Electing a French President.
#1 The presidential election system.
2022 is a big election year in France, with the presidential election in April followed by the parliamentary (National Assembly) elections in June. Each of these elections has two rounds, meaning that most voters can expect to go to the polls on four separate occasions this Spring.
From 1965 to 2002, the President served a 7-year term meaning that their term was out of step with that of the National Assembly. Since 2002, both the President and the National Assembly have a 5-year term and the elections follow each other closely with the aim of providing the new President with a working full-term majority in parliament.
The President is France’s head of state, leads on foreign policy and security and sets the direction of government by choosing or dismissing the prime minister. The prime minister leads the government and needs to be able to command a majority in the National Assembly. The president can initiate or delay legislation, call a referendum or dissolve the National Assembly. So the French presidential election is the first step a chain of events over a period of a few weeks which can initiate a major shift in political power in the country.
The two-round system:
The version of the two-round system used to elect the French President is simple to understand but does fail some of the tests of democracy and can have some unpredictable outcomes.
The election is by universal suffrage with every French voter participating having a single vote in a single process to elect a single person. Each voter chooses one candidate at a time in each of two rounds, two weeks apart. The idea is that to be successful, a candidate needs to achieve an overall majority (over 50%) of all voters, either in the first or second round.
The first round can involve a large number of candidates, often 10 or more, who have received the qualifying level of sponsorship. If any one of them wins an outright majority at this stage, they would be elected and there would be no need for a second round. This has never happened, and the closest any candidate has come to this was the 44.7% achieved by Charles De Gaulle in the first round of the 1965 election, the first of this type under the 5th republic. In recent history, even the highest scoring candidates in the first round seldom gain more than 30% of the vote.
In the second round, the lower scoring candidates have been eliminated, leaving a starker choice and everyone votes again, from a more limited list. The idea is that the first round reveals the electorate’s preferences (‘voting with your heart’) and reveals which candidates might have a realistic chance of winning. The second round requires voters to make a more pragmatic choice between major candidates (‘voting with your head’) who may not have been their original first preference. The gap between the two rounds acts a period of reflection for voters to make the shift from ‘first choice’ to ‘least worst choice’.
However, in this particular version of the system, the second round choice is narrowed down to only the top two highest scoring candidates, everyone else is eliminated, whatever their score. So, the only way to win the second round is to finish first or second in the first round. This has been likened to a wild cavalry charge with many starters but only two making it through.
This two-candidate ‘duel’ does have the benefit of delivering an overall majority for the final winner. By definition, the winner of a two candidate election is going to score over 50% meaning that they can claim a mandate from a majority of the electorate. However, creating this cut-off between the top two candidates and everyone else can lead to some strange outcomes. It can mean that the two final ‘run-off’ candidates did not even command 50% of the vote between them in the first round, potentially alienating more than half of the electorate in the second round. In 2017 for instance, the two run-off candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen received only 45.3% of first-round choices combined, meaning that a clear majority of voters had not voted for either of them. In 2002, front-runners Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen only managed a combined vote of 36.8% in the first round.
This system feels particularly harsh when the first-round scores of some of the eliminated candidates are very close to those of the top two. In 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the highest polling left-wing candidate, scored 19.6% in the first round and was eliminated, while Marine Le Pen who achieved 21.3% got through to the final run-off. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to qualify for the second round with a score of only 16.9%, while the Socialist Party’s Lionel Jospin was eliminated after achieving 16.2%.
The system worked reasonably well when French political opinion could conceivably be ‘boiled down’ to two broad traditions – left and right – and if each of these traditions could guarantee to have a standard bearer in the second-round run-off. The following elections would be examples of this, with the winner named first in each case:
1965: De Gaulle / Mitterand
1974: Giscard / Mitterand
1981: Mitterand / Giscard
1988: Mitterand / Chirac
1995: Chirac / Jospin
2007: Sarkozy / Royal
2012: Hollande / Sarkozy
Taking the long view, these 7 elections can be seen as the ‘norm’ in the 5th republic, with the other 3 (1969, 2002 and 2017) being exceptions. The 2022 election promises to be another ‘exceptional’ one and the result may call into question the idea of any kind of ‘norm’ for these contests.
The French political context has changed dramatically and it is now much harder to find a single line either side of which two candidates can hope to represent the political choice facing the country. And yet, France needs a President, and that President needs to command a popular majority.
Are there any simple changes to the system which could reduce some of its arbitrary unfairnesses? In another post, I will suggest that introducing an element of transferable voting into the electoral process could help to ensure that each voter’s judgement can contribute to the final choice.
Education and the French presidential election. (April 2017)
Educational inequality in France (May 2015)
The habits of democracy (May 2017)
Voting and the habit of democracy (May 2014)
The mighty pencil (November 2019)