On Sunday, the French voted and chose their top two candidates – Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen – out of a pool of 12 candidates. The second round of the election, opposing the two front runners will now be held on 24 April.
While the chances for success are going to be lower for Emmanuel Macron than they were in 2017 when he won 66% to 34% against Le Pen, the current President is still predicted to win with 52 to 54% of the votes.
But even if the polls were wrong, and in the unlikely scenario that Marine Le Pen would win the election, there is no way that her party – the Rassemblement National – would be able to win the far more crucial legislative elections, in June for the Lower House of Parliament.
The French lower house is called the Assemblée Nationale and who controls the lower house controls the government. To put it simply, if you are elected President of the French Republic but don’t have the numbers in the lower house, you simply cannot appoint a Prime Minister and government of your choice and political leaning, and therefore cannot implement your electoral program because that Government has to represent the majority party elected to the lower house.
This happened in 1986 and 1993 when left-wing president François Mitterrand had to appoint a right-wing government as a result of the right winning the legislative elections, and once again in 1997 when right-wing president Jacques Chirac had to appoint a left-wing Prime Minister and government.
So, if you don’t hold the lower house, you cannot govern France and legislate even if you are its President.
When Marine Le Pen lost the second round of the 2017 presidential election to Emmanuel Macron – and despite receiving the votes of nearly 34% of the French Electorate – her party, a month and a half later, only won 7 of the 577 seats of the lower house.
In other words, the Le Pen far-right party only exists every five years for the presidential election but is very nearly absent from French institutions such as the lower and upper houses, and regional and local institutions. Representatives of Le Pen’s party hold a tiny tiny minority of electoral offices across the country.
Why? This is because the major French parties – moderate left, right and center – unite against the far right in what they call the front républicain. They have done so for decades and have already called to do it again for both 2022 presidential (April) and legislative (June) elections.
The idea of front républicain is that you stop the in-fighting between democratic parties in order to oppose the real danger to the republic: the extremes.
In practical terms, this means that instead of running multiple candidates representing each party against the preferred Le Pen candidate in such and such electorate, traditional parties decide to only support the one moderate candidate who is most likely to win against the far right. In other words, they sacrifice their own agenda so the far right does not get into office.
This strategy has been very effective since the 1980s, including against Marine Le Pen’s own father, the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen.
So, while it is worrisome to see the French select a Le Pen as one of their top two candidates for the French Presidential election for the third time in 20 years, structurally, French institutions safeguard themselves.