French presidential runoff, 2012

Socialist presidential candidate Hollande has won the presidency of France, with 51.9%. That’s closer than expected, but a majority is a majority.

It is only the second time in the Fifth Republic (i.e. since direct elections began in 1965) that power has shifted from the right to the left, and also only the second time an incumbent has been defeated in a reelection bid.

One might conclude that the only way the Socialists can win is for voters to be tired of the incumbent conservative. Or when they have a candidate named Francois.

Now on quickly to the legislative elections. As happened in 1981, in the honeymoon elections following Mitterrand’s win, I would expect a large Socialist majority and premier, plus a broad left cabinet, to result.

French presidential elections, round 1

The first round of the French presidential election was Sunday. As expected, the Socialist Francois Hollande edged out incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. These two will square off in the second round on 6 May.

The results show that Hollande obtained 28.6%, Sarkozy 27.2%. In third place was Marine Le Pen of the National Front, 17.9%, and in fourth was left-wing Jean-Luc Melenchon, 11.1%. Centrist Francois Bayrou took 9.1%.

Most polling indicates that Hollande will win the runoff. If he does, he will be the first French Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand, who also won the position by defeating an incumbent (Valery Giscard d’Estaing, in 1981).

Hollande has won the clear backing of Melenchon, while Le Pen said that Sarkozy was a “loser” who does not “deserve” her supporters’ backing in the runoff.

The National Front candidate’s support was even higher in this election than it was in 2002, when Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, made it into the runoff. That year Le Pen had 16.9%, but the Socialist candidate (then-premier Leonel Jospin) slipped to third place due to severe fragmentation on the left.

For much of the Fifth Republic, the French party system divided neatly into two blocs, which allowed the first round to function as a de-facto intra-bloc primary. However, the party system is much more fragmented today. One wonders whether a two-round majority system still serves the country well, given the current shape of competition. Would a one-round, but multiple-preference, system such as the alternative vote make more sense now?

Regional data on Sunday’s first round are available at the Guardian. They show one department, Gard (in the south), where Marine Le Pen won the plurality–barely, as all three leading candidates were clustered near 25%.

Once the presidential election is complete, the country will go right into its National Assembly elections, which are also held in two rounds (10-17 June, but by majority-plurality, rather than two-round majority).

Second chambers in unitary states

At least two unitary states have a second chamber in which the units (departments, provinces) have equal numbers of representatives, regardless of population: Bolivia ((I would have provided a link, but returns an error, “This Account Has Been Suspended”!)), and the Dominican Republic.

While the logic for equality of unit representation in federal systems is clear, the logic for the same organizing principle in a unitary state is much less so.

However, aside from making that observation, the real purpose of this planting is to ask the readership if anyone knows of other examples of unitary states that have second-chamber equality. These are the only two I can think of.

A further purpose is to observe that the French Senate is in the process of a major reorganization that has begun in 2011 (but it is not a case of equal representation of units).

A little electoral-system context, please

Perhaps it is simply too much to ask, but the media could help readers understand the dynamic of the unfolding French presidential race if only they would throw in a sentence somewhere near the top of the article about how the French president is actually elected.

Typical is the Telegraph story with the headline that Marine Le Pen “would beat Nicolas Sarkozy” and the subtitle that amplifies, “Marine Le Pen, the French National Front’s new leader, stands to beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of the presidential election next year.”

Somewhere farther down, it does say that “only the top two candidates can reach the second round.” But by then, the reader who even gets that far could be forgiven for concluding that a Le Pen was practically on the verge of becoming the President of the Republic.

For the record, the recent “shock poll” has the three front-runners–Le Pen, Sarkozy, and possible Socialist candidate Martine Aubry–at either 21% or 23%, and the French president has to win a MAJORITY to be elected.

I do not make a lot of predictions on this blog, but I will go out on a limb here: Marine Le Pen is not going to win the presidential election.

Sarkozy threatens to resign

Nicolas Sarkozy has threatened to resign!

No, not as President of France, but as Co-Prince of Andorra.

See IHT. I originally heard this story on Radio France this morning, and there it was noted that Andorra has elections coming up for its “directly elected head of government.” I had previously thought there were no cases of avdirectly elected head of government in a constitutional monarchy,* but apparently there is at least one. I suppose that’s because we practitioners of comparative politics tend to overlook countries with populations of around only 72,000.

* Of course, an even bigger oddity is that half of its dual monarchy is actually an elected republican leader–elected by citizens of another country, that is. The other half is a Catalan bishop.

French constitutional reform

AFP is reporting that a package of constitutional reforms has passed in France, by the slimmest of margins.

Details are sketchy in the AFP news item, so I am hoping a reader might have some more information.

Some of what AFP says:

VERSAILLES, France (AFP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s flagship constitutional reform was passed Monday at a special congress of deputies and senators…

Of 906 eligible lawmakers, 905 voted with 896 counted after abstentions and spoilt papers. 539 voted for the project, 357 against. Under constitutional rules, Sarkozy needed three-fifths, or 538, to reach the winning post.

He did so thanks to Socialist Jack Lang, a former minister who sat on the committee that laid the groundwork for the bill, and parliament speaker Bernard Accoyer, who broke with convention by casting his vote…

The bill sets a two-term limit for presidents, gives parliament a veto over some presidential appointments, ends government control over parliament’s committee system and allows parliament to set its own agenda.

But the clause that dominated public debate is one letting the president address parliament once a year in a US-style state of the union speech, which the French head of state has been barred from doing since 1875 to ensure the executive and legislative are kept separate.

Sarkozy has argued that his reform of the constitution brought in by president Charles de Gaulle in 1958 would make the head of state more accountable to lawmakers and to the public.

As I said, that’s sketchy on the key details.

Municipal elections in France

French voters punished President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing party in the first round of municipal and regional elections last Sunday, with big gains by the left.

A report in the Globe and Mail mentions in passing the rather unusual two-round list majority system used in these elections:

Between the two rounds, political parties generally plunge into a frenzy of deal-making to consolidate their lists of candidates, with the smaller ones merging their lists with those of the mainstream parties.

I am not aware of any similar systems, but if they exist, I trust at least one of readers will know!

So, does France still need a new electoral system?

At the conclusion of the first round of voting for the French National Assembly, with projections showing a majority for newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP ranging from nearly two thirds to more than three fourth of the seats, I posed the question of whether France needed a new electoral system. With the party system fragmented, yet now dominated by two large and relatively moderate parties, the old majority-plurality two-round system no longer seemed to be serving the country well. When the electoral system was adopted in 1958 (and used for every election since then, except for 1986), there were no real “giants” in the fragmented party system and not even two clear blocs. One of the largest parties was a doctrinaire Communist party. In that context, a system that very quickly realigned the parties into two major blocs and led to the under-representation of the Communists was a reasonably good choice. (The realignment was also aided greatly by the adoption of direct, two-round majority presidential elections beginning in 1965, although it was already in evidence before then.)1

In light of the projections arising from the first round, I suggested (perhaps rather shockingly) that even first-past-the-post would be an improvement over the current system, given the tendency of the two-round system to over-exaggerate the lead of the largest bloc, and within the bloc, its largest party. In other words, the 2007 elections were about to show, at the conclusion of the second round, that the electoral system no longer served the purposes for which it had been devised, but rather was just inflating the dominance of the president and his party. (Once again, we have to look beyond the electoral system itself: this dominance is greatly aided by the change in the presidential term from seven to five years, which effectively guarantees that a newly elected president will have an immediate National Assembly during his “honeymoon.”2)

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the UMP’s two-thirds or three-fourths majority: the voters corrected it! Given a chance in the second round to exaggerate or trim Sarkozy’s majority, the voters (or, rather, the 60% who bothered to vote) cut it. The majority will still be large enough to empower Sarkozy’s government (apparently minus Alain Juppe, a former prime minister to whom Sarkozy had already given the environment and energy portfolios, but who lost his parliamentary seat). The UMP won 313 seats, or 54.2% of the 577-seat National Assembly. However, under several alternative electoral systems, the majority might have been bigger.

Le Monde has a nice interactive graphic that allows one to see estimated seat totals for the various parties under several alternative electoral systems. (Even though it is in French, you do not need to read French to understand the graphics.) It just so happens that the FPTP scenario is 421 seats for the UMP, or 73%. Even a PR system is estimated to give the UMP 333 (58%) of the seats. The estimate under German-style MMP with a 5% threshold is 317 (55%).3

Now it is worth noting that any such simulation is to be taken with a grain of salt. It is a “ceteris paribus” exercise; it assumes voter behavior would not change under the different system. In fact, the shape of the vote would have been different under any of these systems. Nonetheless, the exercise is a reminder that, for a given vote distribution, a two-round system is not necessarily as disproportional, once the voters have gone to the polls a second time, as it might appear from a projection of the first round.

I would still conclude that a PR system (whether MMP or all-list) would be better (surprise!), for the reason I articulated before.

A proportional system would have the advantage of confirming the strong position of the president’s party, while making the assembly election matter for the precise shape of the coalition the president builds.

After all, even with this diminished (relative to projections) majority for the UMP, it is still a single-party president-dominated majority. And such an outcome was never in doubt, making the election largely an exercise in coronation rather than choice. And that is why the turnout was so low–at 60% (both rounds), I believe it was the lowest for a legislative election under the French Fifth Republic. Given the new electoral cycle of Assembly elections shortly after presidential, as long as the electoral system is practically guaranteed to generate a majority, there will appear to many voters to be little at stake in the parliamentary contest. A PR system, and the different patterns of alliance building it would induce, would re-energize French parliamentary elections and be much more consistent with the premier-presidential (semi-presidential) model France has, in which the president dominates policy-making only to the extent that the voters (and the electoral system) permit him or her to do so.


1. In 1958, after Charles de Gaulle had been chosen as president by the National Assembly, France held its first election under the new Fifth Republic, under the two-round system (majority required to win a district’s sole seat in the first round, but a plurality suffices in the second). The largest parties in votes percentages nationally were Gaullists (20.6), Conservatives (20), Communists (18.9), Socialist (15.5), and Popular Republican (11.1). However, thanks to the electoral system, the seats percentages were, respectively: 42.6, 28.6, 2.2, 9.5, 12.3. (Yes, 2.2% of the seats for Communists, despite 18.9% of first round votes!)

In 1962, the second election under this electoral system, but still before the first direct presidential election, the leading vote-winners were: Gaullist (33.7), Communist (21.9), Socialist (12.4), Conservative (11.5), Popular Republicans (7.8). Their seats, respectively, were 49.5 (!), 8.8, 13.7, 6.9, 8.0.

Over the subsequent four elections, the trend of Gaullist dominance of the right and Socialist dominance of the left would accelerate. Socialist dominance of the left would accelerate even more after the election of President François Mitterrand and his exercise of his right to dissolve parliament and call a “honeymoon” election in 1981. The electoral system had worked to consolidate two blocs, each dominated by relatively moderate parties, replacing the earlier fragmentation and strong Communist Party. Mission accomplie.

2. “Cohabitation,” in which a president from one ideological bloc must appoint a premier of the opposing bloc because the latter controls the Assembly, happened only at the elections that occurred five years into each of Mitterrand’s terms (1986 and 1993) and again in 1997 when President Jacques Chirac gambled on an early dissolution of the National Assembly and wound up with a Socialist majority. Other elections have resulted in pro-presidential majorities, including Mitterrand’s two dissolutions after his own election in 1981 and reelection in 1988 (mission accomplie!) (Some of these majorities have not been dominated by the president’s own party or have required post-election cooperation by centrists from outside the two blocs.)

3. The list-PR simulation assumes proportionality with each department serving as a multi-seat district and a 5% (district-level) threshold. This would appear to be identical to the system used in the one PR system of the Fifth Republic, in 1986 (when the Socialists changed the system to conserve their own expected losses and to hand the new right-wing majority a parliament that would include the far-right National Front; again, mission accomplie). Under this variant of PR, many smaller parties with regional concentration do better than under the MMP simulation requiring a party to win either some (I assume, as in Germany, 3) single-seat districts or 5% of the national list vote in order to win seats from the list tier. The MMP simulation has seats for only the UMP, Socialists, and François Bayrou’s new centrist MoDem. The latter party gets 61 seats under MMP, compared to only 28 under departmental PR (and 3 in the actual majority-plurality system)–no wonder Bayrou supports MMP! Also worth noting is that the National Front (4.3% of first-round votes) wins 5 seats under departmental PR, and none under any of the others (though, of course, it might well clear 5% of the votes if the latter were sufficient for representation, in which case it would win at least 30 seats).

Does France need a new electoral system?

Replanted here (from one week ago) on the occasion of the second round. How big will the majority be?

The answer is not nearly as big as anticipated. And, in fact, smaller than in the previous assembly. Still a majority more than 56% of seats, but that’s a lot less than the two thirds or more that was projected after the first round.


After the first round of voting for the National Assembly, projections for the final result suggest that newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Majority (UMP)* will end up with between 383 and 470 seats. The low end of that projection would be just two seats short of a two-thirds majority. The upper end of that range would be 81%. The mid-range of that projection would be six seats short of a three-fourths majority.

Any time the real question about a legislative election is whether the ruling party will get two thirds or three fourths of the seats, one should ask the question, does this country need a new electoral system? But when the ruling party in question has won only 39.5% of the vote, the question should be asked in the loudest possible voice.

The Socialist party has come in second in votes, with 24.7%, the Mouvement Democrate (or MoDem, the party just formed by third-place presidential candidate, François Bayrou) third with 7.8%. The National Front took 4.7% of the vote, and the once mighty PCF managed 4.6%. That leaves 18.7% for various “others,” few of which will win any representation.

The Socialist Party is projected to win between 60 and 185 seats; that is, 10.4% (!) to 32.1%. So, depending on the outcome of the runoffs, the principal opposition party could be barely large enough to function as such, or could even be somewhat over-represented, yet with less than one third of seats.

Unsurprisingly, turnout was well down from the two rounds of the presidential election in May: just over 60%. This is the lowest for the first round of a parliamentary election in France in forty years. There was a time–around forty years ago, in fact–when the two-round majority-plurality system made sense for France. The party system was deeply fragmented, the Communist Party was the largest party on the left, and the two blocs that have come to define French politics might not have emerged at that time without this electoral system’s encouragement. By now, France clearly has two parties that dominate the field. But the electoral system grossly exaggerates the dominance of the leading one, while leaving all manner of other viewpoints (including the center) under- or un-represented.

Yes, France needs a new electoral system. At this point, even FPTP would be an improvement. Most districts will require runoffs next Sunday, notwithstanding that only around a fifth of them will be competitive between left and right and that the outcome of the second round will only inflate the dominance of Sarkozy’s party. A proportional system would have the advantage of confirming the strong position of the president’s party, while making the assembly election matter for the precise shape of the coalition the president builds.

Yes, France needs a new electoral system. And there is indeed discussion about just that, as well as polling evidence that a large plurality of French are supportive of at least partial PR While Sarkozy and his UMP allies will rather enjoy this outcome, it is just the sort of result that will make serious discussion of electoral reform hard to ignore.

Le Monde has a map of the distribution of votes by district.

* Some years ago it changed its name from Union for a Presidential Majority, but the latter is still what it really amounts to: A vehicle for Chirac, and now Sarkozy.

French parliamentary elections

The first round of the French National Assembly elections are today, 10 June. The parliament is elected by majority-plurality in single-seat districts: in the first round, a candidate must win more than half the votes cast. In districts where no candidate has won the majority, there will be runoffs in a week. The runoffs–unlike the second round in a French presidential election–are not restricted to just the top two candidates. Any candidate obtaining the votes of more than 12.5% of registered voters at the first round may remain in the runoff, in which a plurality suffices. In fact, in most of the history of the French Fifth Republic, most districts have tended to have only two significant candidates stand in the runoff. (The rise of the National Front of Jean Marie Le Pen has led to more three-way races in recent times.)

While many districts will go to runoffs, the aggregate outcome is not in doubt. The only question is how large the majority will be for the conservative alliance of just-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy. The French party scene is quite fragmented, but the majority-plurality system tends to give a large bonus to the leading alliance. And assembly elections following so closely on presidential elections are virtually guaranteed to give the new president a large advantage.

Given the range of partisan options, the range of possible governing alliances could be somewhat larger if France used some form of proportional representation. That is, in the current context, the options would not realistically be left vs. right–that having been largely settled by the presidential election–but a bit more centrist vs. a bit more rightist within the center-right. Under the system in use, however, these elections will be little more a confirmation/coronation for Sarkozy and his newly appointed premier, François Fillon.

Regarding PR, a recent Angus Reid poll shows that many French agree with third-place presidential candidate Françcois Bayrou, a former ally of the right who ran as a centrist alternative, that PR would be a good idea.

    Which of these possibilities would you prefer for future legislative elections?

    Electing every lawmaker through proportional representation: 20%

    Electing some lawmakers through proportional representation: 29%

    No changes from the current system: 38%

    Not sure: 13%

    Source: CSA / France Info
    Methodology: Telephone interviews with 935 French adults, conducted on May 30 and May 31, 2007. No margin of error was provided.

France decides for Sarkozy

Well, today is the day. The runoff in the French presidential election. It is probably a foregone conclusion. It is hard to see Royal winning this. Still, I can no more watch an election without rooting for a candidate or party than I can watch a baseball game if I don’t care which team wins. Go, Sego!!

Oh well, turns out it was not even close. It looks like Sarkozy will win, 53-47. No surprise there.

Turnout was apparently as high as it was in the first round, contrary to my guess that it might fall off (a little bit) and suggesting that even Le Pen’s supporters did not heed his call for an abstention.*

This morning’s LA Times has a story on the candidates. Unless one read very carefully–and maybe not even then–one would not know:

    (1) That the incumbent, Chirac, is not a Socialist;

    (2) That the center-right candidate, Sarkozy, who is promising a “new direction” in both foreign and domestic policy, is not only a member of the incumbent’s party, but has been a prominent member of the incumbent government;

    (3) That the French president can do little without a compatible prime minister and cabinet; and

    (4) That the identity of the prime minister and the political complexion of the cabinet will not be known till after National Assembly elections in June.

* though it is possible that any Le Pen abstainers were simply counterbalanced by some of the 15% who abstained in the first round turning out for the final decision.

Bayrou: I will not vote for Sarkozy

François Bayrou, on the same day as the only inter-round debate in the French presidential election: “Je ne voterai pas pour Sarkozy.” However, he would not say whether he would vote blank or for Royal, and he said he would “probably not” make any more announcements before Sunday’s runoff.

That’s as close as Royal is going to get to an endorsement. It is pretty clear where Bayrou stands. His problem–and Royal’s–is that much of the rest of his party leans very strongly towards the right, especially with an eye to the National Assembly elections that are coming up in June. A radio poll confirmed that most of the UDF deputies have indicated they will vote for Sarkozy.

Le Pen calls for abstention

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who barely exceeded 10% in the first round of the French presidential election, has called on his supporters to abstain in the runoff between conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal.

I call on voters who have shown their confidence in me to cast their vote neither for Madame Royal nor for Mr Sarkozy and to abstain en masse.

The fourth-place candidate, who has considerable working-class support, is clearly unhappy about being out-lepenned in the campaign for the first round:

It would be illusory and dangerous to vote for the Socialist candidate to get revenge for the hold-up carried out on our programme by Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ordinarily, I would expect that many of his voters would still vote and ony the hardcore would really have no preference worthy of turning out for the contest between the two remaining candidates. However, consider how much his support fell off this year, compared to previous elections:

    1974, 0.7%
    1981 (did not run)
    1988, 14.4%
    1995, 15.0%
    2002, 16.9% (second place)
    2007, 10.4%

It is not clear that there is much difference now between Le Pen’s total voters and his hardcore support.

A debate between third and second: A first?

Has one of the two candidates who has advanced to a runoff presidential election ever held a debate with the eliminated third-place candidate? Maybe so, but it is a new one on me. But that is just what French Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal has done with also-ran François Bayrou.

Royal’s chances in the runoff against conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy depend on her being able to woo a substantial chunk of Bayrou’s votes (while getting those who supported farther left candidates to turn out for her, rather than stay at home). It is a tall order. Hence the debate gambit.

From the Guardian:

Royal, who just weeks ago dismissed calls for an alliance with Bayrou, repeatedly stressed Saturday the similarities between their visions for France.

Bayrou, however, reminded her of their differences, in particular over her leftist economic program.

Quite apart from programmatic differences, I am skeptical of Royal’s ability to claim many votes from Bayrou. The party of the latter, the UDF, is now rather small, but is a long-time electoral and governing ally of the Gaullist forces backing Sarkozy. With parliamentary elections due in June, it is hard to see what UDF politicians would have to gain by backing Royal. How many districts are there in which UDF candidates might beat Sarkozy allies with the help of the Socialists? I have no idea, but if that number is small, there is little Bayrou can do to get local-level cooperation in the few days remaining until the runoff. Bayrou’s allies at the local level, and their voters, would seem to be better off attempting to reclaim their influence within the right-wing alliance than joining with the left.

It is easy to see why Royal wants to sway Bayrou’s voters, and Bayrou himself–while unwilling to make a formal endorsement–may stand to gain some role in a center-left government if one could be formed after the presidential and parliamentary elections are complete. But it is less clear what the incentives are below the level of these two candidates for the kind of cooperation that would be needed to pull it off.*

Now, if France had a proportional system for its National Assembly, things would be different: Bayrou’s party would stand a chance of winning a block of seats independently of either the left or right alliances. Then a center-left coalition would be a real possibility. Not surprisingly, Bayrou is indeed in favor of a proportional system, among other institutional reforms.**

In France, as in most contexts, PR would enhance the representation of the center.

* I am reminded that some members of the UDF participated in the Michel Rocard government, which was appointed after the reelected President Mitterrand dissolved parliament and called for an “opening to the center.” How relevant that precedent is today is not clear to me.

**Thanks to Bancki, in an earlier thread, for this link.