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 presidentâ€™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 FranÃ§ois 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 FranÃ§ois 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).