Democratic Roulette: Can France’s Two-Round Presidential Election System Contain a Populist Revolt?

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Posted in: Election Law

Imagine a country where everyone’s vote counts the same, regardless of where they live. A country where you can vote for the obscure third-party candidate of your choice, and still get the chance to choose the lesser of two evils if it comes to that. A land where no one needs to worry about a complex Electoral College or presidential electors—faithless or otherwise. And a place where no president can take office without getting at least 50% (plus one) of all the votes cast.

This is all probably sounding pretty good to many Americans right now, especially along the coasts. Did I mention that there is also a lot of wine and cheese?

The country, of course, is France. And the constitutional arrangements belong to its Fifth Republic. The fact that France has gone through five republics (not to mention three monarchies, two empires, and a quasi-fascist regime) during the 228 years that the U.S. has lived under a single constitution suggests two possibilities: either (1) the French are not very good at devising systems of government, or (2) they’re really good at it, having had ample opportunity to learn from experience.

For most of its history, the Fifth Republic has supported the latter hypothesis. But the upcoming presidential election, to be held in two rounds on April 23 and May 7, has the potential to change that judgment. Like Britain and the United States in 2016, and Germany in September 2017, France faces a critical choice in political direction. Like all those countries, France’s fate will be determined not only by global anti-establishment headwinds, the capacities of its leaders, and the judgment of its people, but by the soundness of its electoral systems and governing institutions. The outcome of the trial could lend renewed vigor to France’s role in Europe and the world—or it could sink the Fifth Republic itself.

The King Is Dead, Vive le Président!

The Third and Fourth Republics were generally weak parliamentary regimes, subject to unstable party coalitions and revolving-door cabinets. The head of state was a president, elected by parliament, with relatively little power. Strong leadership was rare, and accountability was diffused. So how did France, a country better known worldwide for decapitating its kings, come to be known as a sort of “elective monarchy”?

The Fourth Republic, divided by the bitter struggle against French colonial rule in Algeria in the 1950s, looked ready to collapse into a coup or civil war. Retired wartime leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle agreed to return to power, but only if given suitable authority as president to make it worth his while.

Thus, the Fifth Republic was born in 1958. Instead of the weak figurehead of earlier constitutions, the French president now ruled supreme, elected for unlimited seven-year terms (later reduced to five), largely immune from prosecution, with vast powers to direct foreign affairs, appoint the prime minister, dissolve the parliament, rule by decree in the absence of a parliamentary majority, and take questions directly to the voters in the form of referenda. De Gaulle himself filled the presidential role with a regal aloofness emulated by most of his successors.

At first, the president was still elected by Parliament. Recognizing that such an arrangement left him dependent on the professional politicians he disdained, de Gaulle won approval of a referendum giving that power directly to the people beginning in 1965. He also devised a two-round voting system that de-emphasized traditional political parties. Any candidate able to secure signatures of support from a relatively small number of elected officials (currently 500, out of 42,000 in the entire country) could enter the presidential election. If no candidate received an absolute majority of votes cast in the first round of voting, a run-off election between the top two candidates would be held two weeks later. De Gaulle reasoned that while French voters might support any number of parties (he famously complained of the difficulty of governing a country that produced 258 varieties of cheese), such a system would reliably produce a final choice between a candidate of the center-right and one from the center-left, and the center-right would usually prevail.

How France Got Its Groove Back

For most of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle’s system worked as designed. The strong presidency gave France renewed political stability and allowed it to punch above its weight on the international stage. Predictions that the system would lead to authoritarianism proved overwrought, as France remained a healthy democracy and an open society. With few exceptions, de Gaulle’s successors have been avowed “Gaullists” from the center-right. Even the Socialist President François Mitterrand (1981-95) discarded his past qualms and found the powers of the presidency much to his liking, outdoing even de Gaulle in his pharaonic airs. (If you’ve ever wondered how glass pyramids ended up in the courtyard of the Louvre, there’s your answer.)

Presidential elections under the Fifth Republic have been fiercely contested. A multitude of candidates made the results unpredictable. Often, the top two candidates would advance to the runoff with less than 30% of votes in the first round, sometimes after rocketing from the middle of the pack in the final weeks of campaigning. The second-round voting was frequently razor-close, as befitted a country with a strong traditional left-right divide. But French voters were always faced with two plausible choices, and the winner could invariably claim to command the support of a majority. De Gaulle’s goal of a democratic system that was both representative and effective seemed to have been achieved.

Over time, however, vulnerabilities began to appear in the system. De Gaulle’s intentional weakening of political parties necessarily led to an emphasis on personalities. Instead of winning leadership of a political party in a primary process (as in the United States) or a leadership conference (as in Britain), French politicians of similar views would often battle it out in the first-round scrum. Most famously, both former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and his protégé, then-Prime Minister Eduoard Balladur, chose to enter the 1995 contest, a division that could have led to disaster for the center-right. (Chirac ended up narrowly advancing to the second round, where he beat Lionel Jospin to claim the presidency.)

A Shock (and a Reprieve)

A more serious jolt hit the system in 2002. The 69-year-old Chirac, expecting a close rematch with Jospin, managed only 19.88% of the votes in the first round, which might ordinarily have been a crushing repudiation of an incumbent. But in a divided field, that was enough to carry him to the runoff—in first place. Even more remarkably, despite a credible term as prime minister, the Socialist Lionel Jospin managed only 16.18% of the vote. Nine other candidates on the left (ranging from dissident Socialists to Greens to Trotskyists) had drained away a combined 29.78% of support, almost all of which could have been expected to go to Jospin in the second round. Two centrist candidates attracted a further 10.75% of the votes, which also would have been up for grabs, along with the 4.23% bagged by the “Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Tradition” Party.

Sneaking in to second place—and the runoff with Chirac—with 16.86% of the vote, was Jean-Marie Le Pen, the perennial candidate of France’s far right-wing, anti-immigrant National Front. Quarantined by the French political establishment throughout his career for his virulent views, Le Pen relished his triumph. But in hard mathematical terms, it was just a modest improvement on his 14.29% tally in 1988 and the 15.00% he scored in 1995. Le Pen’s support was relatively static. His success in the first round was due instead to the splintering of the vote for the major-party candidates.

Chirac, one expects, could not believe his luck. The French left, which loathed him, could not believe it, either. But faced with the more odious Le Pen, there was no real choice. Virtually all French political figures and parties endorsed Chirac in the runoff, casting the vote as a defense of the Republic itself against extremism. If the second round was a test of French democracy, it passed with flying tricoleurs. Chirac crushed Le Pen, 82.2% to 17.8%. In other words, the lackluster incumbent attracted virtually all the votes that had gone to candidates other than Le Pen in the first round—demonstrating a remarkable cohesion of French values that transcended the traditional left-right cleavage.

The Unsettling Legacy of 2002

Despite Le Pen’s convincing defeat, the 2002 election was unnerving. For the first time, the machinery did not work as intended. The reliable showdown between acceptable standard-bearers of the moderate right and left had failed to materialize. The openness of the electoral system to large numbers of candidates—and the tendency of the electorate to cast an expressive vote in the first round and a consequential one in the second—could no longer be viewed solely as strengths. Large numbers of voters (like the 60% who preferred a candidate to the left of Jacques Chirac) could find themselves deprived of a palatable choice in the second round. And unqualified or extremist candidates could now see a door to the runoff and perhaps to the Élysée Palace itself: maintain a core of passionate support, while hoping for a splintered field and dissatisfaction with politics as usual. The door has been open ever since.

The traditional parties have made a few efforts to close it. Both the Socialists and their center-right rivals (now styled “les Republicains”) have begun to hold primary elections. The idea is to force strong personalities to consolidate party support first instead of entering the wild first-round fray as free agents.

In the 2007 and 2012 elections, the two main parties succeeded in placing their chosen candidates in the second round, where they have alternated in power. But France has not been shielded from the anti-establishment waves that have lashed governments throughout the democratic world in recent years. Francois Hollande, the incumbent, is so unpopular that he chose not to stand for re-election in 2017, a first for a president under the Fifth Republic. Judging from the rough experience of the major-party candidates in the campaign so far, it was a wise decision.

The Contenders

Despite the primaries in the Republican and Socialist Parties, French voters still have quite a few cheeses to choose from in the first round. Of the eleven candidates who qualified for the ballot, four can still be considered serious contenders.

The Semi-Dutiful Daughter

Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the candidate who shocked France in 2002, has held a narrow lead in most polls throughout the race. Since taking over leadership of the National Front in 2011, she has attempted to modernize and humanize its extreme image. In 2015, she went so far as to expel her still-outspoken father from the party he founded, as in a modern, right-wing staging of King Lear. But her core message is the same one her father preached for decades: hostility to immigration, rejection of European and international institutions, and assertion of a French national identity based on ethnicity rather than universal values. Like her father, Ms. Le Pen seems unable to accept the fact of the French state’s complicity in the Holocaust, and apparent Nazi sympathizers remain welcome in her inner circle.

Le Pen is far from the favorite to win the presidency, but she has clearly pried open the cap that limited her father’s support to about 18% of the electorate. Consistently polling around 23-25%, she is expected to make the second round comfortably. And she may yet gather more support from the center-right, depending on her opponent in the runoff.

What accounts for Le Pen’s rise? Like other developed countries, France has struggled with stagnating growth and incomes, and is reaping a whirlwind of anti-globalization, anti-elite sentiment as a result. The National Front’s program, once largely out-of-step with conservative movements elsewhere, no longer seems quite so eccentric. A Le Pen presidency is still difficult for the French to imagine. But it surely is no less plausible than it was a year ago to imagine Britain leaving the European Union or Donald Trump at the helm of the United States.

The Generous Husband

In a normal year, François Fillon would be sitting pretty. A 63-year-old former prime minister, he has the résumé and the look of a typical president under the Fifth Republic. Having snatched the nomination of the Republicans away from two even better-known political veterans (former President Nicholas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé), Fillion looked well-positioned to capitalize on President Hollande’s unpopularity and French voters’ tendency to alternate the major parties in power.

Fillon’s candidacy was quickly hobbled, however, when accusations surfaced in January that his wife and children had received hundreds of thousands of euros for no-show jobs on his parliamentary staff. Fillon refused to step down as a candidate, even after he was placed under formal investigation in March. In a different era, Fillon’s defense that the arrangement was totally normal might have met with knowing shrugs from the French public. But with resentment simmering against the privileges of the political elite, Fillon’s support has stalled in the upper teens.

The Young Suitor

If Fillon looks like a presidential candidate from Central Casting, Emmanuel Macron could be mistaken for a campaign aide who inadvertently wandered on to the debate stage. Macron is 39 years old—a mere infant by the standards of French politics—but looks about 10 years younger. He went to the elite schools typical of the political tribe (Sciences Po and ENA), but launched his career in investment banking rather than politics. His personal life, though undoubtedly interesting, is largely avoided by the respectful French press. Macron has never been elected to political office, but did serve for two years as a pro-business Minister of the Economy in Hollande’s second cabinet. He resigned to form a centrist political movement (entitled “En Marche!”—exclamation mark and all) and to launch his own presidential bid, promising to deliver change by transcending France’s partisan divides.

Macron’s program has some of the inevitable vagueness of “third way” movements, but he does clearly stand for liberalization of the French economy. At the same time, he represents continuity in European and foreign policy—calling his party “the only pro-European political force in France.” While the European project is at a relatively low ebb in popularity, it still has a strong constituency in France, and Macron has shrewdly captured it.

Macron’s opponents have targeted his slender CV and somewhat underdeveloped program, but so far to little avail. As Barack Obama demonstrated on the other side of the Atlantic in 2008, a fresh face, armed with intelligence and earnestness, can gain an edge over politicians who are more fully paid up on their dues. (Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, the former U.S. president placed a well-publicized call to Macron on the eve of the first-round vote.)

The weakness of the Socialist and Republican candidates has created an unprecedented opportunity for a centrist newcomer like Macron. As Fillon’s scandal unfolded began, Macron moved to the head of the pack and is currently polling near Le Pen in the low-to-mid-20s. If he makes it through to the second round, Macron’s broad acceptability to the center-right and center-left should position him for a win. But getting there is not assured. Without a strong party organization behind him, much of Macron’s support is soft and vulnerable to a last-minute change in the wind.

The Eccentric Uncle

After Hollande bowed out, Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought the Socialist nomination, but was unexpectedly defeated by little-known former Education Minister Benoit Hamon. Hamon’s candidacy went nowhere, however. He currently languishes around 7% in the polls, a non-factor.

That left the always-numerous French left with no one to rally around. Finally, in the closing weeks of the campaign, Jean-Luc Mélenchon emerged to seize the fallen banner. A former Socialist dissident, Mélenchon’s rumpled, avuncular figure has been a familiar presence on the left edge of the barricades for decades. He finished fourth in the 2012 presidential election, netting 11.10% of the vote.

The weak performance of the Socialist candidate created an opening for Mélenchon to do better this time. He has seized the opportunity by offering fiery performances in televised debates, and an even more fiery program: a 100% marginal tax on the rich, withdrawal from NATO, renegotiation of European Union treaties, and a sharp reduction of presidential powers under the Fifth Republic. Not unlike Bernie Sanders in the U.S., the 66-year-old has even managed to conjure a certain frumpy cool around his candidacy. His worker’s jacket stands out among the suits on a crowded debate stage, and has even appeared at mass rallies as a hologram.

Mélenchon has been moving up rapidly in the polls. He is certain to best Hamon, and may yet overtake Fillon. To beat the candidates from France’s two main ruling parties would be a triumph in itself for the crusty leftist. But the real bouleversement would be if Mélenchon’s late momentum somehow carried him past Macron into second place. That would set up an unpredictable runoff between the far-left and far-right extremes of the political spectrum—with the biggest freak-out happening right in the center. Whatever the outcome of that struggle, France’s role in Europe and the world would never be the same.

The View from the Kremlin

Alas, no analysis of a contemporary Western election would be complete without examining the voting preferences of Vladimir Putin. The same barrage of state propaganda, intelligence services, front groups, hackers, social-media bots, and fake news peddlers with which the Kremlin bombarded the 2016 Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election has now been turned on France.

Russia’s dream of dismantling the European Union is closer than ever to being realized. The EU can survive Brexit, but Frexit would be fatal. In Le Pen and Mélenchon, the Kremlin has two fantasy candidates. While they may disagree on virtually everything else, both are opposed to France’s role in NATO and the European Union. A Le Pen-Mélenchon runoff would achieve the central goal of Russian foreign policy before a single vote is even cast.

Barring that dream scenario, Fillon would be a more than acceptable result for the Kremlin. Although he favors continued membership in NATO and the EU, Fillon has signaled a much softer line on Russia than Hollande has, criticizing sanctions and blaming the West for isolating Russia.

That leaves Macron, pro-Europe, pro-NATO, and pro-sanctions, as the main target of the Kremlin’s intervention. Neither France nor the Macron campaign seems to have been caught unaware this time. French intelligence services have been warning about Russian intervention for months. Last week, Facebook took the unprecedented step of shutting down 30,000 accounts in France that were pushing “fake news” related to the election.

It’s getting harder for Russia to hide its tracks. In any event, it is hard to imagine that the Kremlin has enough firepower to sway the outcome in the second round. If, for example, Macron is set to wallop Le Pen along the lines of her father’s 60-point defeat in 2002, no amount of leaked emails or fake news is likely to close that gap.

But the first round is another story. As history has shown repeatedly, anything can happen in a multi-candidate free-for-all. The difference between defeat and survival can come down to a fraction of a percent. This kind of margin is well within the Kremlin’s capabilities. If Macron ends up battling Fillon or Mélenchon for the second spot in the runoff, late returns from the Moscow precincts may yet prove decisive.

Will le Centre Hold?

Imagine that instead of an 18-month slog through primaries, caucuses, and conventions, American voters had instead been handed a single ballot and asked to choose among Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Michael Bloomberg, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. Could you have confidently predicted which two candidates would come out on top? Or that you would have been happy with any of the remaining choices?

Americans dissatisfied with their electoral system—from the two-party duopoly to the rickety Electoral College—might well look to France for inspiration. Yet for all its considerable merits—including a direct popular vote, the inclusion of multiple parties, and the requirement of an absolute majority for victory—the French system does not guarantee a wise result, or even a perfectly fair one. Like any democratic system, it can magnify or even generate the mistakes of the electorate. But it also contains the means to correct those mistakes, except for the relative few that are truly fatal. France—a country more fortunate than most—has still had to bury four republics. The next three weeks will determine whether the Fifth Republic will soon join them.