What next?: Legislative election upset complicates France's political timetable

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France is wading into uncharted waters after President Emmanuel Macron lost his absolute majority, with a large but shaky opposition bloc on the left and scores more far-right lawmakers surging into the National Assembly. Uncertainties abound, with each next step on the political agenda a potential flashpoint. FRANCE 24 takes a look at what's next.

Throughout Macron's first term as president, opposition parties chided his docile absolute majority in the National Assembly, likening his lawmakers to Playmobil figurines – an army of plastic arms flexed in permanent "Aye!" position, ready to push through the president's policy agenda virtually unchallenged. On Sunday night, when all the votes were counted, far more of the president's toy soldiers had been lost in battle than expected. And Macron, just two months into his second five-year term, finds himself with the narrowest relative majority in modern French political history and no choice but to govern through coalition-building.

According to the official count, Macron's centre-right Ensemble (Together) alliance won 245 seats, 44 short of the 289 needed for an absolute majority. The pan-leftist NUPES coalition won 131, twice the total its individual parties had previously held separately, although natural allies boost that tally to 150, according to an AFP estimation. The far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) won 89 seats, skyrocketing from the eight it claimed in 2017. And the conservative Les Républicains, who immediately made clear they were happy to remain in opposition to Macron's centre right, won 61.

Macron has invited the leaders of every major parliamentary faction to the Elysée Palace on Tuesday and Wednesday in a bid to find "constructive solutions to serve the French people", the president's office explained. The meetings are the first novel entries on a French political calendar now complicated by the unusual complexity of Sunday's election results, with weeks of negotiations on the horizon.

The week of June 20: Transitions, decisions and plenty of politics

As early as 8:30am on the morning after election night, freshly elected lawmakers began arriving at the Palais Bourbon, the central Paris home of the lower-house National Assembly, to register their names, have their official photos taken and pick up their deputy kits. The leather briefcases each lawmaker receives contain their ceremonial tricolour sash and the National Assembly's rulebook. Officially, the new legislative terms begin on June 22, but those elected in the Paris area tend to pour in earliest to start the formalities and drop comments to a waiting press corps.

Indeed, from day one of a week fraught with jockeying behind the scenes, each faction began staking claims, planting proverbial flags and drawing lines in the sand via the media.

Monday's politicking turned on the parliamentary groups to come. Lawmakers have eight days to form official groups, which bring rewards of influence (like speaking time on the house floor), funding (for accoutrements like parliamentary staff) and access (to parliamentary office space and facilities). The minimum number of lawmakers required to form a group is 15.

But the precise seat counts decided by Sunday's results – and specifically the far-right National Rally's unexpectedly high haul of 89 – upped the stakes for forming those groups, with the numbers trickiest on the left.

Not only will the far-right National Rally be able to form an official parliamentary group for the first time since 1986, but it can also stake a claim on having the largest single opposition group in the chamber.

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France's main left-wing parties – the far-left La France Insoumise ("France Unbowed" or LFI), the Socialist Party, the Greens and the French Communist Party – managed to form a coalition to stand in these legislative elections under one banner as the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES). But the agreement struck last month was meant to allow each constituent party to maintain its identity – not to sit in the National Assembly as one group. The trouble for NUPES leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon is that his own LFI, the highest-scoring partner in the NUPES coalition, officially only won 72 seats – giving it second place in the ranks of the opposition, behind the far right.

Being the top opposition group confers prestige, as well as some symbolic and practical privileges. But the biggest prize could be a chair: By tradition, the largest opposition group has won the privilege of chairing the National Assembly's finance committee. The post is strategic in part because the committee's president sets the agenda, giving any opposition lawmaker determined to hamstring the majority a tool to do so. It also confers powers of inquiry, with access to tax and public spending documents usually off-limits. The far right's future parliamentary group leader, Marine Le Pen, says she intends to lobby for the highly strategic post.

"We will ask for everything we have a right to, everything that will have been accorded to the primary opposition group in the National Assembly, so the presidency of the finance committee, of course," Le Pen told reporters on Monday in northern France, where she handily won the race for her seat. "Because the group we have ... will not concede any of the means granted to it, by tradition or by Republican rules, to defend the French people."

Le Pen's stance is a puzzle for the left. Parliamentary group members don't have to hail from the same party, only to be like-minded on forming a group. And there's the rub. Mélenchon, citing the fact that "no one saw this situation coming", called on the NUPES on Monday to form a single group after all. But within hours, Mélenchon's leftist fellows – Socialist, Green, and Communist executives – had snubbed the idea.

"The left is plural. It is represented in its diversity at the National Assembly. That's a strength in the service of the French people," outgoing Socialist house leader Valérie Rabault replied in a tweet. "Wanting to suppress that diversity is a mistake and I'm opposed to it."

As for the finance committee, the coveted president's post has gone to the biggest opposition group by convention since 2007 – but that isn't a rule. Technically, it can go to any member of the opposition. There is a vote and Macron's centre-right majority has made clear it will have its say. Given that uncertainty, some specialists argue the NUPES would be better off anyway as four separate groups, with more total financing and speaking time, rather than combining as one.

Not that Macron has any time for schadenfreude over the opposition's dilemmas. Aside from consulting with political opponents at the palace, the president has personnel issues of his own to resolve this week. His centre-right alliance is due to elect its new group president on Wednesday. The outgoing Christophe Castaner, a close Macron ally, lost his seat Sunday night in a blow to the president.

Macron also needs to start plugging holes in his month-old government after three cabinet ministers – Health Minister Brigitte Bourguignon, Ecological Transition Minister Amélie de Montchalin and State Secretary for Oceans Justine Benin – lost their legislative races on Sunday night. By convention, a sitting minister who stands for election and loses must give up her cabinet role.

Whether Sunday night's results push Macron to a wholesale reshuffle – including the ouster of Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne – is an open question. Borne was arguably undermined by the centre-right's legislative setback despite winning a seat herself Sunday night in Calvados. But when she presented her resignation on Tuesday morning, Macron rejected it. At least for now.

Macron's presidential calendar is tight, too, complicating his side's next steps. The president is due in Brussels on Thursday and Friday for a European Council meeting, before heading to Germany for a three-day G7 summit from Sunday and then to Madrid for a three-day NATO summit.

The week of June 27: Very political formalities

At 3pm on Tuesday, June 28, the eldest member of the freshly elected legislature – in this case 79-year-old National Rally lawmaker José Gonzalez – will be charged with presiding over the first public session of the National Assembly's 16th Legislature.

During that first session, lawmakers are invited up to the rostrum to elect the new president of the body (essentially the speaker of the house) by a secret ballot. The job naturally goes to the majority force in the chamber, although the incumbent won't get another crack at the job. Close Macron ally Richard Ferrand, who had held the role since 2018, lost his bid for a third legislative term on Sunday night in yet another blow to Macron.

By a 6pm deadline that same day, each official parliamentary group must have filed the names of all of their members, signed by each, as well as the name of its president.

June 29 sees the 22 members of the National Assembly's bureau – its president, six vice presidents, three financial administrators, and 12 secretaries – named at 3pm. Each of the new parliamentary groups are meant to be represented in the bureau, described as a sort of board of directors for the lower house's workings, making the jockeying for position especially fraught with so many groups slated for inclusion.

By June 30, each of the 577 lawmakers will have joined one of eight parliamentary committees (finance, foreign affairs, social affairs, defence, etc.), divided proportionally, and the committees will assemble to elect their presidents, vice presidents and secretaries – with all eyes on the finance committee votes.

June 30 is also the day parliamentary groups mete out the office suites and their actual seats in the semi-circular National Assembly chamber, with each group elbowing for their preferred placement. (Lawmakers without an official group are out of luck: They don't get parliamentary office space and have to settle for the worst seats, in the rows at the back.)

July: Down to business, in theory

The calendar gets more complicated from the first week of July, pending decisions theoretically made beforehand.

As it stands, Borne is due to address the assembly with the head of government's traditional general policy statement. That solemn address ideally demands that the cabinet has already been reshuffled – replacing the legislative election losers and perhaps adding new members to tweak the government's political line with an eye to success in parliament. It also presumes Borne – or whoever replaces her as prime minister – has shored up the "working majority" she pledged to work towards after election night's dire results. The general policy statements of prime ministers are usually followed by a vote of confidence in the government, but holding a vote isn't mandatory.

Nevertheless, far-left La France Insoumise heavyweights have floated the notion of calling for a no-confidence motion against Borne's government that very day, July 5, with an eye to toppling her. In the previous legislature, LFI's 17 lower-house lawmakers weren't enough to exercise that power alone – 58 deputies are needed to call a no-confidence vote – but in the new legislature LFI (as well as the far-right National Rally and conservative Les Républicains) will have that power in hand, like a sword of Damocles.

What legislative work comes out of the session in July also hangs on clarifying how the centre-right government can manage to usher its bills through parliament. A packet of measures on purchasing power – identified throughout the 2022 election season as French voters' top concern – was set to be discussed at the weekly cabinet meeting on July 6 and presented to the National Assembly on July 18. Meanwhile, legislation on extending Covid-19 prevention measures – just as the BA.5 variant sends infections rising again in France – was slated for a cabinet discussion this week and to reach parliament on July 11. This week's cabinet meeting has been postponed indefinitely – for now, it is suspense that reigns supreme.

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