When French voters went to the polls Sunday to choose among 11 presidential candidates, they knew one thing for certain: The ultimate winner would have majority support. That’s because France elects its leader with a general election followed by a run-off between the top-two finishers.
It’s a system that accommodates expansion of the number of choices available to voters, but also ensures the winner of the popular vote takes office. And considering the long history of democracy in Europe, it’s a system that was introduced relatively recently – it dates back to the early 1960s.
FairVote supports the principle of majority winners in elections with one winner, such as president and governor. We have focused on an improved runoff model known as ranked choice voting, or “instant runoff.” The French elections show both the value of a majority system and the value of ranked choice voting as a means to achieve it.
As the two winners – independent centrist Emmanuel Macron (23.75 percent of the vote) and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (21.5 percent)– began preparations for the two-week general election, we asked Jean-Marie Pottier, the editor of Slate France and an essential read on this election, to explain the history of the French system – and the way it shapes the country’s politics and enhances the idea that every vote must count equally.
What is the history of the primary and run-off process in France? Why was it adopted?
The direct presidential election with a run-off was adopted in 1962 thanks to a fairly controversial referendum, approved by 62 percent of the voters. Elected president in December 1958 by an electoral college of 80.000 people (congressmen and delegates from the departments and the municipalities), Charles De Gaulle had planned that reform for a few months, but the decisive impulse was a near-successful murder attempt on him at the end of August 1962, near Paris. He wanted his successor to be elected directly by the French people because he feared that he would not have his historical legitimacy. That's why he also chose the system of the runoff, to make sure that the elected president would have a majority of the votes, not a plurality.
What are the advantages of this system as far as bringing more voices and choices into the electoral process?
The main advantage of this system, in my mind, is that it really makes the principle "one people, one vote" true. You do not have the same phenomenon in congressional elections, where, in France as in the U.S., some districts are not competitive and the votes of the opposition voters feel "lost." With our presidential election, a radical left voter in a far-right district, or a far-right voter in a socialist district, can feel that his voice is really taken into account.
How well has it worked? There are three fairly recent examples of second-place finishers winning the presidency -- how has that happened?
I will answer your easiest question first, the one about the second-place finishers. I assume you are speaking about the elections of 1974, 1981 and 1995, where the runner-up in the first round won at the end? It's fairly simple: we have a motto in presidential election that is "in the first round we choose, in the runoff we eliminate." A candidate can arrive only second in the first round (usually because there is another strong candidate on his political side – a communist for a socialist, a center-right candidate for a conservative...), if the candidates eliminated in the first round endorse him, he might win.
This system worked quite well between 1965 and the 1990s, when the French political life was organized around two poles, the left and the right, each one with several parties: the first round helped pick a champion for each side, and the runoff was a left vs right struggle.
It started bugging with the rise of the National Front, which is a “third force," a far-right party without any national alliance with the right. For example, in 2002, the incumbent socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was polling at 50-50 against the sitting conservative president Jacques Chirac in the runoff, but never got to it because he only got 16 percent and the far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen 17 percent. Then Le Pen was then crushed 18-82 by Chirac! Usually (but this year is an exception), the system penalizes the consensual candidates and helps the most divisive ones, which is a real problem...
What are the political ramifications of a system like this? Does it tend to make it much more difficult for an extreme candidate to actually take the presidency?
Yes, the system makes much harder for an extreme candidate to win the presidency, since one needs to get 50 percent of the votes plus one. The only chance right now for an extreme candidate to win would be a massive abstention from his opponent's voters – unlikely to happen this year.
The other important political implication is that this system tends to organize our political life around two poles, left and right, because you need to have a strong basis to get through the first round, and the best way to do so is to unite one of these sides. It is the biggest change this year, because Macron, who is campaigning around a center-left-and-center-right platform, managed to get the highest score in the first round. There was a kind of curse before on centrist candidates, who used to peak at 15-19% of the votes, not enough to get to the runoff.
Do voters like this system? Does it force voters to think through choices in a different way, first round versus second round?
I think voters are ambiguous towards this system. We "like" it in the sense that the election with the highest turnout is always the presidential election, with usually a 80 percent turnout. But this election also makes us crazy because it is far too important (the congressional elections are one month later, and the result is highly depending on that of the presidential election) so now, we are almost all-in on one vote! (and, in consequence, thinking very strategically, calculating our moves through the opinion polls, etc.).
In the congressional elections, we use the same voting system but within 577 districts: if there is an electoral "accident" in your district (for example an extreme candidate that goes to the runoff because the side you prefer is divided), you know that it won't repeat in all districts. An example to make that problem clearer: behind Macron (24 percent), this year, you have Le Pen at 21.5 percent, Fillon at 20 percent and Mélenchon at 19.5 percent. If 2 percent of Macron’s most leftist voters voted Mélenchon, or 3 percent of Macron most rightist voters voted Fillon, the country would not be in itself fundamentally different, right? But you would have a Macron-Mélenchon runoff or a Fillon-Le Pen runoff...
French elections are on a Sunday. American elections are on a Tuesday, a workday. What is the history of weekend elections, and how has it affected turnout?
Voting on Sunday is a French tradition since the beginning of our democracy! The idea was to make voting easy by making people vote on their free time, not work time, and near their home. Voting is usually very well organized in France: we have 65,000 precincts, more than a third of the American figure, for a country 20 times smaller.
Would you recommend this as a system for America? Are there other European electoral traditions that Americans might consider at a time when our system has produced two elections out of five "won" by the candidate with fewer votes?
I was in the U.S. last November for Trump's election, and to be frank I was surprised by the high degree of respect of the results by the Americans: in France, I don't know what would happen if we had such an electoral college-popular vote disagreement!
Of course, America might adopt France’s system, but I understand the importance of the historical and geographical roots of the Electoral College, and I don't think runoffs, with their feeling of two consecutive campaigns, are really part of the American culture?
In France, we have a few political features that might be interesting in the US, but I do not know if they are well-suited to your political culture either. For example, the campaign is frozen during the last 48 hours, the candidates and their teams have to stop campaigning; it helps the voters think more quietly before voting.
Image Courtesy of Rueters.