Five French Election Scenarios

Whoever wins the presidency, France will probably have five years of divided government.

Elysée Palace Paris France
Aerial view of the Elysée Palace in Paris, France at night, March 12, 2019 (Elysée/Laurent Blevennec)

Polls are narrowing in France. Incumbent president Emmanuel Macron is losing support. The far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and far-right Marine Le Pen are going up.

The most likely outcome is still that Macron and Le Pen qualify for the runoff, and Macron wins. But that is less certain than it was three weeks ago.

There are also legislative elections in June, for which there hasn’t been much polling. Macron’s liberal party, The Republic on the Move (LREM), is expected to lose seats to the Greens and Socialists on the left and the Republicans on the right. What the French call “cohabitation”, and the Americans “divided government” — in which two parties split the presidency and National Assembly — is likely.

Here are the five possible outcomes in order of probability (as I see it), and what they would mean for French policy.

1. Macron + center-right majority

Macron is reelected. The Republicans gain at the expense of LREM and its allies in the June election, but fall short of a majority. The left and far right remain stable. LREM, the Republicans and smaller center-right parties form a coalition.

Macron wouldn’t need to make major concessions. The conservatives broadly agree with his proposals for nuclear power, pensions and tax relief. He may have to toughen immigration laws and scale back his €50 billion green-energy plan.

2. Macron + Republican majority

Macron is reelected, but LREM implodes. Republicans win an outright majority in the National Assembly.

This would almost certainly force Macron to the right on immigration and integration, for example by conditioning residency on learning French, cutting social aid to illegal immigrants and introducing quotas for countries and professions. It would put his green-energy agenda at risk, but Macron’s foreign policy wouldn’t change.

3. Le Pen + right-wing majority

If Le Pen wins the presidential election, I don’t see how LREM survives. Without Macron, what’s the point?

I also don’t see National Rally winning a majority. It currently has six out of 577 seats. More likely, the Republicans would either win a majority of their own or form a majority with an expanded National Rally delegation. (In which case anti-Le Pen Republicans might split and form a new party with the remnants of LREM.)

The Republicans could go along with tax cuts and tougher immigration laws; in addition to the aforementioned, curtailing family reunification. They may also support mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Le Pen’s protectionist economic policies, such as renationalizing motorways, would be a bridge too far for the mainstream right.

Republicans could do little to restrain Le Pen in Europe, since the French president has great leeway in foreign policy. Viktor Orbán will find a powerful new friend around the European Council table.

4. Mélenchon + center-right majority

Even if the far-left leader prevails in the presidential election, there is little indication of a left-wing wave in the legislative. A Mélenchon victory would more likely usher in a broad center-right alliance of LREM, the Republicans and their allies to prevent France from turning red.

That would make it impossible for Mélenchon to govern. His proposals to leave NATO, legalize cannabis, phase out nuclear power, raise taxes and wages, reduce the pension age and renationalize motorways and utilities would go nowhere.

5. Mélenchon + center-left majority

In the best-case scenario for Mélenchon, the center-right does not unite but the far right under Le Pen and Éric Zemmour does; the Socialists, Greens and his own France Unbowed are the lesser of evils for most voters in the legislative election, and they convince what remains of LREM and its ally, the centrist Democratic Movement, to join them in a National Assembly majority. Very unlikely, but not unthinkable.

It would put legalizing cannabis, phasing out nuclear power, raising some taxes and the minimum wage within reach. It would also open the door to a more ambitious green agenda, which is not a priority for Mélenchon but something he would support, including banning factory farming and single-use plastics, cutting the use of pesticides in half and expanding wind and solar energy. Pensions would be unchanged. Leaving NATO and renationalizations still aren’t going to happen.

Other scenarios

I would consider Macron or Le Pen winning an outright majority for their parties about as (un)likely as the fifth scenario. If it does happen, they could simply carry out their programs.

Macron or Le Pen winning the presidential and the center-left winning the legislative election is even less likely.

Polls do not suggest candidates other than Macron, Le Pen and Mélenchon stand a chance of making the runoff on April 24. If that turns out to be wrong, and Valérie Pécresse or Zemmour makes it into the second round, the probabilities of the scenarios for the legislative elections would obviously change.