Voices & Choices

A better way to elect France’s president

A better way to elect France’s president

The French presidential election is headed to a rematch runoff on April 24, with polls showing a thin margin between centrist President Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen. A Le Pen win could mark a major turn – the first far-right president – for one of Europe’s largest democracies. 

The stakes are high. The race is close. And yet, France’s two-round runoff system could lead to an outcome that doesn’t accurately reflect the will of the French people.

The French runoff follows on the heels of polarizing presidential runoff choices in the past year in Peru and Chile, who also advanced with low shares of the first-round vote. Ranked choice voting – used in European countries including Ireland and Malta, the U.S. states of Alaska and Maine, and major American cities including New York City and San Francisco – could lead to more accurate, representative outcomes.  

The primary problem with France’s current system is the need for strategic voting, or what the French call the “vote utile.” For French voters, the 12-candidate preliminary election on April 10 wasn’t about voting for your favorite candidate. Instead, it more closely resembled a math problem – or, per the French comedian Alex Vizorek, the show Survivor.

There were six left-leaning candidates in the field of 12, with widely differing views on international policy. The anti-establishment, EU-skeptical Jean-Luc Mélenchon was seen as having the best chance to make the runoff. So, left-leaning voters had to pore over the polls and decide: vote for a candidate you agree with and possibly “waste” your ballot, or line up behind Mélenchon even if you disagree with key parts of his platform?

This was hardly a theoretical choice, as Mélenchon barely missed out on the second spot in the runoff, finishing just 1.2 percentage points behind Le Pen. Meanwhile, the other left-leaning candidates combined for 10.1 percent of the vote.

In other words, left-leaning voters who chose a candidate other than Mélenchon may have helped Le Pen make the runoff. At the same time, Le Pen may have finished second if all right-leaning voters had rallied around her.

But with ranked choice voting, the games (and strange outcomes) go away. Voters could vote their true preference without worry. Instead of picking just one candidate, you rank in order of preference – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choices in the first round, the last-place candidate is eliminated. Voters who ranked that candidate ‘number 1’ have their ballots count for their next choice.

This counting process can continue until one candidate wins a majority. If used in tandem with France’s top-two runoff system, it would reduce the field to the two strongest candidates – in other words, those who deserved to make the runoff.

Left-leaning voters could express their true preferences without wasting their vote – ranking, say, Green Yannick Jadot or Socialist Anne Hidalgo first and Mélenchon second or third. Same for right-leaning voters, who might prefer center-right Pécresse to Le Pen, but felt pressured to vote for Le Pen to ensure at least one right-leaning candidate in the runoff. Centrist Macron supporters could simply rank him first, instead of devising schemes to optimize his runoff opponent.

As we look ahead to the Macron-Le Pen runoff, France’s electoral system quirks could have ramifications that reverberate across Europe. While Mélenchon has urged his voters not to support Le Pen, it doesn’t appear that he will endorse Macron. If his voters sit out this year’s runoff, it could boost Le Pen and send France in a new direction – all because of the cascading effects of strategic (and not-so-strategic) voting.

Of course, a ranked choice voting preliminary election could have resulted in the same Macron-Le Pen runoff. Ranked choice voting is about better capturing the will of the voters, not any one outcome.

Perhaps Jadot and Hidalgo supporters wouldn’t rank Mélenchon on their ballots. Perhaps it would be Le Pen, not Mélenchon, who consolidated support – picking up second- and third-choice support from those who cast their ballots for the center-right Pécresse or Eric Zemmour, the furthest-right candidate in the race.

Or perhaps, without “vote utile” strategizing, voters might coalesce around some unexpected candidate.

But with so much on the line for France – and Europe – we shouldn’t have to guess.

With ranked choice voting, French voters could be confident that they have the leaders they really want – not just a quirky output of their voting method.


Image from Pedro Szekely on Flickr under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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