France frets over next political chapter

The first skirmishes between Socialist president François Mitterrand and his conservative prime minister, Jacques Chirac, erupted shortly after the parliamentary elections that led France into a “cohabitation” in March 1986.

Chirac defied protocol and joined the president at the G7 summit in Tokyo that year. Once there, Mitterrand excluded him from top negotiations. But Chirac then insisted on accompanying the president to the EU leaders’ meeting in The Hague, along with the foreign minister.

Upon arrival Mitterrand had arranged two seats for the three of them.

More clashes ensued in the following years as the two political rivals tested the institutions designed by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Many worried then that the constitution, which omits to address such a power-sharing arrangement, might not withstand the tensions between a directly elected president and a hostile government.

“We were scared Mitterrand would resign,” recalled law professor and former justice minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas, who was then a young Socialist party member. “Mitterrand and Chirac didn’t theorise the notion of cohabitation. They found a modus operandi as they went along.”

Jacques Chirac, left, and François Mitterrand at the EU summit in The Hague in 1986
Jacques Chirac, left, and François Mitterrand at the EU summit in The Hague in 1986 © Thierry Orban/Sygma/Getty Images

Now, as the final round of snap elections called by President Emmanuel Macron gets under way, France’s Fifth Republic is contemplating another unprecedented chapter: a potentially fractious cohabitation between the centrist leader and Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, which has never been in power; or a hung parliament so fractured that no bloc can form a government.

“The fact is, we are in a period of great uncertainty,” said Anne Levade, a constitutional law professor.

A far-right government no longer looks as likely as it did last Sunday, when Le Pen’s Rassemblement National came first with 33 per cent of the vote. Since then Macron’s centrists and the leftwing Nouveau Front Populaire — comprised of socialists, communists and the far-left La France Insoumise — have tactically withdrawn their candidates to consolidate the anti-RN vote in the second round.

Polls suggest that while this will prevent the RN from reaching the 289-seat majority, the far-right party is likely to become the largest force in the National Assembly.

If this is the case, Macron may decide to offer RN party chief Jordan Bardella the prime minister’s job. Whether the 28-year-old politician will accept depends on his ability to find allies on the right to withstand a vote of no confidence. Le Pen said this week they would try to govern if they were a few seats short.

Under such an arrangement, tensions could soar to levels not reached even during the Mitterrand-Chirac tandem, particularly on foreign policy and EU affairs. The first cohabitation established the idea that while the prime minister is solely in charge of domestic policy, the president — as head of the armed forces and holder of the nuclear codes — represents the country abroad and leads defence and foreign policy.

“A cohabitation is not planned by the constitution but it can work if the protagonists are willing to play the game,” Levade said.

President François Mitterrand, left, chats with his prime minister Édouard Balladur during the joint press conference ending the 61st Franco-German summit meeting on June 2 1993 in Beaune, France
President François Mitterrand, left, talks with his Prime Minister Édouard Balladur in 1993. Mitterrand’s top adviser when Balladur was PM says a hung parliament will mean ‘chaos’ © Reuters

This implicit deal was partly based on a reluctance to weaken the presidency, which Chirac successfully eyed for himself. Other prime ministers who have served in cohabitations — Édouard Balladur and Lionel Jospin — equally held presidential ambitions and had no interest in undermining the head of state, noted Michel Duclos, a veteran diplomat.

But a RN-led government — inherently Eurosceptic, protectionist and less supportive of Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression than Macron — would challenge this practice. Macron’s stature abroad would weaken as a result. The europhile president would still attend EU summits, but his decisions would run the risk of being undermined by French far-right ministers in the bloc’s meetings.

Le Pen has already hinted she would not make Macron’s life easy. She labelled his constitutional status as head of the army as “honorific”, pointing to article 21 of the constitution, which states that the prime minister oversees national defence. She also voiced her opposition to Macron’s pick for EU commissioner, Thierry Breton, who the president said should stay on for another term.

“The main difference would be down to the crumbling, if not the erasure, of consensus in foreign policy in France,” Duclos said.

President Jacques Chirac, left, talks to his Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the Council of Europe summit in Strasbourg, October 11, 1997
President Jacques Chirac, left, talks to his Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the Council of Europe summit in Strasbourg, October 11, 1997 © Gerard Cerles/AFP/Getty Images

While a far-right cohabitation has become less likely, a blocked parliament would also throw the 67-year-old Fifth Republic into uncharted waters. Barring a formidable upset, forming a government seems an even taller order for the left, which is predicted to come in second on Sunday, or for Macron’s centrists.

Solutions being speculated on include a government of national unity spanning centrist parties and potentially peeling off more moderate politicians from the left and right.

A technocratic government à la Mario Draghi, in reference to the former European Central Bank governor’s cabinet in Italy between 2021 and 2022, is also a possibility.

“There is a space to imagine” such an outcome, Mario Monti, who led an earlier technocratic government in Italy from 2011 to 2013, said on Friday. However, he admitted: “It is strange to me to be talking about this in France.”

The National Assembly could learn the art of compromise, something with which Macron had refused to experiment since losing his presidential majority in 2022, said Sorbonne law professor Marie-Anne Cohendet. But she believed it would be difficult to achieve a majority without getting the far-left LFI party of anti-capitalist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon to agree a “non aggression pact”.

“It could be something like: I am not part of the government but I don’t overthrow you for three years . . . But if not, then it’s going to be difficult,” she said.

Former foreign affairs minister Hubert Védrine, who was Mitterrand’s top adviser when Balladur was prime minister, said a hung parliament would mean “chaos”. “People will have to imagine coalitions. Will Macron manage to rally MPs from the left and the right? We can’t rule out a minority government.”

But if the gridlock persists, “we enter the unknown and in this case Macron could be under increasing pressure to resign”, he said. The first big test will be the budget, which must be passed by the end of the year. If parliament misses the deadline, the government may be able to use a provision in the constitution to force through some of the measures, but “no one really knows,” Védrine said.

Macron, who has ruled out resigning until his mandate ends in 2027, could keep the current government led by Prime Minister Gabriel Attal in a caretaker capacity until a consensus emerges. Attal on Friday vowed to stay on “as long as necessary”.

Beyond this consultation phase, however, Macron — who can dissolve parliament and call another snap election at the earliest in June 2025 — is unlikely to be able to pick a prime minister from his own party ranks. How long the micromanaging president, who has led one of the most centralised presidencies in France’s postwar history, can endure this situation remains the core question for the country’s political future.

“Patience is not this president’s forte,” said former justice minister Urvoas. “We could find ourselves on the brink of a regime crisis, but without any de Gaulle to come to the rescue.”

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