the event of a motion of censure (the famous Article 49(3) of the Constitution).

In 1958, a new actor also oversaw the parliamentary work, the Constitutional Council, which is responsible in particular for checking the constitutionality of the laws (Art. 61 para. 2 C), is referred to as a “cannon aimed at parliament”, as Professor Karl Eisenmann put it.

Parliamentary autonomy is also affected by the scrutiny of the decrees of the National Assembly and the Senate (Art. 61 para. 1 C). From then on, as political scientist Léo Hamon wrote in 1959, the assemblies passed from the status of “sovereign litigants, guaranteed immunity from jurisdiction” to the status of litigants.

Ultimately, from 1958, the French Parliament experienced a devaluation of its role. Presidential logic was also strengthened by the direct election of the President of the Republic, giving him strong legitimacy; but also by reversing the electoral calendar in 2000, where the presidential elections precede the parliamentary elections, thereby maximizing the president-elect’s chances of a parliamentary majority.

Parliament, a “blind spot” of French political science

Parliamentary studies is a field that mainly combines three central disciplines (history, law and political science). Among these disciplines, political science has long moved away from the study of parliamentary assemblies and their elected representatives, as Olivier Rozenberg and Eric Kerrouche have pointed out. The two French political scientists state “the real divestment of French political science towards this object” from the 1980s.

Olivier Nay, specialist in the sociology of institutions, gave several reasons for this abandonment of the research field: the French legislative assemblies are associated with the change in exchanges in the public sphere between decentralization (creation of local assemblies), European construction (creation of a supranational parliament) and the neoliberal turn that multiplies the actors of deliberation and decision-making.

Consequently, the seclusion of French political science left the study of this field to (constitutional) law. Although the discipline examines the relationships between the various powers and institutions, it has not taken the spearhead of French parliamentary studies and limited itself to describing the powers of Parliament.

There is another explanation specific to the discipline of French political science. His sociological turn in the 1970s and 1980s installed “a greater distrust of traditional, legal, or philosophical explanations that pay sustained attention to formal institutions and the normative projects that legitimize them,” explains O. Nay. Epistemologically, this French tradition gives an important place to empirical work and is interested in actors. In terms of methodology, the researchers favor qualitative approaches with semi-directive interviews, biographical descriptions of the actors and field observations.

This French tradition deviates legislative studies Anglo-Saxon (congressional studies in the United States) inspired by neo-institutionalist analysis or rational choice theory; and the use of more quantitative survey methods. However, this did not prevent us from doing some work with behavioral approaches in the 1980s or some work with rational approaches in the 1990s via the French Parliament.

find parliament

French political science has revived its interest in parliamentary studies since the 1990s, diversifying the levels of analysis: electoral behavior of MPs, sociology of elected officials, gender, concept of representation, legislature efficiency.

Finally, Parliament remains central to our political society. On the one hand, parliament is a control instrument for the executive and a platform for opponents. The last five-year term of Emmanuel Macron shows this well: the Benalla affair was the reason for the blockade of the constitutional reform in the summer of 2018 and the Senate was active with its investigative commissions (Benalla affair and McKinsey affair). On the other hand, it remains an analysis object that produces a lot of usable data for research. It is therefore very likely that parliamentary studies will increase in French political science in the coming years.

On the electoral side, the prospect of a ‘third round’ of the presidential elections in the context of the tripartite division of political life in France and the unification of the left may spark renewed interest in Parliament. Reply on June 12th and 19th.

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By Julien Robin, PhD student in Political Science, University of Montreal
The author is writing his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Jean-François Godbout.