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.