France is gearing for a fiercely contested parliamentary election on June 12 and 19 as Emmanuel Macron’s defeated adversaries make long-shot bids to deprive him of a National Assembly majority. But the forthcoming polls will be crucial for another reason, as winning votes in them is a vital source of parties’ public funding.
After the drama of the presidential campaign comes the parliamentary election – or the “third round”, to use its telling nickname. Nationalist runner-up Marine Le Pen and extreme-left standard-bearer Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came third, have launched unlikely attempts to scupper Macron’s second term by winning a parliamentary majority.
But outcome of the législatives (as the parliamentary elections are called in French) will also be consequential due to their role in party financing. On top of what they receive in donations and membership dues, parties get state subsidies if they pass the threshold of at least 1 percent of the vote in at least 50 constituencies – to the tune of €1.42 per vote.
This low bar to qualify for public funding makes the législatives an invaluable source of income for France’s constellation of small political parties. Consequently, these polls “incentivise the parties to put forward as many candidates as possible”, said Paul Bacot, a professor emeritus of politics at Sciences Po Lyon University.
“The only problem is that it costs money to campaign and if you don’t meet the threshold all of that money is wasted,” Bacot continued. So the parties have to “think strategically” about where to field candidates.
Winner takes all
As well as the electoral performance threshold, parties have to follow certain rules to access public funding ? For starters, they have to put themselves on the interior ministry’s official register of political parties and file their campaign accounts with France’s national body regulating party financing.
Parties also find their funding reduced if there is an imbalance between the numbers of male and female candidates they field. The fewer women a party puts forward, the less state financing it receives.
But winning seats in the National Assembly is the way to hit the jackpot. Parties get €37,280 per MP per year for the duration of their five-year mandate. Thus it takes the election of just 27 MPs out of the 577 National Assembly seats for a party to get €1 million a year.
Because the freshly (re)elected president’s party tends to sweep to victory in the législatives, there is a real winner takes all effect. In 2017, Macron’s La République En Marche (Republic on the Move) won a landslide with 333 seats – and therefore raked in more than €20 million in state subsidies.
The flipside is brutal for poorly performing parties. The Parti Socialiste (PS) – for years the French left’s strongest party – haemorrhaged support in 2017 législatives. Following this debacle the party had to sell its exquisite headquarters in central Paris.
“Everything rests on these elections and I find that shocking,” Daniel Fasquelle, former treasurer of France’s traditional conservative party Les Républicains (LR) told Le Figaro. “We need a better, less brutal system.”
“It’s definitely the case that there’s a bonus for the winner,” Bacot said. “And that’s understandable – but it would be possible to create a system that also takes into account parties’ results in local, regional and EU elections, and that would allow party funding to be decided at shorter intervals, not just every five years.”
A lot is at stake for some parties: Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally) – which she described as a “poor party” during the TV debate with Macron – was in debt to the tune of nearly €23.8 million by the end of 2020.
France’s traditional parties of the right and left, LR and PS, find themselves in similarly dire financial straits after their candidates failed to get the 5 percent of the vote minimum for the state to partially reimburse their campaign funds.
So as these various parties scramble for parliamentary seats and the funding that goes with them, alliance-building is likely to be a contentious issue. Like-minded parties can and often do unite in particular constituencies to avoid splitting the vote – but when their shared candidate wins, the winning candidate’s specific party is the exclusive recipient of the state funding.
Hence parties favour deals ensuring that when an ally gains in any given constituency, “they can win elsewhere”, Bacot said.
Alliances on left and right?
As the législatives campaign kicks into gear, vexed negotiations amongst France’s left-wing parties are on the horizon.
The presidential election showed how the left that swung its support behind Mélenchon is the smallest of France’s third biggest voting blocs – behind the centre-right coalesced around Macron and the far-right coalesced around Le Pen, both of whom outperformed Mélenchon.
This makes alliance-building crucial, although Mélenchon’s potential allies have signalled reluctance to fall into line behind the mercurial La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) candidate.
Nevertheless, talks start on Wednesday –and if there is an agreement on “substantive issues”, discussion on which party fields candidates in which constituencies “will follow”, said PS deputy leader Corinne Narassiguin.
“When the PS was in a position of strength in these negotiations, we bore in mind that our partners also needed public funding for their operations,” Narassiguin continued. Parties have to ensure they don’t “strangle their allies financially”, she said.
In all the left-wing parties involved in talks, there are “experts in the electoral map” who “know where it’s best to have a Socialist, where best to have a Communist” and so on and so forth, Narassiguin added.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the LR leadership stated its commitment to the party’s “total independence” in the législatives – although analysts point out that many figures in this divided party are inclined to throw in their lot with Macron.
But both parties are living off diminishing returns from their august histories, Bacot said, whatever alliances they make: “They can’t carry on forever, selling off the family silver.”
This article was translated from the original in French.