France 2017: Round 4 (honeymoon elections and presidentialization matter!)

Today is the fourth round of the French 2017 election process–that is, the runoffs of the honeymoon assembly election.

Following round 1 (the first round of the presidential election), I used a formula (from Shugart and Taagepera, 2017, Votes from Seats) to “predict” what the round 3 (first round, assembly election) vote percentage would be for the party of first-round leader Emmanuel Macron (on the safe assumption he would win the second round). I pegged it at 29%, based only on Macron’s first-round vote and the elapsed time between then and the scheduled date of the assembly first round.

In the actual voting, La Republique En Marche! (LREM) got around 32%, although I believe that also includes some small vote share for MoDem (which was part of a pre-election coalition). In any case, I won’t quibble about an error of ±3 percentage points. At the time, various commentators were fretting over how “weak” EM would be, what with an untested party and Macon’s having come from seemingly nowhere. Some folks even were wringing their hands over possible cohabitation. It did not take long for polls to catch up with the institutional reality, which is that honeymoon elections matter. The voting result was highly predictable.

Where I went well off the rails was in questioning whether a plurality of votes of around 30% in the first round could translate into an assembly majority. I noted that similar percentages of the vote in previous first rounds in France had translated into around half the seats, but that a safer prediction might be for Macron’s party to be just short. I was not worried about a “weak” presidency, but I thought some degree of post-electoral bargaining would be necessary.

Well, that was silly. I somehow forgot that our assumptions about how votes translate into seats in France are based on the “textbook” French V party system, whereby there are many parties, but two dominant blocs. In such a setting, a leading party (such as a just-elected president’s) with around 30% of the vote would be just far enough ahead of both its allies and the leading party of the opposing bloc so as to translate into a solid majority of seats for the alliance, but not necessarily for the leading party itself. The bloc of the loser of the second round, in the “textbook” party system, is not so far behind the president’s bloc. Therefore, you get a clear pro-presidential majority, but not a knock-out.

Two things should have given me pause. First of all, that the second round presidential candidate was of the National Front, so 2002 would be a better guide than, say, 2012. In 2002, the party of the second major bloc (i.e., the Socialists, whose presidential candidate had finished third) suffered terribly from the honeymoon cycle, and of course, the FN assembly candidates did poorly for lack of allies. This allowed just 33% of the first-round votes for the newly elected president’s party to translate into more than 62% of the seats.

Second, and more to the point, the party system of France 2017 has collapsed badly. Thus being at only 30% of the votes makes you a dominant player in what is, for the time being, a one-bloc system. If you are the centrist party in a two-round system, it does not matter that you lack allied parties in a bloc; what matters is that you have no opposing parties that combine for a coherent bloc against you. Seat projections, issued on the day of the first round of the assembly election, suggested that LREM could get over 400 seats. Some even say 475 (out of 577). LREM candidates will win by default, because in relatively few districts will there be active coordination against them. Moreover, turnout is (predictably) low today.

The following screen shot from Henry Schlechta on Twitter, shows just how dominant the LREM is in today’s runoffs. In other words, don’t let 32% of the first-round votes fool you (as it did me). With different opponents in different districts, from different political camps, there is no reason not to expect a massive majority.

Now that everyone seems to accept that LREM will have a big majority, the concerns (expressed in various news media stories) has shifted to how difficult it may be to govern with a party full of novices. Such concerns are also misplaced. That the party is full of novice politicians makes it more, not less, likely that it will stick to Macron even when times get tough. They have nowhere else to go. They owe their nominations and assembly seats to Macron. France 2017 is presidentialization on steroid!. And, remember, honeymoon elections matter.

France 2017–Honeymoon Election time!

Today is round three of France’s four-round national elections. As I said back on 23 April, everything followed from the first round, i.e., when the final two presidential candidates were set. At that time, I projected Macron’s party to get a plurality, with around 29% of the vote, in the first round of the assembly election (today’s vote). I also added, “maybe more!”

Things were progressing more or less as expected as Macron assembled his pro-presidential party and appointed his choice of premier and cabinet, effectively saying to voters, here is the government I want you to approve.

An assembly majority for La Republique En Marche to support the government, following runoffs in a week in most districts, is easily within reach.

That is at once remarkable–the party nominated its candidates within the last month solely to support a presidency that looked unlikely as recently as several months ago–and utterly predictable–to those of us who do logical models of electoral system and presidential effects.

Remember: Honeymoon elections matter

On 23 April, when many commentators were lamenting how weak (then-expected) President Emmannuel Macron’s support might be in the National Assembly, I offered an estimate of 29% of the vote for his newly formed party. I based this solely on the mean surge that presidents’ parties tend to have when an assembly election occurs early in their terms–a honeymoon election.

Maybe that was an underestimate. While one poll (OpinionWay/ORPI) has Macron’s party, La République en marche! (LRM), on 27%, Harris Interactive sees it on 32%. Both agree this will be the biggest party (Reuters). Given the electoral system, such a share puts Macron well within reach of having a majority in the Assembly.

And what a party it is!

Half of the LRM preliminary list of 428 candidates for the 577-member National Assembly are women and 52 percent are civil society figures.

Better yet, 95% are not current MPs and one of them is a “rockstar mathematician”! (France24)

Macron has also named his cabinet. The premier will be Edouard Philippe, mayor of Le Havre and a member of the Les Republicans (the party of defeated and discredited presidential candidate François Fillon). Reuters reports:

A leading French conservative accused President Emmanuel Macron of “dynamiting” the political landscape on Tuesday as he put together a government that is expected to include former rivals on both left and right.

In other words, he is being “accused” of doing precisely what he won nearly two thirds of the vote (in the runoff) saying he would do.


over 20 LR members of parliament, including some party heavyweights and former ministers, issued a joint statement on Monday urging the party to positively respond to the “hand extended by the president”.

All of the above should serve as a reminder of two things: (1) the purpose of the upcoming election is to ratify the new executive’s direction, not to be a second chance for an alternative vision; (2) the honeymoon electoral cycle matters.

France: what to expect for the assembly?

I am going to assume the polls are right and Emmanuel Macron will squeak past Marine Le Pen and be elected president in the runoff in France’s presidential election. (The polls actually suggest he will win at least 60% of the vote.) Let’s think ahead to the assembly elections, which come in June (also in two rounds).

I have seen various references to a likelihood of “cohabitation”. This is nonsense, if we define that term properly to mean cases in which the president and premier are from opposing parties and the president’s party is not in the cabinet. But let’s give people saying this the benefit of the doubt, and assume they mean the presumptive President Macron will have a difficult coalition-building task ahead of him with the assembly he will face. This is not unreasonable to assume, given that Macron has no existing party to start with.

Even this weaker prediction of a challenging assembly environment for the young “outsider” president is probably wrong. Honeymoon elections really matter, and France has had, since 2002, an extreme version of a honeymoon cycle, with the assembly election only about a month after the presidential.

This first graph is from the forthcoming Votes from Seats by Rein Taagepera and Matthew Shugart (yes, me). Unlike most graphs in this book, this is not a logical model. That is, it is not based on deductive logic for the specific equation plotted. The equation is an empirical regression result. However, the basic idea of a honeymoon surge is itself well documented (as explained in Chapter 12 of the book, citing earlier work by me and others).

The plot is of the “presidential vote ratio” against “elapsed time”. The presidential vote ratio, or Rp, is the vote share of the president’s party in the assembly election, divided by the president’s own votes (in the first round, if two-round system). Elapsed time is the number of months into the presidential inter-electoral period in which the assembly election took place, so 0 means a concurrent election (same day) and the more closely elapsed time approaches 1.0, the closer it is to the next presidential election (but before it).

The upcoming French assembly election will be about 1/60=0.0167 on elapsed time, E. Macron has won, according to initial results, about 24% of the first-round vote for president. So, doing the math in the (empirical) equation, we get:


In other words, if the pattern holds for France, 2017, we should expect Macron’s new party, En Marche!, to get around 29% of the vote (24*1.19=28.6). Is that even possible, given En Marche! did not even exist prior to Macron’s campaign? I do not know, and I will not call this a “prediction” given it is just an empirical pattern and not a logical model. But there you have it, for what it is worth–in the absence of any other information, I am going with around 29% of the vote.

Note that there is only one non-concurrent election with E<0.1 for which Rp<1. Even with an untested party, I like Macron's party's chances of getting over 25% of the vote.

For comparison purposes, note that a largest vote-earning party in this range would not be unprecedentedly low for France. In 2012, the Socialist Party of just-elected Francois Hollande won 29.4%, and this was the largest percentage for any party in the election by a margin of 2.3 percentage points. Hollande himself had won 28.6%, so his party had only a small honeymoon boost. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP did better, at 39.5%. Sarkozy himself had won 31.2%, yielding a boost about in line with that implied by the Rp equation.

Of course, what matters more is seats. Does the French electoral system tend to boost seat shares? Yes, we might say that it does. Despite the low shares for the largest party, the use of two-round majority-plurality in single-seat districts means that the largest party can expect quite a further boost indeed.

The second graph has plots of the seat share of the largest party (s1, left panel) and the effective number of seat-winning parties (NS, right panel) since 1958. The “expected” line is based on the Seat Product Model predictions. As explained in Votes from Seats (and also in Taagepera’s 2007 Predicting Party Sizes), these are based on logical models (deductive quantitative reasoning). They are not merely empirical regressions, but regression confirm them on a large dataset of national elections. They are:

s1=(MS)-.125 and NS=(MS)1/6.

MS=mean district magnitude times the assembly size

It might be noted that the previous honeymoon elections depicted here are 1981, 1988, 2002, 2007, and 2012. All show s1 above and NS below the expectation. In other words a less fragmented party system due to the honeymoon boost for the just-elected (or, in 1988, reelected) president.

Even in 2012, with his party on only 29.4% of the votes, Hollande almost had a co-partisan majority. His Socialists had 48.5% of the seats, thanks to the electoral system; with allies, he had a large working majority of over 57%.

The models assume a “simple” system–one with a single tier of allocation in one round using a basic PR formula. FPTP counts (any PR formula when M=1 is the same as plurality), but obviously majority-plurality does not, because it is not a one-round system. Even so, the worst we can say is that in some elections we get an actual seat-winning party that is bigger than predicted (for a simple system of the same number of single-seat districts) and an effective number of seat-wing parties that is lower than expected. The major exceptions to this generalization are from the 1970s. (Note the abrupt change in expected value in 1986; this was the one PR election of the Fifth Republic.)

Of course, the reason why we might expect s1 to be higher than predicted and NS to be lower is the the largest party benefits from alliance deals in the districts between rounds. But the expectation on seats–based, again, on the incorrect assumption that this is a plurality system–is not too far off, despite the fact that the votes are so fragmented that a party with just 30% in the first round is sometimes the biggest party.

We can assume that Macron and En Marche! will benefit from alliances against the National Front. It is harder to predict what the patterns will be with respect to the traditional right and left.

The bottom line is that I would expect En Marche! to emerge as the biggest party, based on the honeymoon cycle, with somewhere between 24% and 30% (maybe more!) of the vote, and somewhere between 40% and over 50% of the seats. I would further expect Macron to have no difficulty appointing a premier of his choice, and to have a ruling coalition that will be dependent on him for its very existence. Of course, I can’t say how effective this coalition will be at governing, or whether it will last Macron’s term, or even if my expectations will be proven totally wrong. But at the very least, let’s not wring our hands over prospects of a president hobbled from the start.

The electoral cycle (honeymoon elections) and the electoral system (majority-plurality) work very much in the incoming president’s favor, and these patterns may well hold even for a president from a new and untested party.

(I corrected a really bad mistake in the paragraph starting “Note that…”; the point of the post is not being changed, it is just being made more accurately.)

France 2017 presidential scenarios

The graphic at this link shows a wide range of scenarios for potential runoff pairings for the French presidential contest. It comes from a recent Les Echos poll.

The most likely overall scenario remains Emanuel Macron (independent center-left) beating Marine Le Pen (National Front) in the second round. He also beats François Fillon (Republican) by the same margin, 65-35.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Left Front, does better than I would have expected against various potential runoff opponents, beating Le Pen, 63-37, and Fillon, 59-41. While the idea of Mélenchon making it to the runoff is still a stretch, various recent polls have shown him having surged to within a few percentage points of second place in the first round.

The potential runoff pairing of Le Pen and Fillon is the most worrisome. While Le Pen still loses, it is closer, at 58-42.

Macron beats Mélenchon in the closest (and probably least likely) of these scenarios, 54-46.

Macron has been slipping in first-round polls. What once seemed certain–that he would make the top two and then easily win the runoff–now looks somewhat less so. His position as a runoff contender has become more precarious, with a crowd of three (Macron, Fillon, Mélenchon) along with Le Pen (who is almost certainly going to finish first, or at worst second if Macron recovers).

These results are what always trouble me about two-round majority systems. It is not unusual for the main contest to be for the second slot, and for two or more candidates to be vying for it. And sometimes the runoff pairing can make quite a difference. Fortunately, there is no very likely scenario in which Le Pen draws such a weak opponent that she wins.

Yet the pairing with the scandal-plagued Fillon should give voters pause. Behind whom to coordinate to block him? The obvious choice is, of course, Macron. But Mélenchon may be more competitive than even recent polls suggest, if still more left-wing voters dessert Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate with no realistic chance of making it to the runoff. Fortunately, as noted, even Mélenchon looks to beat Le Pen, though I’d take a scenario that voters may not have really digested yet with a grain of salt.

The first round is on 23 April.

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.