This time, a guest blog on electoral systems from one of the students in the European Politics course.
When people think about the French government, extreme bureaucracy and radical politics often come to mind. These impressions are not unfounded; France tends to have a hard time finding a middle ground and generally operates in a divisive, sometimes volatile political environment. (Take a look at their recent austerity protests.) An examination of their electoral system can help explain this polarization.
To elect the National Assembly, the more powerful house in France’s bicameral legislature, France uses a system du scrutin majoritaire à deux tours, or a system of two-round runoff plurality. It sounds complicated, but it basically means that that each election includes two rounds of voting. If a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in the first round, he or she is elected, but if no candidate gets over 50%, a second round is held to determine the winner. This round is a runoff between every candidate who received more than 12.5% of the vote.
So what does that mean in terms of French politics? For one thing, it engenders competition; candidates must make it through the first and second rounds in order to be elected. Since it’s not proportionally representative, like many other European states, there is a winner-take-all mentality that makes it more competitive. This competition means that the electoral system actually favors the divisive politics the French are known for. The addition of the runoff round means that more than two political parties compete initially, but only two can go through to the final round. Most of the time, there won’t be a majority vote, in the first round, only a plurality, so the runoff round makes it a stiffer competition with higher stakes. Then, the second round turns into a competition between the best conservative and the best liberal candidates. Thus, the system is more divisive because in the beginning the left and the right are split between various candidates, and because the runoff round will always pit the left and right against each other.
Additionally, France is divided into 577 districts that each contributes one deputy to the National Assembly. Because of this large number of very small districts, representatives bring strong local interests to the Assembly. Some representatives even serve as mayors and as deputies, which means they are even more invested in local politics. It is thus difficult for representatives to transcend their ties to local politics when working at the national level, which creates further political division.
The division can be seen even more broadly in the legislature: not only is the National Assembly divided, but there is inherent tension between the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly has the actual lawmaking power, whereas the Senate’s vote is only symbolic and it is seen as a consultative house rather than a decisive one. The structure sparks rivalry and tension between the houses.
In all, the French system is inherently divisive, as can be seen from the elections up to the politics between the two houses and beyond (in one of my later blogs I will discuss the power politics relating to the role of the president). In order to work, the French must overcome the tension created during elections, within their house, between houses and beyond.
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“France Legislative Branch,” IndexMundi, accessed February 29, 2012, http://www.indexmundi.com/france/legislative_branch.html.
Assemblée Nationale, “Carte de France des départements et des circonscriptions électorales,” accessed February 29, 2012, http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/13/qui/circonscriptions/index.asp.
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William F. Edmiston and Annie Duménil, La France contemporaine (Boston : Heinle Cengage Learning, 2010).