SHARE
COPY LINK

JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: France begins a new political era and it’s going to get messy

France has entered a new political era (or reverted to an old one) in which parliament rules but voters still demand action to ease soaring prices. John Lichfield explains the muddle that has engulfed French politics this summer and why it won't end soon.

OPINION: France begins a new political era and it's going to get messy
The French National Assembly. (Photo by Geoffroy Van der Hasselt / AFP)

People in France, and elsewhere, are suddenly fascinated by an institution which they long ignored; the French parliament.

How did the far-right Rassemblement National – supposedly beyond the pale of normal political discourse –  end up with two out of the six vice-presidencies in the new assembly?  

Why has the powerful position of chairman of the finance committee gone to Eric Coquerel, a veteran of the destroy-the-system Left (who now stands accused of behaving improperly towards women)?

Why is the Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne scared to put her new government and its programme to a vote of confidence in the assembly today? Answer: because she might lose and her government might collapse after only two days.

READ MORE: Key points: How Macron has reshuffled French cabinet for tricky second term

Why then is Madame Borne happy to face a censure motion from the Left (possibly on Friday)?  Answer: because the rules for censure motions are different and Borne and her government will win that vote or at least survive it.

There is also a single answer to all these questions. France has entered a new political era; or has reverted to an old one. Parliament is divided and therefore parliament rules. The President can no longer treat the National Assembly as his rubber-stamp or echo chamber. We have returned to the France of the 1950s or the 1930s, before Charles de Gaulle invented the supposedly all-powerful presidency (but left the ultimate power in parliament).

Parliaments, especially hung or divided parliaments, are by their nature messy or muddled. France is therefore entering a period of muddled politics at a time when it is also confronting a land war in Europe, soaring inflation, a resurgent Covid pandemic and the possibility of a global recession.

The muddle will continue for a while. President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed yesterday something that has been obvious for days: no other large bloc of deputies in the assembly elected last month is willing to enter a coalition with his minority government.

Madame Borne will therefore struggle on with her 250 deputies (39 short of an overall majority). She will try to persuade parts of the Right and Left to abstain in sufficient numbers to allow the passage of urgent business such as her anti-inflation package and new measures against the seventh (yes, the seventh) wave of Covid-19.

Only a handful of independent deputies will support her consistently. Others, on the Left and Right, will support her, or more likely abstain, from time to time. Despite the posturing censure motion to be tabled by the Hard Left today, no-one wants to bring the government down yet. No one wants another election yet. No one wants to bring government to a halt yet.

There is a strong chance that there will be a new election in the first half of next year. Until then, there will be a period of bluff and double-bluff in which the government will blame the opposition for its failure to govern effectively and the much- divided opposition will try to trip up the government (although not so much as to annoy the voters).

Ah, yes the voters. The half who bothered to vote on 12 and 19 June elected a blocked parliament. They still expect government to deliver them stuff, like continued subsidies on pump prices, gas and electricity.

In the meantime, we are all going to have to start to take the lower house of the French parliament seriously and learn about its arcane procedures and traditions. Some of the instant takes in recent days in the French media, but also in the UK and US media, have been grossly misleading.

Why DID the far right Rassemblement National end up with two out of the six vice-presidencies – or deputy speakers – in the new assembly? Part of the Left in France – but also in the UK – has accused Macron’s allies, and even President Macron himself, of making secret deals with Marine Le Pen’s Far Right while pretending to exclude them.

In truth, Le Pen’s breakthrough in the June elections entitled her to a share in the running of parliament under the parliament’s rules. Her 89 deputies guaranteed her one vice-presidency. She ended up with two because the centre-right Les Républicains  preferred to hold on to one of the lucrative positions of quaestor (the three deputies who run the assembly’s finances).

A messy deal was concocted which gave all four large blocs in the assembly a proportional share of the spoils. The Left went along with the deal at first and then part of the Left cried foul. A Macronist conspiracy? Hardly.

At the same time, the Right and Far Right are furious with pro-Macron deputies for failing to conspire with them to deprive the Hard Left – in the dishevelled guise of Eric Coquerel  – of the powerful position of chairman of the finance committee.

By tradition, each year since 2009, the ruling party has withdrawn from the vote to allow the chairmanship of this committee to go to the biggest party in opposition. The right and far right wanted the Macronistes to break that unwritten rule this year to block Coquerel. He was the radical choice imposed by the hard left La France Insoumise on the wider Left-Green bloc.

The Macronistes refused to conspire with the Right. Coquerel got the job, which will give him considerable power to embarrass the Macron government and the capitalist system. In the meantime, it has embarrassed him. He stands formally accused of behaving in an aggressively, insistent sexual way towards women, despite being a leading figure in a fiercely feminist party. He dismisses the accusations as “unfounded”.

None of the supposed, wicked backroom dealing by Macron’s alliance has won them significant new support in parliament. Elisabeth Borne will refuse to put herself through a confidence vote today because she knows that she might lose it.  

Such a vote is decided by simple majority of those voting. Even if part of the opposition abstained, Borne might lose.

A  censure motion is different. It needs a positive majority of the 577 deputies – in other words 289 votes – to succeed. The hard left LFI has insisted on bringing a censure motion on Friday and has pushed other left-wing parties to go along. Some Socialist deputies may abstain all the same.

If only 50 or so deputies abstain, Borne will survive. The centre-right (62 seats) has already announced that they will do so. So has Le Pen’s bloc of 89 deputies.

Expect, therefore, lots of new, indignant hot-takes accusing Macron of conspiracies with the Right and  Far Right – which is exactly why the LFI insisted on a censure vote in the first place.

Aren’t parliamentary politics fun?

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

SHOW COMMENTS