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The French election shows the democratic limits of the country’s presidential system

Supporters of Marine Le Pen campaigning in southern France ahead of the second round of the presidential election.

After the final debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the race for the French presidency is nearing its end point on May 7. But the presidential election has demonstrated once again that France’s electoral system is less about democracy, and more about restraining it.

The late stages of the first round campaign were incredibly open and led to real debates between different visions for the future of France. This seemed to enthuse French voters. While polls suggested that abstention could reach a record 30%, the turnout in the first round of voting on April 23 was in fact close to 78%, similar to the 2012 election.

The results in the first round also pointed to sharp ideological divisions in France, with four candidates finishing with more or less 20% of the vote. From the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon to the hard right conservative François Fillon, from centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron to far right Marine Le Pen.

France seemed at a turning point, with the two mainstream parties who have governed the country for most of the Fifth Republic – Les Républicains and the Parti Socialiste – suffering terrible blows. Yet the system is such that only the two candidates with the most votes in the first round are allowed to battle it out in the second. This has meant that the voice of 60% of the voters who did not vote for either Macron or Le Pen in the first round (plus that of the 20% of the population who abstained) is no longer democratically relevant. This voice must either be voided in abstention or blank ballots, or now transferred to the least worst candidate in the second round.

After the first round, Macron and Le Pen represented only 34% of registered voters overall and 45% of the vote. This is even more striking as 41% of Macron’s electorate appears to have voted tactically in the first round.

More oxygen for Le Pen

Through this archaic system, Le Pen, who was within a million votes of Fillon and Mélenchon, has been given the opportunity to legitimise her ideas further and is likely to set a new record in terms of votes for her far-right Front National (FN) party. Between the two rounds, Le Pen has been given ample opportunity to push her agenda, and spread false news in a manner similar to Donald Trump in the US. As Macron seems unable to counter Le Pen’s demagoguery, he may help to further legitimise some of her politics by joining a race to the bottom, on anti-terrorism legislation in particular.

This is despite the fact that it would take a political earthquake for Le Pen to win. In 2007 and 2012, Le Pen would have needed more than 18m votes to win the election – her current record is 7.7m in the first round of the 2017 election. While her supporters tend to be loyal, her vote base tends to be more restricted, and most polls suggest that French voters still see the party as a threat to democracy.

Considering that the two mainstream parties, Les Républicains and the Parti Socialiste have called on their supporters to vote for Macron, and that Mélenchon’s supporters seem more likely either to abstain or turn to Macron, Le Pen faces almost certain defeat in the second round.

However, Macron’s lacklustre campaign for the second round thus far and his refusal to offer the left-wing electorate some concessions could allow Le Pen a very strong showing. Rather than the presidency, Le Pen’s aim is most likely to reach 35% or more of the vote in the second round, benefiting from massive abstention rates rather than her own strong gains between the two rounds. Should she achieve such a result, she would be in a very strong position to plan for the 2022 election, to continue to normalise her ideas and position herself as the main opposition in France.

Protests against Le Pen in Paris on May 1 during a Labour Day march.

In the mid-term, the alliance of all other candidates behind Macron in a Republican Front is bound to reinforce Le Pen’s idea that she is the only one fighting against a deeply distrusted establishment. In this context, it is understandable that Mélenchon was not keen to lend support to Macron, but it is perhaps not acceptable when considering the threat. The situation is a real catch-22 for the left.

Where next for democracy?

In this context, it is urgent to acknowledge the anti-democratic nature of the French presidential elections. The campaign debates and the space given to alternative voices before the first round revived the interest of the French people. Debates and disagreements shifted the focus away from the toxic nationalism promoted by the FN, which had been lazily borrowed by mainstream politicians and opportunistically hyped by much of the media. The return of class politics in the second debate was particularly welcome, and certainly played a part in the late surge of Mélenchon ahead of the first round of voting.

Throughout the campaign, polls suggested that young people and the working class would turn en masse to the FN as it would be the sole alternative to the status quo. However, a single month of debate dedicated to different ideas turned the tide, and Mélenchon attracted the most young voters, and around 30% of the working-class vote. Considering that Le Pen has benefited from disproportionate media coverage since 2012, and Macron for a year, one can only wonder where the debate would be if all ideas were equally discussed in day-to-day politics.

Yet the presidential system is only one element taking us away from democratic decision-making. Were our democratic demands serious, we would not restrict them to voting for less and less representative politicians every few years. We would instead bring politics back to our day-to-day interactions. For example, we could demand that a degree of chance and the drawing of lots is added to our decision-making system, meaning that anyone and everyone can be selected to take office at any time. We could also bring democracy back to where we spend much of our lives and energy: our workplaces and our economy.

This would demand effort and courage, but this is what democratic politics is and must be about.