The French general elections June 2017: Part 2 - the presidentialization of parliamentary elections

Since 2002, when the new five-year presidential term came into effect, the election of a new president in April/May has been followed by general elections in June. Initially, this was an accident of what the French call the calendrier électoral.

Jacques Chirac had been elected to the Elysée in 1995 for seven years, but because there was already an overwhelming right/centre-right majority in the National Assembly (elected in 1993), he opted against dissolution. Politicians hate elections and it would have caused an unnecessary faff.

However, spooked by the left’s success in opinion polls and to prevent them becoming strong enough to win the législatives due in 1998, he called a snap general election (une élection anticipée) in March 1997… and lost. This set up a five-year period of political cohabitation between the right-wing Chirac and the plural left majority in the National Assembly, led by Lionel Jospin, who became prime minister.

During this ‘long cohabitation’, both men tried to claim the role of ‘moderniser’ of French political life, and the presidential term became one of the issues (gender parity was another). The proposal to reduce the presidency to five years was put to a referendum in September 2000 and massively endorsed (73% for), though with only 3 voters in 10 bothering to turn out. Either no-one much cared, or everyone thought it was a thoroughly sensible idea.

At the time, there were arguments about whether, come 2002, the presidential or the legislative elections should take place first.. You can imagine how much power the parties would gain from parliamentary elections taking precedence. The logic of the Fifth Republic is presidential, however, not parliamentary, and thus it was decided that the election of the head of state would precede that of the lower house.

The entirely foreseeable impact of this change was to relegate the election of a new National Assembly, to ‘presidentialize’ the process by setting up not a competition between parties, but one designed to provide the freshly elected head of state with a workable majority.  This was very clearly the case in 2002, when supporters of the victorious Chirac (in particualr Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Alain Juppé) used his re-election to fuse three different right-wing parties into one, initially known as the Union pour une Majorité Présidentielle, which later became the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (both UMP), the forerunner of Les Républicains.

Both left and right colluded in the process of presidentialization. Neither had much enjoyed the experience of cohabitation (there had been three: 1986-8; 1993-5; 1997-2002), although it was clearly what the electorate wanted. And in 2002, 2007 and 2012 the new process did what it was meant to do. Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande all got their majorities, albeit by diminishing margins. (In 2007, Sarkozy was furious that PM François Fillon failed to engineer a bigger UMP majority in the Assembly than Raffarin and Juppé had managed for Chirac in 2002. I'll discuss this another time.)

As well as the diminishing majorities, presidentialization has also seen a reduction in public engagement with legislative election, using turnout as our measurement. In fact, we had already seen this before 2002. Under the constitution, the president of the Republic has the power to dissolve the National Assembly, and François Mitterrand did just that after his election to the Elysée Palace in 1981 and again in 1988. In 1981, the turnout for the législatives (first versus second round) was 71/75%, compared to 83/85% in 1978, when there was no preceding presidential election. In 1988, after his re-election, the rate dropped to 66/70%.

Compare these figures, however to 64/60% in 2002, 60/60% in 2007, and 57/55% in 2012, against a rule of thumb of an 80% turnout in the presidential elections. Political scientists and psephologists generally ascribe this gap to electors who did not support the victorious presidential candidate staying at home on polling day. The matter of voter mobilisation is, then, a major cause for concern for legislative elections, especially for the non-presidential parties.

One other aspect of the changes to the system is the question of the programme or manifesto. A president is elected on the basis of his or her programme, so one would imagine that the party or parties supporting the successful candidate will campaign on a manifesto close to that. But what happens to the defeated parties? Do they carry on camapigining on a beaten manifesto? Do they take that as a baseline and work up a new programme? Or do they simply campaign simply on not being the other lot?

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