While France will pick a new President today, the real election starts tomorrow

Le Pen or Macron will become President, but next month's parliamentary elections will define their futures

While France will pick a new President today, the real election starts tomorrow

A man walks past two election posters in Saint Jean de Luz, southwestern France [ Bob Edme/AP/Press Association Images]

Today’s second round of the French presidential election is one of the most important political votes of the year, pitting an upstart centrist against nationalist populism, with the future of the EU potential up for play.

Emmanuel Macron, never before having stood for election, has swept across the hexagon, sweeping French hearts and minds with his cosmopolitan plans for an outward looking republic.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, emboldened by Brexit and Trump’s victories, has become the first credible Alt-Right politician to actually stand a chance at taking up residence in the Élysée Palace, much to the dismay of all of her opponents.

Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron pose ahead of Wednesday night's head-to-head debate [PA Images]

But should the polls – as unreliable as they have proven in the past – prove right, Macron will have an easy victory in today’s runoff election. En Marche!, billed more as a movement than a political party, will have pulled of a near coup, grabbing power from the dominant parties for the first time in the history of the fifth republic.

Too bad for him – or a surprise Le Pen – that the real battle starts tomorrow.

Démocratie française

The French constitution structures the political power in a somewhat unusual way; similar to the United States, the French president is the leader of the country’s executive branch, appointing cabinet ministers and asserting control over a number of powerful legislative tools. That is, however, provided the president also controls a majority in the Assemblé Nationale.

France stands apart from most other European nations by having a power structure that mixes a parliamentary democracy with elements of US-style presidential one. The role of the president is directly elected, and Macron or Le Pen will govern with several significant constitutional rights. But France’s Prime Minister will still lead the government.

While Macron or Le Pen will have the power to appoint the next premier, he or she will then be insulated from presidential whims, with only the voting power of the 577 members of the assembly capable of removing the prime minister from office.

Powers of the premier

Furthermore, the constitution of the fifth republic also endows the prime minister will stronger powers when it comes to legislative governance. Should, for instance, the Prime Minister call a vote that contradicts the will of the president, Macron or Le Pen will find they have no power of veto, meaning a single vote majority could overturn their policies.

Add to that Article 49, also known informally as the guillotine; this right allows the French Prime Minister propose a piece of legislation which, if no action is taken, automatically becomes law. On the other hand, if the assembly reacts by voting against it, it brings down the government.

A curious facet of French democracy, dropping the guillotine affords the French Prime Minister incredible influence over members of the assembly, while also giving elected officials an easy opt-out when controversial policies are introduced.

En Marche! supporters celebrate Emmanuel Macron winning the popular vote in the first round of voting, leading to a runoff election between him and Marine Le Pen [PA Images]

Despite being such an important figure in French politics, the Prime Minister fades somewhat into obscurity on the international stage, with next month’s parliamentary elections forgotten in the media bubble surrounding today’s vote.

That is because the party that claims the presidency usually also has the most seats in the National Assembly. The appointed Prime Minister, a chosen acolyte of the President from within the party ranks, then acts as (historically) his whip, toeing the party line.

Unhappy marriages

That is not to say that French Presidents in the past haven’t found themselves appointing Prime Ministers from the other side of the aisle, forming governments with the opposition. This has happened three times in the last 30 years, with the Élysée propped up by an Assembly majority between 1986 and 1988, again from 1993 to 1995, and most recently from 1997 to 2002.

Known in France as “la cohabitation,” this was in large part because the lifespan of the assembly was five years, with the presidency reaching seven (it is now reduced to five, and renewable only once).

The single greatest legislative power that comes with winning today’s second round election is the ability to dissolve the parliament and call an election. The newly elected Macron or Le Pen will be expected to follow the lead of their predecessors, calling a quick election to ride the crest of their victory to an assembly majority and puppet Prime Minister.

But when the presidency stretched two years beyond the lifespan of the parliament, sitting presidents often found themselves at the behest of a hostile assembly. Twice Socialist President François Mitterand saw his party tumble as the French went to the polls, tying him to Gaullist Prime Ministers at odds with his liberal agenda.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine and ousted former leader of the National Front, poses in 2002 after surprising all pundits and reaching the second round of the presidential election. He lost to Jacques Chirac, winning just 18% of the vote [Wiki Commons]

Jacques Chirac, who had been an opposition Prime Minister to Mitterand, also had to endure a cohabitation while President; after an election he called in 1997 went against him, the last five years of his presidency, which were alo counting down to prosecutors waiting to charge him for embezzlement, Chirac was lumped with Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Cohabitation is not well regarded in France, seen largely as sapping the directly elected President of his or her place as the leader of France. The three periods in recent history have seen the Prime Minister become the de facto legislative leader, pushing through policies in the lower house at odds with the Élysée Palace’s wishes, while the President can only look on.

Into the great unknown

A referendum was called in 2000 to reduce the presidency from seven to five years, in part to respond to the problems of cohabitation. Now passed, today’s votes raises the spectre of it yet again, because Macron and Le Pen both represent new politics in France.

Between their two parties, only three seats out of the assembly’s 577 belong to vying candidates, meaning winning today kick-starts a very significant electoral battle tomorrow. An election has already been called for, the two rounds set to take place on June 11th. With the National Front largely squeezed out in France’s regional and European elections, and with En Marche! in its political infancy, it seems impossible that either candidate can deliver a parliamentary majority.

Despite being an MEP, Marine Le Pen's tenure as National Front leader has not seen the party achieve major electoral success. In recent regional elections, the two-round system saw France's political old guard unite, in what has become known as the 'Front Républicain', to ensure the far-right party gained no seats [PA Images]

And it doesn’t end there – like the presidential election, if none of the parties win an outright majority in the parliament, the assembly elections also go forward to a second round on June 18th. But unlike the presidential one, in which only two candidates move on to the runoff, any candidate who receives 12.5% of the vote is eligible for the battle royale to come.

For decades, French politics has been dominated by two major coalitions in the Assemblé Nationale, pivoting from right to left. But with either a far-right woman or a centrist man set to take over the presidency, the power structures of French politics have shifted like never before. Voters have already proven that their democratic whims will not be bound by tradition, and the only certainty is weeks of uncertainty.

Today France will choose its President. Tomorrow the real election begins.

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