The Revival of French Electoral Politics

John Zvesper

April 1, 2007

The battle to succeed French President Jacques Chirac is taking place in a regime that is less than fifty years old, and is still under construction. Recent constitutional changes as well as recent electoral history affect the governing prospects of the next president.

With effect from 2002, the presidential term of office was reduced from seven to five years. This change makes presidents more immediately accountable. That reduces the incentive for the electorate to vote for national assemblies with partisan majorities who oppose the president’s party, as a way of registering their disapproval of a president. Also, simply by bringing the presidential and legislative elections normally closer to each other in time (assuming both presidencies and assemblies last their full five-year terms), this adjustment of presidential terms may further reduce the probability of such divided partisan control of presidency and assembly. Such awkward partisan “cohabitations” occurred several times during the two decades before the shortened presidential term came into effect.

Of course, in the legislative elections scheduled for June, French citizens who, on May 6th, will have just chosen Nicolas Sarkozy or Ségolène Royal for president, could turn around and elect a legislative majority with an opposing partisan tendency. Some recent opinion polls even suggested that a majority of voters would prefer that outcome, whoever becomes president.

But those polls were taken before the presidential election got underway, and the skeptical voter sentiment that the pollsters measured should be regarded as part of the general disillusionment with partisan politics that has afflicted France (and other modern democracies) in recent decades. This disillusionment drove many voters to support a centrist candidate (François Bayrou) in the first round of the presidential election this year, and had driven some to abstain from voting at all in 2002.

One of the first tasks for the winner of the presidential election will be to persuade voters, who have turned out in large numbers in the presidential election this year (at least in the first round), that the partisan system, for all its imperfections, continues to deserve some degree of their support, and its winning candidates some degree of their confidence, at least enough to give them a friendly legislative majority. If (as seems likely) it is Sarkozy who wins on May 6th, this task will have been made more challenging by the extent to which many otherwise reasonably sensible French citizens have come to see Sarkozy as a political extremist. If cohabitation should return to French politics, it could be more dangerous than in the past, since now the president’s electoral mandate will be almost as fresh as the assembly’s, so the president will be under less pressure to defer to the assembly and to avoid policy clashes and deadlocks.

In French politics, the period 2002-2007, while not complicated by partisan cohabitation, has been very difficult because of another quirk of electoral history. Partly because of the divisions and weaknesses of the left in 2002, but also because voter abstentions in the first presidential round were high that year, a genuinely extremist (National Front) candidate was one of the two who went forward to the second round that year. Chirac easily won—having received less than 20% of the first-round vote, he received 82% in the second round—but this did not constitute a clear mandate for him and his party, merely a rejection of the National Front. Chirac won, but not by defeating his main opponents. Some of the shortcomings of Chirac’s presidency can be traced to this defect in his electoral base. His first term (1995-2002) having been paralysed by five years of cohabitation with a socialist prime minister, his second term was poisoned from the beginning by this equivocal electoral victory.

So far, then, the election of 2007 has constituted a healthy revival of French electoral politics. Of course, even if that revival continues, it will not automatically lead to solutions to France’s economic and social problems. But this revival is a necessary prelude to the pursuit of those solutions.

John Zvesper, an American living in Europe, is a Fellow of the Claremont Institute and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.