France’s toxic combo of institutions finally bites

I still think Emmanuel Macron will win reelection, but it is going to be a closer fight than most prognosticators expected before this past Sunday’s first round. In the results of that vote, Macron has the expected plurality, and it was a few percentage points higher than he got in 2017 (27.8% vs. 24.0%). His runoff opponent in both 2017 and later this month, Marine Le Pen, also improved a bit over last time (23.3% vs. 21.3%). What is new–or really accelerating a trend that was already there–is the total collapse of older established parties. The Republican (mainstream right) got 20% in 2017 but only 4.8% this time, fifth place. The Socialists were already in dire shape in 2017 with 6.4%, but did even worse this time, 1.75%, despite (or because of?) running the mayor of Paris, a seemingly high-quality candidate. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise, a far left group, made the race for a runoff slot pretty close this time, coming third with just under 22% (19.6% last time, fourth place). Given just over 7% for the far-far-right Eric Zenmour, one could say there was a majority for extremes of one sort or another.

While the Economist’s forecast model still has Macron’s win probability at around 80%, it was just short of 100% as recently as 21 March. An extreme right candidate actually has a roughly 20% chance of being the next president of France.

It is never a good thing for democracy when the fate of the republic hinges on one person. But it is hard to exaggerate how absolutely essential it is that Macron win. France has been running a decades-long experiment in whether a highly presidentialized system would eventually destroy the party system. The French party system held up pretty well, despite the adoption of a relatively strong presidency with the 1958 constitution and direct election to that office in 1965. The party system did indeed become presidentialized in ways that David Samuels and I document in our 2010 book, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers. Parties reorganized themselves internally around the goal of advancing their presidential candidate, rather than emphasizing their parliamentary party organization. This presidentialization was only further enhanced by the decision in 2002 to make assembly elections follow immediately after presidential, with both elected for five-year terms. The party system’s left and right blocs, starting from the 1960s, came to be dominated by whichever party could present the successful presidential candidate–the identity of these parties changed over time on the right, but presidentialization allowed the Socialists to surpass the Communists on the left. However, with the demise of the old right and left, there is not much remaining to the party system other than presidential aspirations. Macron himself is the perfect demonstration of presidentialization–having no party at all till he was on the cusp of the presidency, and then creating one that swept into power on the heels of his own win.

The combination of direct election of a politically powerful presidency, honeymoon election of the assembly, and majoritarian electoral rules is toxic. It means that someone from outside the party system potentially can win the presidency and then, in short order, a majority in the assembly. If you get lucky with this combination, you get a Macron. If you get unlucky, you get a Le Pen (or potentially a Mélenchon).

Make no mistake. Honeymoon elections, with majoritarian rules, are the real deal. If Le Pen manages to win the runoff, there will be no “second chance” at which voters can check her with a majority opposed to her in a cohabitation via the assembly. Presidential and semi-presidential democracies just do not work that way. If she wins the runoff, we can expect her National Rally to win around 28% of the vote in the first round of the assembly (see the just-linked post or the one from 2017), and that to be a plurality. Could a broad alliance form to block her candidates, given the two-round majority-plurality system? Sure. Just don’t count on it. Do count on her getting support from various other anti-system forces and being in a much stronger position going into the second round of the assembly election than that 28% estimate implies.

Do I think this is the most likely outcome? No, I do not. I think Macron will win, and go on to win a large majority of the assembly. However, it is a bad situation for French democracy–and the world–to be dependent on this one man not slipping up in some way in the final days before the presidential runoff–especially with a major war going on in the extended neighborhood and related economic difficulties at home. France is in dangerous territory in these moments with its toxic institutional combo, and the overly high stakes that combo generates.

Will Macron lose his assembly majority?

French election season is upon us. In four rounds of elections over the next three months France will choose their President and National Assembly. The presidency is elected by two-round majority (10 and 24 April), followed closely by the assembly using two-round majority-plurality (12 and 19 June). Predictably, the news media are already starting to suggest that President Emmanuel Macron, while likely to be reelected, might be at risk of losing his assembly majority (e.g., The Economist). Will he?

What is almost as predictable as the media expressing this outcome as a real possibility is that presidents–just elected or reelected–see their parties do really well in honeymoon assembly elections. You can’t get much more honeymoon-ish than the French cycle. The assembly election occurs with approximately 1/60 of the time between presidential elections having elapsed. It just so happens that we have a formula for this.


where Rp is the “presidential vote ratio”– vote share of the president’s party in the assembly election, divided by the president’s own vote share (in the first round, if two-round system)–and E is the elapsed time (the number of months into the presidential inter-electoral period in which the assembly election takes place, divided by the total months comprising that period).

In 2017, there were actually news reports suggesting that because Macron at the time he was elected did not yet have a true political party, he would face cohabitation. That would mean an opposition majority, which under French institutions would also mean a premier (head of cabinet) from parties opposed to the president. This was, even at the time, obviously hogwash.

The formula suggested that, once we knew Macron’s first-round vote percentage, we could estimate his (proto-) party’s first-round assembly vote percentage–assuming he would go on to win his own runoff (which was never seriously in doubt). Given that Macron had won 24% of the vote in his own first round, that implied 29% of the vote for the party in the first round for assembly.

What did his party, branded by then La République En Marche!, get? The answer would be… 28.2%. Not too bad for a political science formula. Not too surprising, either. It does not sound impressive as a vote percentage, but when you have the plurality of the vote in a multiparty field with a two-round majority-plurality electoral system, it can be pretty helpful in terms of seats won. Even more when you are a center party, and your opponents are split between left, right, and farther right (and we should not leave out farther left, too). After the second round, LREM ended up with about 54% of the seats. When combined with a pre-election ally, Democratic Movement, the seat total was over 60% (the two parties had combined for about a third of the first-round votes and got 49% of second-round votes).

The Economist article I linked to in the first paragraph was published in the March 5 edition. I want to check how plausible its claim was, using the Economist’s own election forecast model. As of a few days before March 5, that model was basing its forecast on aggregated polls that averaged about 27% of expected first-round vote for Macron himself. In other words, a few percentage points higher than he ended up winning in the first round in 2017. The model also gave Macron at the time an 88% chance of winning the presidency. Thus on the basis of information available at the time–including the Shugart-Taagepera formula for expected presidential-party vote share–we should conclude that LREM would win about 32% of the vote in the first-round assembly election. Assuming this would be the plurality share–a very safe assumption–that would again imply a strong chance of a single-party majority of seats. Not a loss of the majority, or even the need to forge a post-electoral coalition.

Now, since that article was published, Macron has been enjoying quite a surge in the polls. As of today, the forecast model at The Economist has his odds of winning the presidency above 95%. His polling aggregate as of March 12 is up to 31% (Marine Le Pen, his runoff opponent in 2017, is a distant second with 18%). From this we could estimate the first-round assembly vote share is up to 38%.

I will caution that the formula is not a logical model. It is empirical. There is good logical basis behind the general idea of honeymoon surge (and midterm decline, for countries with such cycles). But the specific parameters of the formula do not have a logical basis. At least yet. The graph of the relationship that is shown in Chapter 12 of Votes from Seats (and also included in the 2017 “predictive” post on France) shows a couple honeymoon elections in various countries that have defied the expected surge. However, only one has an elapsed time of less than 0.1 (the specific example of a relatively early honeymoon decline was Chile 1965, in an election held at 0.083 of the presidential inter-election period.1)

So I can’t predict what LREM will get in June. But it would be a surprise if it was worse than around a third of the vote, even if Macron’s own polling surge does not hold. Given the fragmentation of the party system–which looks even higher now than it was in 2017–and the majoritarian nature of the electoral system, anything short of a majority of seats for Macron would be a surprise at this point.

The notion that voters will come out and vote to “check” a just-elected president that they maybe were not all that enthusiastic about is a hard notion for the news media (not only The Economist) to shake. But there just is not much evidence that politics in presidential and semi-presidential systems works like that.2

1. This election saw the Christian Democratic Party of newly elected President Eduardo Frei win a very strong plurality, 43.6%, but Frei himself had won 56%. The problem–for the formula–is that there were only two serious candidates and three total in the presidential election, whereas the PR-elected legislature featured many parties, including allies of the president running separately. The formula implicitly assumes that all parties contest both elections. This is one of the reasons I can’t call it a logical model, because such conditions have not been incorporated, and perhaps can’t be without making it too complicated to be useful. It is pretty useful as it is, even with its oversimplification and lack of true logical basis!

(By the way, in the next Chilean assembly election, held with 75% of the term elapsed, the party’s vote percentage fell to 31%. The formula suggests 37%, but given that we already know the party did worse than “expected” at the honeymoon, we should just use the expected drop from what it actually had. That would “predict” about 25% of the vote at the late-term election. So they did better than expected, actually.)

2. On this point, let me shout out a just-published article by some recent UC Davis Ph.D.s Carlos Algara, Isaac Hale, and Cory L. Struthers on the Georgia (US) Senate runoffs. Even I was skeptical that honeymoon logic could apply to those elections. And in fact it did not turn out as a Dem surge, but there was clearly no evidence of “checking the president” behavior by voters.