France: Outsider vs. outsider?

The rise of Emmanuel Macron in polls for the French election has been impressive.

France is likely to get a president who is an “outsider”. But not the ultra-nationalist norm-trashing outsider. France has a sensible electoral system for choosing presidents that will prevent such a disastrous travesty of democracy–unlike the United States.

Sometimes the news media gloss over the important detail of the runoff. For instance, although a CNBC story mentions that there are two rounds of voting for president, it still gives a false, context-free impression: That Marine Le Pen’s recent decline in the polls, relative to Macron, means that her chances of becoming president are “slipping”.

No, there was never a realistic threat of her winning, because of that second round. A French president must win over half the votes. Unlike the US, where you don’t even need the highest vote total.

It seems almost certain now that the top two will be Le Pen and Macron. There is even some chance that Macron will win the first-round plurality (aided by the recent withdrawal of Francoios Bayrou from the race), although it does not matter which is first and which is second.

Unless Francois Fillon recovers–which seems unlikely–neither of the mainstays of the established French party system, the Republicans (as the main center-right force now calls itself) nor the Socialists, will be in the runoff.

The candidate of the incumbent Socialist party, Benoit Hamon, has almost no chance of making it. The recent backing of Yannick Jadot, a former Greenpeace director who had been running, is hardly going to do the trick. And he has apparently failed to make a deal with the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. (The combined support of these two maybe would be enough to squeak into the top two–if Hamon did not bleed support by linking up with Mélenchon, as almost surely would be the case.)

Thus the contest will be between two “outsiders”, by which I mean candidates having no ties to major parties represented in the National Assembly. Of course, Le Pen has a party, the Front National, that gets substantial votes, but is unable to win many districts under the two-round (majority-plurality) assembly electoral system.

Macron, on the other hand, has no existing party–just a “movement”, En Marche! With assembly elections coming up very soon after the presidential elections, “he is recruiting candidates from all backgrounds to stand at parliamentary elections in June” (Economist article, second link above).

We normally expect a large boost for the president’s party when elections are held very early in the term–a honeymoon election. He has to make a party fast, if he is to take advantage.

13 thoughts on “France: Outsider vs. outsider?

  1. Personally, I never call the chances of someone winning a second round ‘unrealistic’ if they consistently get as high as 41% in the polls. Unlikely, perhaps, but not unrealistic.

  2. “Is France on the brink of a political revolution? Already, four established candidates for the presidency — two former presidents and two former prime ministers — have backed out or been rejected by the voters, and another, François Fillon, is on the ropes. The campaign is being taken over by outsiders, principally the Front National’s Marine Le Pen and a youthful former banker, Emmanuel Macron, while the Socialists have chosen an eccentric radical, Benoît Hamon. Should we welcome a shake-up in the cradle of European revolutions? What kind of shake-up might it be — socialist (the least likely), liberal with Macron or nationalist with Le Pen? Or can the outsiders still be beaten by an electoral system designed to keep them out of power?

    France in its modern history has worn out five monarchies, five republics and 16 constitutions — and two of this year’s presidential hopefuls are demanding a 17th. Its people are still more ready than most to go into the streets. It was, and is, a country in which rhetoric and visions play a prominent part in politics. […]

    This is because France fluctuates between short spasms of change and longer periods of immobility. It has developed institutional barriers and tacit compromises to hold things steady. Its current Fifth Republic is a ‘republican monarchy’, with parliament downgraded and a powerful president supposed to unite the nation — a task sadly beyond most politicians. Another, less noticed, institution goes back even further than Enjolras’s fictional death on the barricades: the two-round ballot, designed in the 1820s to prevent hotheads like him from winning elections. It gives voters and politicians a second chance, not so much to reconsider their own choices as to react against the choices of others. In the first round you vote for the person you want; in the second you vote against the person you fear.

    This evolved historically into what was called ‘republican discipline’: in the first round there could be a range of competing candidates of all shades, but in the second round all loyal republicans, from the mildest liberal to the reddest communist, would vote for the candidate best placed to beat the enemy of the republic — usually a royalist or authoritarian nationalist. The apparition of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National in the 1970s, combining traditionalist conservatives, embittered nationalists and nostalgic fascists, met the same response. When Le Pen shocked France by getting through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, he was crushed by Jacques Chirac, who got 82 per cent of the vote. Good republicans rallied, including those on the far left: ‘Better a crook than a fascist’ said one slogan. The crucial question in this election is whether the republican reflex still operates. If not, Marine Le Pen could win.

    Consider the long-term consequences of the two-round voting system. Many British commentators — and indeed some in France — call periodically for a ‘French Thatcher’ to sweep away institutional barriers to economic dynamism. Nicolas Sarkozy was one who briefly claimed this mantle. The latest is Emmanuel Macron, a former economics minister of Blairite tinge in François Hollande’s socialist government. But Margaret Thatcher could never have been elected in a French-style second round. The British system not only can but regularly does give power to a united minority over a divided majority. Mrs Thatcher could carry out a peaceful revolution without ever having the clear support of a majority of voters. In a French-style system, she and her parliamentary supporters would inevitably have been defeated in second-round ballots by a combination of Labour and the Liberals: Jim Callaghan would have been triumphantly re-elected.

    In short, precisely because of its turbulent political history, France has developed a series of barriers against radical change. […]”

    – Robert Tombs, “The French election is now Marine Le Pen vs a collapsing French establishment: A Le Pen victory would be the worst crisis for half a century. Even if she doesn’t, the system is in deep trouble.” The Spectator (UK) (11 February 2017)

    • “France has developed a series of barriers against radical change.” Wh-what barriers? I mean, France is no UK or NZ, but I’d hardly put it in the category of countries whose political institutions are a significant barrier to change… Both the presidency and the National Assembly are elected in majoritarian fashion, and since 2002 the two are very unlikely to have contrary majorities. The argument that the two-round system makes change more difficult is highly questionable, especially for the presidency. The Senate is all but powerless. The Constitution is not that hard to change even if it follows the prescribed procedure, but de facto the president can put anything directly to the people. How is that a system which makes change difficult?

    • It is no accident that the most drastic forms of neoliberalism were introduced in New Zealand and Britain where a majority in the single or lower house empowers a prime minister to do literally anything. Nor is it an accident that New Zealand was so outraged by the neoliberal programs of the two major parties that they voted for PR. The Sarkozy argument works if, and only if, it is legitimate to introduce change without consent and the neoliberal economy has outperformed the postwar semi-Keynesian economy. Neither are true. See for example Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us by John Quiggin.

      • Usually I’m peeved by your pejorative for economic (or classical) liberalism, but this time it’s your use of ‘literally’ which takes the biscuit.

        But more importantly, it’s not terribly clear what you’re responding to exactly. What’s ‘the Sarkozy argument’?

    • Alan, there’s no need to take my objections so seriously. I did imply they were of little importance compared with what I asked you to clarify.

  3. I don’t have as deep an understanding as French internal-party and intra-alliance politics as I should have. However, I suspect that French institutions do put up somewhat bigger barriers to major policy change than do majoritarian parliamentary systems. The main reason I would cite is that, while the electoral system helps build assembly majorities, and the election timing now makes majorities opposed to the president unlikely, these majorities are built upon many independent parties and local political deals in addition to the nationwide swing towards left or right (or center or far right, or whatever it proves to be this time).

    Cutting against this is “presidentialization”–the notion that presidents largely set the agenda for their parties on account of their direct election, personal mandate, and ability to sway the outcome of honeymoon assembly elections.

    While French politics is overall very president-centered, I am not sure that trumps (pardon the verb) the internal pluralism that we see on display in the first round of both presidential and assembly elections, where the vote is very fragmented and somewhat regionally distinctive. But as I said at the outset of this comment, I do not know as much about these dynamics as I wish I knew.

  4. I gather Prof Tombs meant political rather than constitutional barriers. Curiously, because I’d always thought that a straight fight between two major contenders (something that FPTP is billed as encouraging) was supposed to lead to firm conviction politics.
    Also because there has already been a French Thatcher. His name was Charles de Gaulle, and he pushed forcefully for direct presidential elections on a two-ballot system precisely to require French voters to make a binary choice for a government that would then have a direct, democratic, mandate to act decisively. I have trouble reconciling the argument (i) that “if forced to choose between Left and Right, the soggy-centre voters will choose whichever of those two is soggier and more centrist; so much the worst for two-round runoff” with the argument (ii) that “first-past-the-post squeezes out irrelevant minor-party candidates by making it abundantly clear to the voters that these will be wasted votes, and that they have to choose whichever of the two major Left and Right parties is a lesser evil in their eyes; so much the better for first-past-the-post.”

    • Just an advisory: There was a comment from Tom, originally submitted 5 March, that got intercepted by the spam folder. I had marked it “not spam” and thought I was done with it. No, it is not enough to say it is not spam, but I must also “approve” it. Strange. Anyway, it took me till 17 March to notice that, and thus it just now has appeared. Sorry, Tom!

    • … c’est-à-dire, if Soggy Centrist voters are told on the first and only ballot, “No, you can’t vote for a Soggy Centre candidate because that will have exactly the same legal effect as you not voting at all: so choose one of the Big Two instead”, they will choose the firm-jawed Man (or Woman) of Destiny, thus saving the nation from its sloth and crisis; but if Soggy Centrist voters are told on the second, runoff ballot, “No, you can’t vote for a Soggy Centre candidate because they polled third (or lower) and have been eliminated: so choose one of the Big Two instead”, they will wimp out and choose some soft-talking compromiser who will withhold from the nation the stern medicine it so desperately needs. Why such a vast imputed difference between the two stages of balloting? I have never seen Firsties explain, or even attempt to explain, this striking contrast.

  5. Thanks MSS. Am now taking a punt on another comment… Eg, suppose a polity had a single-chamber FPTP legislature, elected for a maximum five-year term, and a parliamentary executive, and no entrenched constitution. Ie, turning all the dials consistently towards “maximum power for the party winning pluralities of votes in the most districts. Picture a cross-between a Canadian Province (if it were an independent nation-state) and New Zealand (especially before the 1986-1993 reforms). In theory, the largest party could change any law. But if they estimated (accurately or not) that tampering with certain sacred cows, touching certain “third rails”, would have them flung out of office and into powerless opposition for the next 5 or 10 or 15 years, then they’re not going to exercise their legal power to change these laws, for fear of the political consequences.
    The opposite would probably be India 1950- 1980 – a lot of legal checks and balances (bicameralism, judicial review, bill of rights, and federalism by another name) but because the political tide was in the Congress Party’s favour, facing a divided opposition, it both (a) had little fear of losing elections if it changed ordinary statutes, and (b) occasionally won the necessary two-thirds majority of seats to amend the Constitution at will, unilaterally, which it frequently did. (I mean, rearranging States… that’s pretty “non-timid”). Admittedly it had both these advantages – electoral and constitutional – because one particular dial in India’s constitutional settings, “electoral system”, was turned all the way up to “first past the post with five-year maximum terms”, ie the extreme for largest-party dominance.

  6. Why doesn’t France use Australia optional preferential voting or what the Irish STV used for Presidential Elections? What would the outcome be? Does preferential voting stop extreme candidates? Not enough countries use such a system to see what are the pros and cons of a 2 round system vs optional number rank preferential vote vs minimum number rank preferential vote vs maximum number rank preferential vote? 2 round system might lead to coordination problems, the 2 candidates could be tied for 2nd place. If someone withdraws and they are in the 2nd place for the 1st round, could the third place candidate take their place?

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