France’s current electoral system uses single-member districts, elected over two rounds. In the first round, voters can cast their vote any way they please. Candidates need to meet a threshold to qualify for the second round. The threshold is set at 12.5% of registered voters; when you bear in mind that turnout is well below 100%, this threshold is higher than it sounds, and more often than not only two candidates qualify to the second round, which then becomes a face-off between a left-wing and a right-wing candidate. Occasionally two candidates from the left or from the right meet the threshold; usually the one with the lower score will stand down in order to concentrate the vote behind the better placed candidate from their side. This doesn’t always happen though, especially when one of the three qualifiers is from the far-right Front National (FN), in which case there is a “triangulaire”, or three-horse race. In the second round, the rules of simple plurality apply. If there are two candidates, the winner will – by definition – win an absolute majority of the vote in the second round, whereas a plurality will suffice when there are three or more candidates.
This electoral system has numerous consequences. It tends to crowd out smaller parties, including the Front National who have won a total of only two seats in the past five elections, despite a steady vote share of 10-20%. Another party to suffer from this problem is François Bayrou’s party, Mouvement Démocrat or MoDem. Bayrou came third in the 2007 presidential elections with 18% of the vote, but his party was annihilated in the parliamentary elections barely two months later, obtaining only three seats out of 577. It is understandable, then, why both François Bayrou and Marine le Pen (FN) are calling for proportional representation. Their share of parliamentary seats, their status and their power would undoubtedly increase as a result of a more proportional seat allocation.
What is less clear is why François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy are also supporting PR. The Socialists are pre-eminent but not omnipotent amongst left-wing parties, with numerous smaller parties eating away at the left-wing vote share. To ensure a unified left-wing vote, parties on the left have often cut electoral deals, whereby smaller parties will be granted some seats that are not contested by the other left-wing parties, in exchange for standing down and supporting a different left-wing candidate in the remainder of seats. This has led to some concentration of the left-wing vote from the first round, although only in constituencies where the left has a credible chance of being elected. In right-wing dominated seats, there is no logic to congregating behind a single candidate, especially as each party obtains part of its state funding for every vote cast for that party. So the smaller parties may lose out on funding if they stand down too frequently in support of a Socialist candidate. In addition, the Socialists, as the dominant partner in bilateral negotiations with smaller left-wing parties, have been able to reserve more seats for themselves than their vote share would dictate. Thus, the current electoral system promotes co-operation between left-wing parties that permits the parliamentary presence of parties such as the Greens, the Radical Left Party (le Parti radical de gauche), the Communist Party and a few others. But the Socialists remain the main party of the left, and their pre-eminent status might be threatened by the introduction of PR. If Hollande is making a gesture towards smaller left-wing parties and centrist voters, all of whom he hopes to rally around him in the second round, he needs to tread carefully. The likely gains that such a promise will bring him seem to be outnumbered by the potential threat to his party if PR is introduced. At the same time, the French left have rarely achieved their electoral potential in France, which has earned the description: “France thinks to the left but votes to the right” (la France à gauche qui vote à droite). Perhaps Hollande is hoping that PR will help to reverse this trend.
As for Sarkozy, the appeal of PR is even less clear. It is obvious that the noises he has made in this direction were aimed squarely at the FN electorate, whom he is trying to woo away from Marine le Pen and towards himself. If the FN want PR, and Hollande is offering it, Sarkozy may feel he needs to make a counter-offer in order to win over FN voters in the second round, without whom he will certainly lose. However, PR is such an unrealistic prospect for his party (the UMP) that his overtures on this topic have already been muted. The UMP loathe PR with a passion. It is seen as the electoral system that brought down the Fourth Republic. From 1944 to 1958, France’s parliament was elected with PR, resulting in an atomised party system and dysfunctional coalition governments that kept disbanding within a few months of their formation. The experience was one that the right are eager not to repeat. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle – whose legacy is still adhered to by many on the right – founded the Fifth Republic, with the new institutional design including the current two-round electoral system. The combination of parliamentary majorities, stable governments and a more powerful presidency has been credited with the relative stability and long duration of the Fifth Republic. Only once since this time has anyone dared tinker with the electoral system. In 1986, after five unpopular years at the helm, François Mitterrand saw that his party (the Socialists) were certain to lose the forthcoming parliamentary elections. He therefore changed the electoral system to one of partial PR, which mitigated his party’s losses even though it was not sufficient to stop them from losing. The victorious right-wing majority reversed the electoral system to the two-round format as one of their first acts of office. The PR experiment was almost universally viewed as negative. Its partisan motivations did not reflect well on the Socialists, and later attempts to introduce a gender parity law were contingent on an understanding that they were not a veiled attempt to reintroduce more profound electoral reform. The FN, who have been marginalised from power at every other election, achieved their mainstream break-through in the 1986 election, winning 35 seats. This victory propelled them from a minor to a major player in French politics, a status they have retained ever since despite their subsequent quasi-absence from parliamentary representation. Even women’s representation, which is normally positively associated with PR, did not increase in 1986. Hence, no tears were shed when the electoral system was returned to the two-round system, and electoral reform has been off the table ever since.
For all these reasons, the sudden support for PR from all four major candidates comes as something of a surprise. It reveals the extent to which the two main candidates are feeling insecure and are seeking to draw in voters from the other parties. Hollande needs to unite a divided left that stretches out from the very far left to the centre, as well as trying to mobilise Bayrou’s supporters in the second round. Sarkozy also needs to win over Bayrou’s supporters, as well as bringing the far-right on board. He is more likely to achieve the latter through his discourses on immigration, but PR offers one means of appealing to moderate and far-right voters in the same breath. Unfortunately for Sarkozy, this tactic is doomed to failure because his own party simply will not entertain the notion of electoral form. It is not certain that Hollande’s party will go for it either, as a rational analysis suggests that they have more to lose than to gain from such a measure, and it is not clear that the voters are hungry for electoral reform. Hence, despite all the noise about PR in these elections, I would not be surprised to see the two-round system endure beyond the next election.