How people elect parliaments
The French have decisively settled the question of who their next President will be. Between two candidates from outside their major parties, they have chosen the 39-year old political centrist Emmanuel Macron over the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, of the National Front party, by around 65% of the vote.
But the outcome triggers one of the strangest parliamentary elections the democratic world will have seen in many years.
New president Macron will not govern France alone, but jointly with a prime minister and cabinet that must have the support of the Assemblée Nationale, to be elected next month.
The French Assemblée, after several historical interruptions and transformations, can claim to date back to the revolution of 1789 (image: Jebulon, Wikipedia)
The system of government in France is not a true presidential one, but has for two centuries been mainly a parliamentary one. In 1958 after a period of political disorder they recast their national constitution, establishing what is known as the Fifth Republic and adding an executive president to their system of government.
The French president controls matters of foreign relations, defense and national security, while the cabinet government is responsible for finance, economic policy and may other domestic political issues.
The system means that it is possible that the president and the cabinet may be from different political parties. Such a situation – which has manifested more than once over the past half century – is termed co-habitation.
In the 1990s the electoral cycle was adjusted so that at least the parliamentary elections occur in a five-year cycle, just a month or so after each presidential election. The intent of this timing design was that voters could see who would be the new president, and would be inclined to vote so that the parliament would work with the president in a stable government.
But President-elect Macron faces these parliamentary elections – just weeks away – without a political party in the ordinary sense.
His presidential campaign has a large and enthusiastic movement, however, and he has made known that he will sponsor candidates for all 577 electoral districts of the Assemblée.
The 2017-22 French Assemblée looks likely to be unusually divided
The 577 députés are each elected in single-member districts – known as circonscriptions – by the two-round runoff voting method.
At the first round of voting – taking place on June 11 – candidates can claim a seat outright by winning 50% of the vote. In previous – more typical – elections around 10% of députés won their seats with such support.
But if no candidate wins that way, all the candidates that win 12.5% or more of the registered voters in the district are eligible for the second round of voting, taking place a week later on June 18.
In many districts, the system has historically meant a runoff between the two candidates from the main French political parties, the centre-left Socialists and the (recently renamed) centre-right Republicans.
But races where three candidates were eligible for the second round also occurred quite frequently, and four-candidate eligibility has also been seen.
Because the second round is settled using plurality voting (ie: the candidate with the highest vote wins) such three-way contests can be politically volatile.
As a result, in previous elections a complex patterns of strategic candidate withdrawals have been seen. Even if eligible for the second round, candidates can pull out in the final week.
Candidates for the Socialists, Greens and other left-wing parties have been seen to withdraw between the two rounds of voting from three-cornered contests to ensure that the right does not win a specific seat. Right-wing withdrawals are less common, but also occur.
The major parties have an incentive to reciprocate, allowing minor parties a few local wins in return for strategic withdrawals elsewhere.
In other cases, major party candidates have withdrawn in favour of their rivals to ensure that the strongest of them is best placed to prevent the far-right National Front – Le Pen’s party – from snatching a seat. Both parties loath the Front, and it has never been in the interests of the centre-right to allow the Front to grow.
But what will happen in the next few weeks under these rules will be highly unusual, and is likely to fragment across the nation.
The two traditional main parties are in historically low states, with presidential first-round support of 19% and 6%. They cannot seriously expect to be the sole second-round candidates almost anywhere.
By contrast Le Pen’s National Front is having its best election ever. If it can replicate its leaders’ 21% presidential first-round vote (amounting to around 15% of registered voters) across the nation, it could easily be eligible for the second round in over half the 577 districts. The Front will most likely make no strategic withdrawals for any other party’s benefit.
And what of new President Macron? His movement says that it will nominate candidates in every district. The timing alignment of elections may help here, prompting voters to suddenly give Macron’s movement support, even with little depth to their knowledge of the candidates or the party’s direction.
Whether Macron’s movement even amounts to a normal political party is open to question.
There is political support from the centrist Democratic Movement party, whose leader François Bayrou pulled out of the presidential contest and endorsed Macron early. Bayrou, an experienced politician, may emerge as Macron’s preferred prime minister.
Macron may also accept defectors from the Socialist party, of which he was a member and a government minister until his breakaway in 2016. But he has announced that at least half of all his candidates will be newcomers from ‘civic life’, and any defectors must renounce their old parties in advance.
What will probably happen is a sort of free-for all in round 1 of the voting, resulting in and an unusually high number of 3- and 4-way candidate eligibilities for round 2.
At that point another urgent scramble of determinations of who supports the president will occur in advance of round 2, leading to strategic withdrawals.
Macron’s movement may need to display strong political organizing discipline to get the most advantageous candidacies out of this scramble.
The final June 18 poll will sort it out, but the results could be diverse and disorderly across the nation.
Resolving the extent to which the French voters are effectively represented by Assemblée members they really preferred may become doubtful. The political legitimacy of the chamber for the next term may be less publicly accepted than usual.
Political scientists may find that their usual analysis of electoral support (as measured by votes) and numbers of seats won is uniquely difficult. Certainly, the second round voting patterns could be highly anomalous this time.
More importantly, if the National Front wins enough seats to form a balance of power voting block, or if the Assemblée is otherwise divided and fractious, day-to-day French politics could become unstable.
The President has the power to dissolve the Assemblée and call fresh elections – not including for himself – mid-term.
Macron has also already hinted that he supports some shift to a degree of proportional representation in Assemblée elections. But there is no clear policy on the table.
The Assemblée electoral method is not constitutionally entrenched, but can be reformed by ordinary legislation passed by the parliament itself.
(The French parliament as a whole also has an upper house – the Sénat – which is not directly elected but consists of representatives of local governments.)
In recent years the parliament reformed the electoral system for the nation’s regional elected parliaments, mandating a party proportional representation method but with a distortion; the last 25% of seats in regional assemblies are awarded to the strongest party in each region as a pure bonus. This system was largely adopted to stop the Front National winning balances of power and manipulating the other parties.
The ‘untouchable’ political status of the National Front seems set to continue, but with an increasing support base now amounting to more than 1 in 5 voters, the doubtful legitimacy of such electoral devices may put even more pressure on French politics.
Marine Le Pen, in her concession of the presidential race, has already made known that she positions the Front to be the real opposition to whatever government will be formed, and opposition politics is clearly the natural mode of political behaviour for herself and her party.
The now-concluded French presidential election may well be – as commentators hope – the high-water mark of the 2016-17 ‘populist’ surge, but the underlying reality of public protest against established political orders will only continue.