This week is the inter-round period in the French two-round assembly elections. The first round was on 12 June. The French way of electing members of the National Assembly is not top-two majority-runoff, like the country’s presidential elections (or most elections in California). Rather, it is majority-plurality. That is, it is possible to have more than two candidates in the second round in any given single-seat district, and when this happens, the winner is the one with the most votes, even if it is less than 50%+1.
In any system within the broader family of two-round systems, there need to be threshold provisions for both (1) determining whether a runoff is required, and (2) determining who is eligible to participate. Under typical majority runoff, the provisions are (1) 50%+1 in the first round, or else (2) there must be a second round in which only the top two may participate.1
France follows the same first provision–with a caveat that I will get to. A majority is required at the first round. If that does not occur, the rules are that any candidate with votes equivalent to at least 12.5% of the registered voters in the district may stand in the runoff. That is, an eighth of the electorate, not an eighth of the votes cast. This is an important distinction. There is a further twist on the runoff-participation rules: If there are not two candidates who clear the 12.5%-of-registered threshold, then the top two go to the runoff anyway.
Here are some examples. In the district of Paris no. 2, the Ensemble (pro-Macron) candidate had the first-round plurality, with 35.66%, followed by the candidate of Nupes (pro-Mélenchon) on 27.27%. The third candidate, from the Republicans (LR, traditional right) has 18.23%. So is it a three-way race? Non. This candidate’s votes are a mere 10.63% of the total registered voters. Hence it is a top-two runoff.
Then we have Paris no. 15. Here, the leading candidate (from Nupes) has 47.31% of the votes cast. Pretty close to a majority, but not good enough under criterion #1 (50%+1 or else runoff). However, no other candidate cleared 12.5% of the registered voters. So maybe a runoff is not required after all. Not so fast. There needs to be a runoff if the plurality candidate did not win a majority of votes cast. Thus the candidate with the second highest vote total (from a left party unaffiliated with Nupes) advance to a runoff despite having won only 9.44% of the registered electorate in the first round. (This candidate won 17.87% of votes cast, but for qualifying purposes, this is not even relevant.)
There is, as I mentioned, a caveat on the first criterion, that a majority in the first round obviates the need for a second. To be elected in the first round, the leading candidate’s vote total also must be greater than 25% of the registered electorate in the district. There is at one prominent case where this comes up in the current election–prominent because it involves a famous politician. The district is Pas-de-Calais-11. The leading candidate is Marine Le Pen (you’ve probably heard of her–leader of the National Rally (RN)). She won 53.96% of the votes. Good for her; she won a majority! However, her votes amount to just 22.52% of registered voters. As a result, she must face a second round against another Marine, Tondelier of Nupes, who qualifies despite a vote total that is only 9.79% of the registered electorate.
It would be strange to have a candidate win a majority in the first round and yet lose the runoff. It probably won’t happen. On the other hand, if the opposition to her could mobilize and vote for the Nupes Marine, it is theoretically possible. Looking at the rest of the field, we find an Ensemble candidate in third place with 5.15% of registered electorate and then no other candidate over 1.5%. It would be a tall order, needing a whole lot of abstainers to turn up. But the rules of the French two-round system create the opportunity.
I thank Giacomo Benedetto and Steven Verbank (both via Twitter) for the above examples and clarifications on rules.
Just for fun, I was clicking on districts somewhat randomly. (You can play the game, too, by going back a step or two in any of the links for the three examples above.) It seems that the low turnout might be responsible for quite a few districts being like the second example–a candidate qualifying for a runoff despite being below 12.5% of the electorate in the first round. I do not know how common this or a majority but not 25% of registered voters has been over the course of the Fifth Republic’s history (dating to 1958, with then exception of a list-PR system in 1986). It is also noteworthy that there are eight three-way runoffs this year (compared to just one in 2017). If anyone happens to have a list of them, please post in the comments.
Randomly, I will now mention a few cases that looked interesting to me. Yonne no. 1: The top three candidates (Nupes, RN, and LR) have vote percentages of 24.25, 23.92, and 22.61. Only the first one has more than 12.5% of registered, and the third narrowly missed it (having 11.50%). I have no idea how often a candidate might ever have won from third place in a three-way runoff in France. If there were to be such a case, this would seem to be a promising opportunity–a mainstream right candidate against the left and far right, who combine for less than a majority of votes cast. However, the LR candidate came up short of making it a three-way.
Another similar case is Moselle no. 5: Top three candidates from RN, LR and Ensemble, with vote percentages of 25.88%, 24.53%, and 23.48%. Tight three-way race. But third did not clear 12.5% of the registered electorate–in fact, the leader had only 10.35%–and so it can be only a two-way.
Another majority-but-runoff case in Bouches-du-Rhone no. 4: Nupes leader has 56.04% of votes cast, but only 21.36% of registered voters. So the second candidate, from Ensemble, who won won only 14.88% of votes (and 5.67% of the electorate) advances to a runoff.
I probably could do this all day. But I probably should not.
One more thing before I hit “publish.” This collection of candidate statements and photos for every candidate in every district is an incredible resource! It is interesting that many of them are pictured next to their party’s presidential candidate (did someone say presidentialization?), and I also like how some of them show a little photo of their replacement candidate. Every candidate is elected with a substitute, who takes the seat if the principal vacates it for any reason during the term. Such reasons include appointment to an executive post, as France does not allow simultaneous service in the assembly and executive.
- Or sometimes–including French presidential elections–the top two remaining if one of the initial top two has bowed out for whatever reason.