A dose of la proportionnelle...

In my 12 June post, I looked at the results for the first round of the French general elections in overall, national terms and also considered the projections being made about the shape of the new National Assembly. I’ll tackle the geographical spread of votes later this week.

The headline is, of course, that Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LRM) is looking at a landslide majority of proportions that have never been seen in French history, let alone under the Fifth Republic (1958 to the present day). I’m aware that I’m comparing apples and oranges, but even the right-wing landslide that followed the snap election of June 1968 (the backlash against mai '68) didn’t deliver quite such a staggering majority.

With less than one-third of the vote, LRM is in position to take somewhere in excess of 400 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly (somewhere around 70-75%). It’s worth noting, en passant, that with the renewal of half the Senate due in September, the presidential party and its allies could well secure three-fifths of the seats in the two houses, enough to push through any constitutional reforms that Macron and PM Edouard Philippe deem necessary, using article 89 of the constitution. This requires simply that a bill passes both houses in identical form, before then being put to both, sitting together as le Congrès at Versailles and passing with the requisite three-fifths. No referendum is necessary, though the president can ask the electorate to confirm the vote.

One of Macron’s electoral promises, for example, was to reduce the total number of deputies and senators (from 577 and 348), and since these numbers are fixed in the constitution, that’s how they’ll have to be changed.

Another suggestion that Macron made, though this is not a constitutional reform, was to introduce a ‘dose’ of PR to the electoral system. As you can imagine, since the first round results rolled in on Sunday, along with that enormous abstention rate, every Pierre, Paul, Jean-Luc and Marine has been denouncing a system that delivers such an overwhelming majority to one party on the basis of less than one-third of votes cast and 15.4% of the national electorate.

So, looking at the results from 11 June, Le Monde has modelled how the scores would have shaped an assembly elected using a single round of ‘simple’ PR at the national level, that is to say without any prime or bonus being given to the party with the largest share of the vote (Marine Le Pen’s preferred option).

The Le Monde numbers look like this, though I have taken the liberty to separate them in a slightly different way.

Such an outcome clearly puts a very different complexion on the balance of power, with LRM forced to cut a deal with either the moderate left or the right in order to achieve a majority of 289 seats.

This would in fact run counter to the political culture of the Fifth Republic, which was founded to put an end to the political instability of its predecessor the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) caused, in part, by the electoral system, a hugely bowdlerised version of…  proportional representation.

 I say ‘in part’, because the Third Republic (1870-1940) used, mostly, the same system as is used today and that didn’t produce stable majorities either, so there is more to it than just le scrutin uninominal à deux tours. In fact, the current electoral system did not create bipartisan blocks of left and right overnight and coalition government was the norm, with the presidency lending weight to the process. Even when single parties been in a position to govern, by tradition, they have generally included their near allies. This is less of a problem for LRM, which is a rainbow coalition all by itself.

The French use a raft of different systems for different elections. For the Senate, whose members are elected by departmental colleges where the number of seats depends on population size, single-round PR (highest remaining average) is used in larger departments, a two-round majority system in the smaller ones. The Senate is, by definition, a ‘mixed assembly’.

For municipal elections, lists are used, but again, there is a mixed economy, with a majoritarian system in communes of fewer than 3,500 inhabitants: don't laugh, there are more than 20,000 of them. PR is used in the larger communes, but two rounds are used for both. In the latter case, moreover, the prime I mentioned above comes into play, so that the list that gets the most votes is allotted half the seats before the proportional distribution takes place, a system intended to produce stability. This is the sort of system Le Pen has in mind, so it’s not quite an ‘unloaded’ PR she is after. And since she talked about reducing the National Assembly to 400, let’s imagine an assembly with 200 seats for the FN, then the remaining 200 divided on a proportional basis…

Single-round PR is used for European elections, two-round PR for regional ones. None of thesystems used in France allow for transferable votes. Departmental councils are elected using a two-round majority system with dual candidatures, where each ward elects two representatives and each ticket must comprise one male and one female candidate. (Don’t worry, most French voters are not on point with all this detail either.)

The ‘mixed assembly’ model seems to be the one preferred by Macron, Philippe and justice minister François Bayrou. Like the Liberal Democrats in the UK, French Centrists had the longest history of ‘suffering’ from the système majoritaire as the bipartisan left/right divide emerged. Bayrou made the introduction of at least ‘la proportionnelle dosée' a condition for lending his support to Macron. Now, he can only cash that cheque so many times, but Bayrou appears to be pushing at an open door on this one.

For now we know nothing of the detail, but what seems to be at the centre of discussions is a version of PR whereby a proportion of seats in the National Assembly would be set aside and distributed after the election to ensure minority representation. Figures being  bandied around are 10% or 20%, so 60-120 seats, if the present numbers of deputies are mainatined. Something similar exists in Germany, and it has been used in the past in France, for elections to the upper house in 1946…

Back in 2012, François Hollande asked the former Socialist PM Lionel Jospin to examine the possibilities of such a reform, but his report remained a dead letter. Macron and Philippe will hope that electoral reform might revive voter interest National Assembly elections.

It’s debatable. Turnout for municipal elections is not higher where PR is used. In fact it’s often quite the reverse. And it might be dismissed as a bit of a gadget or gimmick.  ‘Une dose de la proportionnelle’ is certainly not what either Le Pen or Jean-Luc ‘Sixième République’ Mélenchon want. But they won’t have much say in the matter and that isn't Macron's fault.