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Legislative elections in France, the endless debate on the voting method

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The rules for allocating seats in the National Assembly in France have not changed since the end of the 1980s. The electoral code establishes a two-round majority uninominal ballot. For several years, in the political debate, he has been called into question, accused of not representing all the political tendencies of the country. Changing the voting system is proving to be a difficult and controversial political option.

Majority voting versus proportional representation? The question is recurrent in the French political debate. The first-past-the-post system in two rounds is criticized for giving the advantage to the major parties, and in particular for favoring the presidential party. Another criticism, certain currents of opinion believe they are poorly represented in the National Assembly. However, nothing moves.

The two-round first-past-the-post system

In each department, each party chooses one candidate per constituency, who will seek the votes of voters. If he obtains an absolute majority (that is to say, more than half of the votes cast) and a number of votes at least equal to 25% of the number of registered voters, then the candidate is elected. Otherwise, a second round will determine the candidate who will sit in the Palais Bourbon. A simple majority is then sufficient, that is to say, obtaining the greatest number of votes. Only candidates who obtain a number of votes at least equal to 12.5% ​​of the number of registered voters can go to the second round, a threshold which turns out to be high when abstention is strong. In 2017, the abstention rate in the first round having been 51.3%, the number of candidates admitted to participate in the second round was often two (only one triangular, in other words three candidates having obtained more than 12.5% votes in the first round and therefore present in the second round, had taken place in the 1ʳᵉ constituency of Aube).

A total of 577 deputies are elected. In 2017, La République en Marche, the presidential party, obtained 28.21% of the vote in the first round. Emmanuel Macron’s party won 308 seats, more than the absolute majority set at 289 deputies. We sometimes talk about a brutal election that gives the tendency that receives the most votes a very large number of seats. The transition to a five-year term and the organization of legislative elections in the month following the presidential election also reinforced this trend. The National Front had meanwhile obtained 13.20% of the vote allowing it to remain in 120 constituencies, against 61 in 2012 in the first round. He will only get 8 seats. A situation which, according to the political leaders of the party, illustrates the lack of representativeness of the voting system.

1986, the Mitterrand maneuver

Throughout the political history of France, the question of the voting system has arisen. Should we focus on efficiency by giving a stable and homogeneous majority to the Assembly or should we, rather, give priority to equity by favoring representativeness of the diversity of opinions? In 1986, François Mitterrand imposes, the time of an election, the integral proportional vote. Thirty-five deputies from the National Front entered the hemicycle. The Head of State who came to power in 1981 wants to have a Chamber of Deputies that is more representative of the political spectrum (this was part of his campaign commitments). But this choice is also explained by his talents as a fine political strategist: limiting the rout of the left and guaranteeing himself re-election in 1988. At the end of this election, won by the right, Jacques Chirac took the head of a government of cohabitation. It will restore majority voting.

Former PS Prime Minister Laurent Fabius (L) shakes hands with new RPR Prime Minister Jacques Chirac during the handover at the Élysée Palace on March 20, 1986, following the RPR’s victory in the legislative elections, thus inaugurating the first cohabitation of the Fifth Republic. © Jean Guichard/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

The reluctance of part of the political class to change a new voting system is undoubtedly explained, in part, by this episode. The mistrust of public opinion vis-à-vis leaders and institutions is another parameter. Abstention is galloping. Overturning the rules intended to decide between the candidates should not give the image of electoral tampering.

Proportional representation

The use of proportional representation can be done according to different scenarios. A partial proportional vote, with a certain number of deputies elected by proportional representation and others by majority vote. Or else the change in the voting system for the entire hemicycle, that is to say a full proportional ballot.

The principle of proportional representation is that each party presents a list of candidates by department (or by region). The number of seats is allocated in proportion to the number of votes obtained. In France, this voting method is used during European elections.

For many years, François Bayrou, leader of the Modem, has been calling for the partial introduction of proportional representation in the legislative elections. Emmanuel Macron, like Marine Le Pen, said he was in favor of a full proportional ballot. The advantages of such a voting method: the political parties obtain a number of elected representatives corresponding to their weight in the electorate. This is a photograph of the company. The opposition takes a more important place, more fragmented also, because it favors the appearance of small parties.

► To listen also: Legislative: debate on the proportional

Disadvantage: it makes it more difficult to identify stable and coherent majorities. On the other hand, restoring the voting system used under the Fourth Republic would involve, in the minds of certain politicians, the risk of reconnecting with strong ministerial instability: 24 governments between 1947 and 1958. Proportional does not necessarily imply instability. Once you have an Assembly that is more diverse in terms of its political, sociological composition, rules of the game relating to political trust apply. Rules that discipline parliamentarians who have a vested interest in forging stable governing alliances “, However, believes Olivier Rouquan, political scientist, constitutionalist, researcher at the Center for Studies and Research in Administrative and Political Sciences (CERSA) in the program The debate of the day on RFI. ” The political culture that allows proportional representation to work well is not the one that prevails in France. It takes a sense of compromise, negotiation, an ability to agree on prefigured government programs and a sense of political responsibility from leaders. “.

In France, mixed voting is also practiced with a mixture of majority and proportional systems for the allocation of votes. This is the case for municipal elections. Each party presents a list. The one who obtains the absolute majority of the votes cast receives a number of seats equal to half of the seats to be filled. The other seats are distributed by proportional representation among all the lists having collected at least 5% of the votes.

► Also to listen: Legislative: what voting methods in Germany, United Kingdom, United States, and Israel?

If the electoral law is criticized for being rigid, an ordinary law would however suffice to modify the method of voting. No need for a modification of the Constitution, nor of an organic law, for which the mode of promulgation is different.

In the meantime, the debate continues. Proponents of proportional representation praise the examples of other European countries. Greece or Germany include proportional representation, but use mechanisms to mitigate the political instability that could result from it. Greece has introduced a bonus of 50 deputies out of 300 for the party that comes first. In Germany, the Bundestag is renewed with a double vote: 299 deputies are elected with a majority vote (we choose a deputy from his constituency), 299 deputies are elected with the rule of proportionality (we vote for a party).

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