After the general election in France:

The majority voting system is a denial of democracy — Macron must reform it

22 June 2017 – VoxEurop

Despite not having scored the landslide victory that was expected, the French President's party will have three times as many MPs in the new National Assembly as the second-placed political party — a French anomaly that is the result of an unfair majority system.

The official results are in: 351 of the 577 MPs elected to the National Assembly will represent one and the same political camp: that of the President of the Republic (LREM / MD, centre). The party, which obtained 31 percent of the votes in the first round of the legislative elections, thus gains 62 percent — twice the number — of seats. How is this possible?

Well believe it or not, the French Republic, the land of human rights and welcoming political refugees, is not a true democracy in which voters are represented proportionately, but a regime with a majority system, in which the voices of the many stifle those of the few. Simply put, the country is divided into 577 constituencies. In each of them, electors appoint a single MP. If a candidate obtains 51 percent of the votes, 49 percent of voters will not be heard. This unfair system is illustrated by the graphs below.

Distribution of votes in the first round of the French legislative elections:

Distribution of seats in the National Assembly following the elections:

And yet the outgoing president, François Hollande (from the leftist Socialist party, PS), had promised to introduce a proportional voting system. Has he fulfilled his promise? Not in the slightest. Nicolas Sarkozy (The Republicans, LR, on the right), his predecessor, had also discussed the possibility of introducing a more proportional system. Empty words! And François Bayrou, who rallied behind Emmanuel Macron's candidacy to seal his victory, had even made proportional voting one of his battle horses that almost propelled him to the second round of the 2007 presidential election. However, it is uncertain whether he will pressure his new guru to finally put a proportional voting system in place, given his clear setbacks on the moralization of the political life he was in charge of as the Justice minister (Bayrou resigned on 21 June after his name came out in an investigation over his party’s parliamentary assistant’s paybacks).

Why do these political leaders not respect this promise, once they are elected? Some may say that they are obsessed with power and that once they get it, they will do everything possible to keep it. The majority vote consolidates the power of the biggest party and they decide that it is favourable to them because they are in control. But things change — five years later, resentful of the reforms that were passed, citizens no longer trust them. Their protest-vote has disastrous consequences for the outgoing power, as the Socialist Party are well aware: they’re left with just a handful of MPs, whereas a proportional vote would have allowed them to control the damage. This short-term vision has contributed to the downfall of the two great traditional parties (PS and LR).

What is democracy?

Here’s a small etymological reminder: the term democracy comes from the Greek words "demos" and "kratein" which, combined, give "power of the people". Not that of the majority, but of the whole people. This ideal can only be incarnated by a representation of all political currents (except those of derisory importance) in parliament. Only in this way can the assembly of people's representatives become a temple of debates of ideas, an essential component of democracy. The majority vote is all the more anti-democratic given the results of the 2017 general election, as the importance given to each party over the next five years will depend on the number of elected deputies. In this way, the Socialist Party, whose number of deputies will be divided by ten and 45 percent of whose budget is based on government subsidies, will have to make cutbacks. Les Républicains, who were already the opposition, see their number of MPs fall by a third, while the role of the main critics of the government will still be theirs as they will remain the second party of the assembly. I do not want to defend the privileges of the major political parties, but will one of them be ready to take over La République en Marche (LRM, Macron’s party) once the citizens choose the protest vote? It is a safe bet that with their limited resources, they won’t be more effective in five years’ time, and their weakness opens a space that the more extreme parties might fill.

Low participation is one of the consequences of majority voting. Is there any use in trying if we already know the outcome? The lack of citizens’ engagement does not seem to have benefited the Front National (far-right) this year, but one can imagine that their electorate might show more engagement during the next elections. It would not be the first time in history that citizens’ lack of vigilance has allowed the far-right to come to power.

But how does it work in other countries?

The majority voting system was established in France for historical reasons. The Fourth Republic, which did indeed have a proportional voting system, was marked by troubles and instability. Charles de Gaulle decided therefore to establish a regime with a strong executive body that would benefit from a clear majority in parliament.

Nevertheless, the politics of the shaky post-war era couldn’t make a return in 2017. In the 1940s and 1950s, the political scene was much more fragmented. For several years now, only one or two political blocs has dominated it.

In addition, proportional voting has proved its worth in other countries. In fact, only France and the United Kingdom have a majority voting system among the 28 EU Member States. In France, the election is even divided into two rounds, which further favours the dominant parties. Let's take our neighbour on the other side of the Rhine, Germany, from whom we love to take inspiration. It has a mixed electoral system, combining a proportional and majority voting system, which could be a first stepping-stone before France adopts a proportional representation by list vote. At the present time, the composition of the German Bundestag is as follows:

Distribution of the votes:

It is true that no party has an absolute majority. But Germany is not an unstable country either, quite the contrary. The country has only had three heads of government since 1982! Since the current Chancellor came to power, the CDU / CSU has been forced into taking turns with the left and the center, but the coalitions are born out of compromise, the very essence of democracy. They did not prevent it from taking important measures and preserving German leadership in Europe.

But let's go a little further east to Poland. For although Germany, Hungary, Romania and Lithuania have a mixed system, the other 22 member states have opted for purely proportional voting. In Warsaw, the first years of post-communist democracy were somewhat traumatic: the first completely free parliamentary elections in 1991 resulted in an assembly of 29 parties, including such incongruous movements as the Polish Party of Beer Friends or the Alliance of Women Against Life’s Hardships. The strongest group had only 62 seats, and the composition of the government changed every few months.

The political scene has gradually stabilised, however, and a single prime minister even governed the country between 2007 and 2014. Only one party currently has a short majority in Parliament:

Distribution of the votes:

A call to Emmanuel Macron

French democracy is sick. It is not normal for a party to win 62 percent of seats with the votes of 16 percent of registered voters. The experiences of our European neighbours show that proportional voting does not condemn a country to chaos. We already have the Senate, which represents the territories of the French “hexagon” in its diversity. At least leave the people the National Assembly, so that all voices can make themselves heard. The best way to fight the extreme right is not to block the road to parliament, but to let it wade in its own incoherence in the hemicycle. It is better to channel its voters’ anger in this place of democratic debate rather than inciting it to create a parallel state as its power rises.

Mr Macron, as a great Democrat, should understand this appeal. He should be the one who, contrary to his predecessors, will truly take the decisive step and inscribe the principle of proportional representation into French electoral law. Not because of cold calculation, as François Mitterrand did for one election to win it, but to revive this democracy out of breath.

And why wait until 2022? I urge him to convene new elections in the immediate future, if he has the guts; if he truly wants to create a new political style. Not for strategical reasons as Jacques Chirac had done. Not so that he has even more MPs, but precisely to have less because otherwise the government camp will fall into inertia, for lack of strong opposition.

Translated by Felix Constant-Hynes