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The 2022 French Presidential Election is a Test of the First-past-the-post System

Image depicts three computer windows: one with a photo of Emmanuel Macron, one with a photo of Marine Le Pen, and another with a graphic of a ballot box.

The two leading candidates for France’s 2022 presidential election are the same as those from 2017: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Polling from Ipsos suggests that Le Pen, the populist leader of the Rassemblement National, leads the first round field. In head-to-head polling between the two, Le Pen trails at 46 percent to Marcon’s 54 percent, which is a significantly smaller margin than in the last election. Le Pen is closer to the presidency than she has ever been before.

Le Pen has benefited from shifting her platform towards the center, aligning herself with  the traditional right by placing economic liberalism at the forefront of her platform, rather than seizing on cultural grievances. No longer trying to “de-demonize” the Rassemblement National’s image, Le Pen’s goal is normalization: developing a concrete economic platform to appeal to voters motivated by more than xenophobia. This play to the traditional right is being mirrored by Macron, who has also undergone an image change. Inasmuch as Macron’s shift to the right reflects his party’s understanding of the political climate in France, it is also a tacit acknowledgement of Le Pen as a threat in 2022.

The dynamics of the upcoming presidential election are thus reminiscent of the recent American elections: establishment moderates and right-wing populists fighting over centre-right voters. Both countries elect their heads of state in winner-takes-all elections, and their legislative bodies in a series of elections at the local level (this is called a first-past-the-post system). Given the surprising successes of the far-right in both countries, it is worth asking if the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system actually suppresses extremism. In recent years, that has not been the case for France.

France has not always had a winner-takes-all presidential system and is one of the only countries to transition to this system from one of proportional representation. The unique two-round elections (in which the two leading vote-getters go head-to-head in a runoff election) are an innovation of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958 by President Charles de Gaulle. Parliament was unable to form a coalition during the Algiers Crisis, and de Gaulle, who had fought two far-right dictators elected under proportional systems during World War II, proposed a more steady form of government.

Conventional wisdom in political science suggests that winner-takes-all systems benefit parties closer to the center while suppressing those on the edges of the political spectrum. This is because it encourages voters to group up and compromise by voting for candidates that have a chance at winning, most of whom tend to sit near the middle of the political spectrum. For a time in France, this was the case: the center-left Socialistes had immensely popular presidents, such as Francois Mitterand. The centre-right Républicains have also enjoyed success since the early 2000s and had their own admired president in Jacques Chirac. 

However, over the last few years, all that has changed. Les Républicains have been relegated to third party status in presidential elections, and Les Socialistes have also fallen in popularity. Alongside the shocking rise of Le Pen, it seems clear that FPTP’s ability to suppress extremism is weak, or at least it only worked for the far-left, which was already in decline for a myriad of other reasons

There are other factors at play beyond the FPTP electoral system. The rise of the populist right has been pronounced all over the world, and left-wing parties have been in a slump in Europe for at least a decade (including in proportional systems such as Germany’s).

However, it is evident that the disillusionment created by the French political system is a factor in Le Pen’s popularity. FPTP systems tend to result in safe, middle-of-the-road politicians – technocrats who fail to energize voters and ignore the needs of their constituents, resulting in blunders like the fuel tax that ignited the ongoing gilet jaunes protests in 2018. The FPTP system creates the impression of an insulated political class to which a populist alternative is preferable, no matter how radical they may be.

This disillusionment is fairly easy to measure due to France’s unique two-round electoral system: the percentage of votes won in the first round by Macron’s La Republique en Marche are fairly indicative of how many voters actually wanted Macron as president in 2017. That number sits at 24 percent, just above the next three most popular candidates. Opinion polling from Ipsos also shows that only 38 percent of voters think that Macron would be a good president in 2022. Despite the supposed “consensus-building” nature of FPTP, this is the highest rate of positive responses among the twelve candidates voters were asked about. Not a single candidate has a positive net favorability (Républicain Xavier Bertrand came the closest).

The unpopularity of every presidential candidate could be chalked up to a skepticism of politicians in French culture, but that skepticism is well earned in a country where former presidents are convicted of corruption, as Nicholas Sarkozy was recently. Such corruption among politicians in positions of power cannot be separated from the fact that, under FPTP, unpopular politicians can win. Sarkozy is somehow still France’s sixth-most popular politician, which may reflect how jaded the French have become when it comes to their political class.

In the face of this broad disillusionment, xenophobia and racism seem more effective at motivating people than the economic, environmental, or social justice ideals espoused by left-wing parties. Left-wing voters may also be more likely to compromise, and “hold their nose and vote” for a centrist candidate like Macron (In 2017, most of those who voted for leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round supported Macron in the second, despite the ideological gulf between the two). Thus, the rise of the populist far-right.

In the wake of the gilet jaunes protests in 2018, Macron convened a citizens’ assembly on climate change. One hundred and fifty French citizens were selected at random (adjusted to reflect the country’s demography) to learn about, debate, and propose climate policy to the national assembly. This radical but intuitive experiment in direct democracy was meant to pacify protestors who felt as if the French government did not represent them.

The assembly gave Macron a laundry list of innovative and workable proposals, but few of them were ever brought in front of the National Assembly, despite Macron’s promise that all of them would be. Ignoring proposals endorsed by assemblies representative of the people in the name of adhering to the centre underscores the government’s disconnect from its citizens, and justifies feelings of disillusionment. This perception of a callous political class, and the subsequent rise of politicians like Le Pen, are encouraged by the FPTP system.

This is not to say that a switch to a system of proportional representation à la Fourth Republic would necessarily fix these problems. Israel, which held elections recently (for the fourth time in two years), is a perfect example of how proportional systems can lead to unstable government, a corrupt political class, and also make citizens feel unrepresented.Rather, the consistent use of citizens’ assemblies and genuinely listening to their proposals, can build trust between French citizens and their government. French political scientist Helene Landemore has even advocated for a shift to citizens’ assemblies as the primary means of drafting legislation. However, even if citizens’ assemblies are convened, more will need to change in the French political system for their proposals to be heeded. The current FPTP system will only continue to create disillusionment and aid political extremism rather than suppressing it. If Le Pen wins in 2022, the notion that first-past-the-post suppresses extremism will be officially outdated.

Graphic by Amy Lim