France: Parliament Changes but Foreign Policy Remains the Same

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron leaves a booth equipped with anti-COVID curtains at a polling station in Le Touquet, France during the second round of regional elections on June 27, 2021. Credit: Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS.
Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron leaves a booth equipped with anti-COVID curtains at a polling station in Le Touquet, France during the second round of regional elections on June 27, 2021. Credit: Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS.

Despite advances by Putin-friendly extremists at the election, they lack the parliamentary muscle to change Ukraine policy.

The parliamentary elections in France this month have caused some concern among its international partners. From the outside, the results might seem to herald an era of instability and a worrying gain by parties favorable to the Kremlin (the extreme right), or at least complacent towards it (the far left). The two extreme parties are also particularly hostile to NATO and the Atlantic Alliance in general.

It should however be recalled that French foreign policy, and in particular the Russian war against Ukraine, was not a campaign issue during the legislative elections. The polarization of the electorate was based on other matters, essentially economic and social, and, more indirectly, on the perception of the President, the government, and the leaders of the other parties.

This twofold concern seems unfounded today. First, while it is true that the parties supporting President Emmanuel Macron have lost their absolute majority in the National Assembly, this does not mean an era of serious disorder and unrest. As a result of this election, France joins most democratic countries in which multiparty coalitions are the rule. (Even in the European Parliament, an alliance of three political groups is usually required to pass a bill.) This means that the President and his Prime Minister will have to find compromises with the democratic parties of the right or the left, or both.

It is also useful to remember that the baroque and purely instrumental “opposition” alliance that came second to the President’s party (including the far left, the Communist Party, the Socialists, and the Greens) is actually no such thing. It is a composite grouping and will be divided in the National Assembly into separate groups whose agreement is unlikely on many issues.

The parties that can be described as “anti-system” represent 173 seats out of 577, including 89 for Marine Le Pen’s far-right party and 84 for that of far-left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The coalition around the President has 245 seats. It is therefore 44 seats short of an absolute majority (289 seats). Compromises may be difficult to reach on some issues, but unless we imagine an unlikely joint bloc to oppose any given government proposal, it is unlikely that the institutions will be paralyzed. Under the Constitution, the President can also dissolve the National Assembly once a year and call for new elections, although this ultimate weapon might also be seen as risky.

In terms of foreign and security policy, the President’s power, officially shared with the government, remains preeminent, and the National Assembly and the Senate, which do examine the main directions of international policy, rarely have the power to block. The Parliament has not been asked to give its opinion on the dispatch of arms to Ukraine, nor on France’s external operations, notably in the Sahel, in the Middle East as part of the anti-ISIS coalition, or in Afghanistan. In the case of these operations, Parliament must, however, give its authorization for an extension of the intervention after four months in the event of disagreement, the last word belongs to the National Assembly.

However, the debate that must follow government notification of a foreign intervention does not conclude with a vote. And while both assemblies are required to debate it, they have no power of veto. Nor will it have the power to decide on the status of European Union (EU) candidate countries that are expected to be granted to Ukraine and Moldova at the European Council on June 23 and 24.

Only if war is declared does the Constitution require Parliament to pronounce itself. Even so, the President can override the legislature though this article was only ever used once, during the Algerian war in 1961, and is unlikely to be used again using Article 16 of the Constitution, which gives him exceptional powers.

Of course, Parliament and especially the National Assembly, which has the final say   plays an essential role in budgetary matters. As in all democracies, it votes on the budget of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense. While Emmanuel Macron has announced a revision of the military programming law to deal with new threats, in particular from the Russian regime, and has announced increased deliveries of sophisticated weapons to Ukraine in particular, Caesar 155mm artillery pieces, whose production he wishes to increase a rejection by Parliament would be extremely damaging. He had even announced that it was desirable to move Europe into a “war economy.” 

However, it is unlikely: a large group among the socialists, a fraction of the Greens, although traditionally pacifists, and some Republicans, who have abandoned their conciliatory tone towards Russia, will find it difficult to oppose an increase in the defense budget.

It should also be noted that several Socialist and Green elected officials, alongside many from Macron’s party, have signed a charter of commitment in support of Ukraine, including through the delivery of heavy weapons. Of course, these parties could take advantage of the current situation to negotiate trade-offs in other sectors. The government also has some latitude in allocating money, although there is strict ex-post control of spending. Parliament can also launch commissions of inquiry and control.

The French President, after a few unwelcome remarks about the need not to humiliate Russia, the brotherhood of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, or the prospect of negotiations with the Russian regime, has, following his trip to Kyiv, shown a harder and more consistent line. The French Parliament should follow suit. It is highly doubtful that it will take the risk of putting France at odds with its allies. Any political gain, except with extreme elements of the electorate, would be nil.

Nicolas Tenzer is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at CEPA, is the director of Desk Russie, guest professor at Sciences Po Paris, and a blogger on Tenzer Strategics. He is the author of 22 books and three official reports to the French government. 

 


Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron leaves a booth equipped with anti-COVID curtains at a polling station in Le Touquet, France during the second round of regional elections on June 27, 2021. Credit: Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS.

June 22, 2022