The second round of France’s snap parliamentary elections delivered a surprising result on Sunday: with 182 seats, the coalition of left-wing parties—the Nouveau Front populaire (“NFP”) emerged as the unexpected victor. Centrist parties supporting President Emmanuel Macron finished second with 168 seats altogether, whereas the far-right Rassemblement National (“RN”) and its allies—which in the first round had seemed to be within striking distance of an outright victory—secured only 143 seats, thwarting its hopes of being able to form the next government. With 289 seats needed for any single party to reach a majority in the lower house and form a government, President Macron’s decision to call early legislative elections has delivered an outcome that threatens gridlock in the EU’s second-largest economy.

There seems to be limited scope out of this deadlock: either a government formed of a grand coalition spanning from the centre right to the centre left, but excluding both the extremes (the RN on the far right and La France insoumise, “LFI”, on the far left); or to the formation of a caretaker, technocratic government until a political situation is found. Either way, the negotiations to form the next government threaten to be lengthy and torturous and the French Constitution prevents new parliamentary elections being held within the next 12 months. This situation will have profound implications not only for France but also for decision-making in the EU.

Background Context

In 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s unexpected yet victorious bid in the presidential elections had reshuffled the cards of the French political landscape, with traditional governing parties marginalised by a powerful central force, which vowed to overcome old cleavages. Surfing on a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections following his own election, the President’s first mandate (2017-2022) was marked by a willingness to boost France’s economic attractiveness: a labour reform, a single 30% tax rate on capital gains, the abolition of a wealth tax, and the reduction of corporate taxes have all contributed to curbing unemployment levels.

The French President’s approach to power, sometimes seen as vertical, was perceived to have prevented flagship reforms from being passed. In late 2018, the Yellow Vest movement provoked a political crisis and a year later, President Macron withdrew a pensions reform bill due to a prolonged national strike movement. The Covid-19 outbreak heralded further complications, with France’s unmatched fiscal measures to buffer the impact of the crisis leading to deteriorated public finances: the government deficit rose to 8.9% of GDP, while public debt rose by almost 20 percentage points, to 114.6% of GDP in 2020.

President Macron’s re-election in 2022 against Marine Le Pen, albeit by a smaller margin than in 2017, confirmed his strong ability to mobilise his electoral base. Yet, he was able to muster only a limited majority in the National Assembly. This was notwithstanding the alignment of presidential and parliamentary mandates (in a 2000 revision of the Constitution) that until now had mechanically enabled the President to obtain an absolute majority in the Parliament (called the “fait majoritaire”).

The lower house of the French Parliament was now home to an emboldened opposition, with the far-right National Rally gaining an unprecedented 88 seats and the radical-left Unbowed France dominating the alliance of left-wing parties. As such, Macron had to govern with an eclectic house, with conservative opposition group Les Républicains acting as kingmakers.

The unpopular 2023 pensions reform, passed via controversial article 49.3 of the Constitution (which allows the government to force passage of a bill without a vote unless the parliament passes a motion of no confidence) sparked political turmoil, with the motion of no confidence falling short of nine votes. Later in the year, the National Assembly adopted a motion to reject a bill on immigration without even debating it, prompting uproar after being finally adopted with more stringent measures and with the support of right-leaning Senate and the National Rally in the National Assembly. Marine Le Pen claimed that the reform represented an “ideological victory” for her party.

In this already difficult political context, President Macron abruptly called for snap parliamentary elections, in the aftermath of a crushing defeat in the European Parliamentary elections on the same day, also anticipating a looming non-adoption of a budget bill threatening the government later in the year.

Next steps

Following the elections, the National Assembly now sits for a fifteen-day period to elect its President, Vice-Presidents and Quaestors, and to allocate its members within different committees, friendship groups, working groups and delegations. Under article 28 of the Constitution, the Parliament will only meet in a new ordinary session on the first working day of October, meaning parliamentary work will be suspended between the end of the current session and its return in October. This scheduling will give the President some breathing space to assess the political dynamics at play and identify a potential Prime Minister, and allow political negotiations to take place among parties to attempt forming a government. The National Assembly must then start examining the budget bill in the autumn.

Policy Implications

Following the failure of the President’s centrist alliance to win the elections, the French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal tendered his resignation, but Macron asked him to remain in place as a caretaker until a new government could be formed.

Since the creation of the Fifth Republic, France’s experience of “grand coalition” government has been strictly limited. This lack of experience compounds the difficulty of finding a solution to the current political impasse. The NFP was a marriage of electoral convenience—a centre-left to far-left coalition thrown together to oppose the growing power of the RN. The grouping already shows signs of fracture. Macron’s centrist supporters refuse to negotiate with LFI, and hope to form a coalition by picking off Deputies from the Greens, the Socialist Party and the centre Right Republican Party (or that part of it that did not choose to align with the RN). For its part, the LFI refuses point blank to enter coalition discussions with any other party, drawing sharp condemnation from Macron’s centrist grouping.

If this coalition proves impossible, an institutional deadlock, threatening political paralysis, could lead to the appointment of a technocratic, caretaker government. This could hobble French leadership in the EU—itself threatened with stasis following the shift to the right in the elections. The Council is usually the most stable of the EU institutions through the ongoing change-over, with the cadence of Member State governments by and large not related to the EU elections and the negotiations over the new Commission. But with France weakened—and Germany also facing political challenges in its governing coalition—it is likely to be harder to make decisions in the Council.

The French Constitution reserves foreign and defence policy to the President of the Republic—including the power to negotiate and ratify treaties. (Indeed, unlike the U.S. and many other countries, some international agreements do not need to be ratified by the Parliament—as was the case for the Agreement on Security Cooperation between France and Ukraine signed in February.) The President also manages France’s bilateral relations with the U.S., China, and Russia. However, other elements of France’s international relations cannot be ratified without Parliament’s consent—including peace treaties, trade agreements, treaties or agreements relating to international organizations, and those committing state finances. This means that it is unclear whether President Macron’s pledge to Ukraine to deliver Mirage fighter jets and other weapons systems can be met.

When it comes to forming the new Commission, the outcome of the French elections may have given a little more clarity. President Macron is now said to back the current French Commissioner, Thierry Breton, for a second term in office. However, there is no clear rule in the French constitution (or the EU treaties) as to whether it is the President or the Government that nominates France’s Commissioner. However, with either a coalition still formed around Macron’s centrist bloc, or a technocratic government, the President is likely to be able to insist on his candidate. Breton’s “Europe-first” approach to policymaking is likely to still hold some sway in Brussels.  But Macron’s ability to drive the EU agenda forward is likely to continue to fade over the years between now and the end of his term in 2027.  With Germany also struggling, the two motors of EU progress appear to be running on empty, with potentially important consequences for the EU.

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The global public policy team at Covington is well placed to advise you on these policy developments, and how to engage with the relevant decision-makers on these questions.

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Clovis de Bryas and Pol Revert Loosveldt of Covington & Burling LLP contributed to the preparation of this article.

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Photo of Daniel Feldman Daniel Feldman

Drawing on his prior positions in government service spanning multiple Administrations, former Ambassador Dan Feldman’s practice focuses on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) counseling, business and human rights (BHR), global public policy, as well as broader international regulatory compliance. He is a member…

Drawing on his prior positions in government service spanning multiple Administrations, former Ambassador Dan Feldman’s practice focuses on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) counseling, business and human rights (BHR), global public policy, as well as broader international regulatory compliance. He is a member of the firm’s Global Problem Solving initiative.

As Chief of Staff and Counselor to Secretary John Kerry when he was appointed the first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (SPEC) by President Biden, Dan helped drive the U.S. government’s international climate agenda, coordinating high level interagency policy-making, engaging with corporate stakeholders, and contributing to key bilateral and multilateral climate discussions, including last year’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate and the landmark UN Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow.

Previously, Dan served as deputy and then U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State in the Obama Administration, as Director of Multilateral and Humanitarian Affairs at the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration, and as Counsel and Communications Adviser to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He also has served as a senior foreign policy and national security advisor to a number of Democratic presidential and Congressional campaigns.

Dan has extensive experience counseling multinational corporations on mitigating risk and maximizing opportunities in the development and implementation of their ESG and sustainability strategies, with a particular background in advising on BHR matters. He was one of the first attorneys in the U.S. to develop a practice in corporate social responsibility, and has been cited by Chambers for his BHR expertise. He assists clients in strategizing about their engagements with a range of key stakeholders, including Members of Congress, executive branch officials, foreign government officials and Embassy representatives, multilateral institutions, trade and industry associations, non-governmental organizations, opinion leaders, and journalists.

Photo of Thomas Reilly Thomas Reilly

Ambassador Thomas Reilly, Covington’s Head of UK Public Policy and a key member of the firm’s Global Problem Solving Group and Brexit Task Force, draws on over 20 years of diplomatic and commercial roles to advise clients on their strategic business objectives.

Ambassador…

Ambassador Thomas Reilly, Covington’s Head of UK Public Policy and a key member of the firm’s Global Problem Solving Group and Brexit Task Force, draws on over 20 years of diplomatic and commercial roles to advise clients on their strategic business objectives.

Ambassador Reilly was most recently British Ambassador to Morocco between 2017 and 2020, and prior to this, the Senior Advisor on International Government Relations & Regulatory Affairs and Head of Government Relations at Royal Dutch Shell between 2012 and 2017. His former roles with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office included British Ambassador Morocco & Mauritania (2017-2018), Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Egypt (2010-2012), Deputy Head of the Climate Change & Energy Department (2007-2009), and Deputy Head of the Counter Terrorism Department (2005-2007). He has lived or worked in a number of countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Argentina.

At Covington, Ambassador Reilly works closely with our global team of lawyers and investigators as well as over 100 former diplomats and senior government officials, with significant depth of experience in dealing with the types of complex problems that involve both legal and governmental institutions.

Ambassador Reilly started his career as a solicitor specialising in EU and commercial law but no longer practices as a solicitor.

Photo of Atli Stannard Atli Stannard

Atli Stannard is special counsel in the firm’s Public Policy practice. He guides clients in highly regulated industries through complex EU policymaking processes, protecting and advancing their core business and regulatory priorities.

Atli’s practice covers all aspects of EU policymaking and legislative advocacy…

Atli Stannard is special counsel in the firm’s Public Policy practice. He guides clients in highly regulated industries through complex EU policymaking processes, protecting and advancing their core business and regulatory priorities.

Atli’s practice covers all aspects of EU policymaking and legislative advocacy, including the regulation of the tech, food and beverage, pharmaceutical and medical devices, and industrial sectors, and on EU trade, environmental and ESG, and competition policy. He has handled matters before the European Commission, European Parliament, Council of the EU, and Member State and UK governments. Clients rely on him to identify regulatory risks and opportunities, and engage in the policy process to defend and promote their business interests.

  • Technology: Atli has worked extensively for clients on matters relating to EU data, content, platform, Artificial Intelligence, and competition policy.
  • Food and beverage: Atli helps clients developing novel plant-based foods to secure the necessary regulatory authorizations and engage in broader EU food policymaking. He regularly engages with EU and national authorities to ensure that health and environmental regulations are based in rigorous scientific evidence. He has drawn on his trade policy expertise to assist clients seeking to import food products into the EU.
  • Drug & medical devices: Atli has counseled clients and engaged with the EU institutions on matters relating to genomics, the regulation of medical devices and in vitro diagnostics, health technology assessment, orphan medicines, and pricing.
  • Industrial: Atli helps clients engage with EU and national bodies on the environmental benefits of their innovative technologies, and on EU plastics, chemical, and product regulation.

In his EU trade policy work, Atli regularly advises clients facing on EU market access and customs classification issues, trade defense actions (tariffs and safeguard measures), and non-tariff barriers (including sanitary and phytosanitary measures). He helps clients engage in the EU’s negotiation of new trade agreements. He counsels clients on the impact of the upcoming Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, and how to shape and comply with its requirements.

Atli is a member of the firm’s ESG and Business and Human Rights Practices, and works with clients to assess the impact of and engage with new and upcoming Environmental, Social and Governance rules, including the EU Green Deal, supply chain diligence and the EU’s developing sustainable finance rules.

Atli’s competition policy advocacy work encompasses mergers, challenges under Articles 101 (anticompetitive agreements) and 102 (abuse of dominance) TFEU, and referrals under Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation.

Atli has counseled international investors extensively on the EU’s proposals for a regime on foreign subsidies, and on the EU’s new FDI screening rules and coordination mechanism, as well as on EU tax policymaking. He also works closely with litigation colleagues to protect clients’ legitimate interests in multiple venues.

Photo of Bart Szewczyk Bart Szewczyk

Having served in senior advisory positions in the U.S. government, Bart Szewczyk advises on European and global public policy, particularly on technology, trade and foreign investment, business and human rights, and environmental, social, and governance issues, as well as conducts international arbitration. He…

Having served in senior advisory positions in the U.S. government, Bart Szewczyk advises on European and global public policy, particularly on technology, trade and foreign investment, business and human rights, and environmental, social, and governance issues, as well as conducts international arbitration. He also teaches grand strategy as an Adjunct Professor at Sciences Po in Paris and is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

Bart recently worked as Advisor on Global Affairs at the European Commission’s think-tank, where he covered a wide range of foreign policy issues, including international order, defense, geoeconomics, transatlantic relations, Russia and Eastern Europe, Middle East and North Africa, and China and Asia. Previously, between 2014 and 2017, he served as Member of Secretary John Kerry’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he covered Europe, Eurasia, and global economic affairs. From 2016 to 2017, he also concurrently served as Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, where he worked on refugee policy. He joined the U.S. government from teaching at Columbia Law School, as one of two academics selected nationwide for the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship. He has also consulted for the World Bank and Rasmussen Global.

Prior to government, Bart was an Associate Research Scholar and Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School, where he worked on international law and U.S. foreign relations law. Before academia, he taught international law and international organizations at George Washington University Law School, and served as a visiting fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies. He also clerked at the International Court of Justice for Judges Peter Tomka and Christopher Greenwood and at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for the late Judge Leonard Garth..

Bart holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University where he studied as a Gates Scholar, a J.D. from Yale Law School, an M.P.A. from Princeton University, and a B.S. in economics (summa cum laude) from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published in Foreign AffairsForeign PolicyHarvard International Law JournalColumbia Journal of European LawAmerican Journal of International LawGeorge Washington Law ReviewSurvival, and elsewhere. He is the author of three books: Europe’s Grand Strategy: Navigating a New World Order (Palgrave Macmillan 2021); with David McKean, Partners of First Resort: America, Europe, and the Future of the West (Brookings Institution Press 2021); and European Sovereignty, Legitimacy, and Power (Routledge 2021).