It is outdated and unreliable
Yesterday, the French voted in the second and final round of the legislative election — and the result was even worse for Emmanuel Macron than the polls were predicting.
His centrist “Together” coalition was expected to lose ground and perhaps its majority in the National Assembly. In the event, they were hammered, losing around a hundred seats.
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Furthermore, the electoral system, which is meant to keep extremists out, has failed. The Left-wing NUPES coalition, which is dominated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s anti-establishment LFI party, came second. In a surprisingly strong third place is Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. In 2017, her party won just eight seats, this time round it is 89 — easily the best result for the far Right in the history of the Fifth Republic.
So overall, it’s a shocker — especially for Macron. As I predicted last week, he will have to do a deal with the much diminished conservatives. The combined forces of the Macronistes and the centre-Right should have a slim majority (which in the 577 seat National Assembly starts at 289), but the stability of any deal would depend on the cooperation of the most Right-wing conservatives, who lean closer to Le Pen than to Macron.
Though the French president is endowed with a wide range of executive powers, he still needs a prime minister to head up the day-to-day functions of government. Unfortunately for him, the PM has to be approved by the Assembly. If the opposition wins a majority of seats then it can impose its own candidate — as happened during the three periods of “cohabitation” between 1986 and 2002.
Of course the difference now is that no party has a majority in the National Assembly. It is divided between four mutually antagonistic blocks. Without a stitch-up between Macron and the conservatives — i.e. the two big losers of the election — chaos beckons.
In short, as well being an almighty shock, this outcome is an almighty mess. So how on Earth did it happen? For one, the French electoral system has a number of idiosyncrasies, which lend themselves to precisely this outcome. The basic problem is that the two-round system creates a series of contests in which two parties go through to the final round, leaving the supporters of every other party with nothing to do except decide which of the two finalists they most want to vote against.
Judging from the results, it would appear that in the 102 contests that pitched a Le Pen candidate against a Macron candidate, a lot of Left-wing voters decided to vote against Macron. Clearly, denying the president his majority was considered more important than maintaining the cordon sanitaire around the far-Right.
It’s quite possible that France has the world’s worst electoral system. Because of the split between the presidential and legislative contests, each of which involve two rounds, French voters have to turn out four times to get a new government. And if that wasn’t enough to put everyone in a bad mood, the system effectively enforces the negative practice of tactical voting.
All this was designed for an era when politics was dominated by the mainstream parties of the centre-Left and centre-Right. But now, in an era where populists run rampant and a personality cult president rules from the centre, just about anything can happen. And yesterday it did.