France – Macron and Cohabitation: Don’t Worry About It

On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron topped the poll at the first round of the French presidential election. This was in line with the polls, but it marked a shift in established French politics. Since 1981, elections have been won by candidates of the mainstream left or the right. These candidates have either immediately dissolved the legislature and returned a supportive majority, or they have won such a majority at the legislative elections that since 2002 have been held a month after the presidential election. The bottom line is that French presidents since 1981 have effectively begun their term in office with majority support in the legislature.

Macron is different because he is a centrist. He is also different because he does not have an established political party backing him. His movement is called en Marche! (or On The Move!). Macron is likely to win the second round of the presidential election. However, he has not yet chosen en Marche! candidates for the legislative elections that take place on 11 and 18 June. There are 577 seats to be elected at these elections. This has led to fears or speculation that Macron will not win a legislative majority in the June elections. Worse, it has led to claims that Macron would immediately be faced with a period of cohabitation. In this context, it is worth thinking a little about what is meant by cohabitation and why Macron is unlikely to have to worry about it.

Cohabitation is defined as the situation where the president and prime minister are from different and opposing parties and where the president’s party is not represented in the cabinet at all. France provides the archetypal examples of cohabitation. Here, it has occurred three times – 1986-88, 1993-95 and 1997-2002. Cohabitation occurs because a party or coalition opposed to the president has an absolute majority in the legislature. This forces the president to appoint a PM and government that has the support of that majority and, therefore, that is also opposed to the president. The president is alone in the Council of Ministers without any supporters.

In this context, it is also worth thinking a little about what cohabitation doesn’t involve. It isn’t the situation where the president has formed a governing coalition that includes his supporters, perhaps including the prime minister, but where relations with the legislative majority are difficult, and where the president is unable to pass legislation in exactly the form that she wants. In other words, a weak, constrained, or even legislatively emasculated president is not necessarily a cohabitation president.

Cohabitation, therefore, is a very specific situation. It is clearly observable. Here is a list of all cohabitations that have ever occurred.

So, assuming Macron is elected president on 7 May, will he face a period of cohabitation six weeks later following the legislative elections? Matthew Shugart has convincingly argued that he will not. I agree. No period of cohabitation has never occurred when a presidential election has been followed by such a quick honeymoon legislative election. (In Portugal, the January 1991 presidential election was followed by the October 1991 legislative election. So, it is questionable whether this was a honeymoon election at all. Also, there was cohabitation prior to the presidential election, after the presidential election, and the legislative election confirmed the period of cohabitation. So, the political context was very different. A similar point applies to the Czech Republic after the January 2013 presidential election.) Cohabitation just doesn’t happen under the circumstances that will soon occur in France. So, don’t worry about it.

This is not to say, though, that any future President Macron will necessarily be supported by an en Marche! majority in the Assembly. French political history suggests various scenarios are possible in this regard.

The 1988 presidential election provides one possible scenario. Then, President Mitterrand dissolved the legislature immediately after his re-election. The Socialist party and their allies were returned with only a relative majority, but the divided opposition meant that the socialists were nonetheless able to govern effectively for the next five years without forming a coalition.

A further scenario is the one that occurred in 1958. This was the founding legislative election of the new Republic. It was before France had direct presidential elections. So, the context was very different. However, it did follow the referendum on the Constitution in September 1958, which was effectively a plebiscite on de Gaulle. At the November 1958 election the gaullist party was returned with only a relative majority. However, other deputies who were returned under a different party label were willing to support de Gaulle. My understanding is that some of these deputies were given the support of the gaullists at the election itself. So, they owed their election at least in part to de Gaulle. The government was a coalition, but the coalition also had the support of other deputies within the Assembly. Macron has promised to stand en Marche! candidates everywhere, but if he is not able to select 577 of them between 7 May and the elections, he may simply endorse existing right and left-wing deputies. With a cohort of en Marche! deputies and the support of these others, he is likely to reach a working majority. Even if he does stand candidates everywhere, he is still likely to endorse candidates of other parties at the second ballot of the legislative election in constituencies where his en Marche! candidates have been defeated. This could be difficult for Macron to manage and maintain, but it will not be cohabitation.

The other scenario is more straightforward. Macron may simply form a coalition with other parties. The Socialist party is likely to splinter after the election. There are also centrist and centre-right parties such as the UDI and Modem. With his en Marche! deputies, Macron may be able to build a coalition along the lines of the one forged by President Giscard d’Estaing in the mid-1970s. This could also be problematic to keep together in the long run, but it is not cohabitation.

So, parliamentary politics after the June legislative elections in France will be interesting and could be difficult for Macron, but commentators should not unduly worry about cohabitation occurring. Certainly, commentators should stop labelling something as cohabitation that isn’t.

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