Following the French presidential election was much more exciting than following the French legislative elections. Following the first round last week, today’s results have made things very clear; the results are disappointing for the left. The president’s party, La République en Marche, won a crushing plurality of votes, and have won at at least 341 seats, accounting for their ally MoDem’s gains.
La France Insoumise and the Parti Communiste Francais, while making it through to the second round in 79 constituencies, won only 27 seats. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is among those who made it through, and he won his seat in Marseille. But it is a defeat, and a disappointment. While across the channel the drama of the resurgent Labour party played out under Jeremy Corbyn, in France the radical left, the reformist left, and the center left were put down.
While the practical outcome of the vote is demoralizing, the real picture has a little more nuance. Legislative elections generally have lower turnout than presidential ones, and this was no different. But for the first time in the history of the 5th Republic, more registered voters abstained, voted blank, or spoiled their ballots than those who did vote. In an electorate of around 39 million, just over 17 million chose a candidate. 22 million made the choice not to.
In the second round of the presidential election this was a heartening thing. The lesson I took from it was that many French people could endorse neither a neoliberal banker nor a fascist. I think the lesson for these elections is different though, and hardly encouraging. As Le Monde pointed out, the radical left won not many more seats than they won five years ago, “while at the same time, Jean-Luc Mélenchon progressed eight points between the presidential [elections] of 2012 and of 2017.”
Mélenchon won 7 million votes in the first round of the presidential election. In the first round of legislative votin FI won just below 2 and a half million votes. Add the PCF vote and they scored around 3 million. That’s 13,74% of all the votes cast, but in a reflection of how few votes were actually cast, only 6,54% of the electorate. And that is abysmally poor. In the second round they got a third of those votes, hardly over a million. LReM rustled up 6.4 million votes the first time around, taking 28,21% of the electorate (32,32% and 7.2 million with the help of the “centrist” Modem and its leader Francis Bayrou, an early and enthusiastic ally of Macron).
Is it fair, in a national assembly, for a political bloc that received only 32% of the vote in the first round to win 62% of the seats? Is it fair for that bloc to win those seats with 48% of the vote in the second round? An absolute majority in the assembly requires just 289 seats, and an absolute majority is what the party has. That party will be a rubber stamp for Macron’s “startup” ideology. When Macron calls for France to “think and move like a startup “ one might ask how Macron can genuinely compare a centuries (or millennia depending on what historiography you agree with) old nation to four programmers in a loft trying to make an app. That would be generous though, and assume that Macron is doing anything more than clothing an agenda of social cuts and war behind the cloth of tech culture babble.
Macron will get rid of the 35 hour workweek, which squares with his startup line, surely. At a startup you work long hours for little pay with only a slim chance of success. Most fail, and a huge amount of money ends up concentrated in the hands of the sometimes talented, but more often lucky or timely, few. So when Macron bleats his tune about this we should see it as an admission of the future he promises for France.
During the Presidential election, I quite admired the two round system. I thought it gave a chance to candidates who I admired like Mélenchon to become President. Looking at the legislative elections I think I have to reevalute this position. That’s not because the politics I support lost out. All politics aside from the right wing “centrists” Macron leads have lost out. Rather than giving an outsider the chance to make his case before the nation, the outcome of this system seems to be the elimination of outsiders and the consolidation of power in the hands of a tiny few. With a 56% rate of abstention, it truly is a tiny few; only 16% of the country really voted for Macron’s policies. An absolute majority is an unfair outcome; of those who voted, 48% voted for LReM and MoDem. That’s well above the vote of any other party, but like the recent Conservative Party win in England does not even reflect a simple majority of the population.
The other lesson to be drawn from the first round of the election is that Mélenchon’s movement does not extend beyond his personality. The rapid last month surge in the polls was dramatic, and made me think that France was on the edge of a Socialist-Humanist-Ecologist renaissance. What is more likely though, was that it was a combination of Jean-Luc’s charismatic personality and the death rattle of the French left in parliamentary politics.
With the huge rate of abstention and the rich tradition of politics on the street, there may yet be a massive resistance mounted against Macron’s agenda, but it is clear that Mélenchon’s movement is not as popular as he is. I hope his claim that “our people have entered into a form of general civic strike,” a diagnosis divined from that strong rate of abstention, comes true. And FI did not exist a year ago; Sunday it will be in the Assembly, having vanquished the Parti Socialiste as a political force with a future. FI will be very limited in what it can do. The LReM majority is too big. But FI and its allies will have a group in the Assembly. This means that members will get a place on permanent commissions which do the work of government. Those places are distributed proportionally to groups, which means that though FI seats will be limited they will be guaranteed a seat at the table. More important for the growth of the political movement into a political force is the public monies that forming a group guarantees to its members. Perhaps one bright political spot is that le Front National did not win enough seats, eight, to form a group. In terms of the health of democracy that optimism may be misplaced, because FN won more than twice the votes of FI, and if there was proportional representation the picture would be very different.
Le Monde’s projection would have FI winning 63 seats, with the radical left winning 84 seats in total. LReM would still have won the most seats, 162, but not enough to win an absolute majority. The soft left, including the ecologists and the now devastated PS would win 80 seats together.
On its face proportional representation seems difficult to argue against, it just seems too just. But is it? It depends on your expectation for representation. A system with proportional representation would not necessarily make an assembly more representative of the people it represents. When MPs are the choice of their constituencies, constituency work is ostensibly more important, because those representatives will be dependant on those constituencies for reelection.
However, those who argue for proportional representation echo the arguments I made above, that it’s unfair for a political bloc with 48% of the votes getting 62% of the seats, and by the same measure a political bloc that wins 5% of the vote receiving only 2% of the seats feels unjust. The second half becomes less unfair though when you look at the fact that FI won only 1.8% of the actual votes, taking into account those who abstained.
The other outcome of proportional representation would be propelling FN into becoming the third largest political force in the Assembly, an outcome that would vastly over represent their support, which is largely concentrated in small geographic enclaves. The reality of the moment is that so too is FI’s.
The practical outcome of proportional representation would therefore not have been particularly more representative than another form of representation. Some political forces would have a voice plenty louder than those who supported them. And the political outcome in France would have been LReM being dependent on Les Républicains for support. I have no illusions about the right wing character of Macron’s party, nor do I have any illusions that adding LR to the mix would improve the situation at all.
The alternative I favor would be Cardinal Voting, specifically “disapproval voting” where all candidates are given numerical rankings by voters, positive and negative, and once the numbers are added up the candidate with the highest overall score is elected. This would solve the problem of the runoff pitting two hated candidates against one another, and give a candidate who a voter might think has no chance but who they want to vote for the opportunity to register far greater support than they otherwise would have the opportunity to.
I have no projections to share reflecting a National Assembly with this configuration, and it may not have been very much different at all. But I would wager the rate of abstention would not have been so high. Gaël Sliman, the president of Odoxa, which does polling in France, told Francetvinfo that their analysis of opinion polling on why the rate of abstention was so high came down to the fact that many people concluded “the election was played out in advance,” and that LReM “was assured to win.”
Mounir Mahjoubi, Macron’s technology minister, has talked about introducing some electoral reform in the shape of greater proportional representation. The majority the government has won gives them an overwhelming ability to do so, but if the result is a super-charged FN gaining heavy political power it never could have in a more democratic system, there will be no more artful proof for the argument that “centrists” empower fascism.
The right is on the march in France. The country will experience great change over the next five years, much of it of great consequence for the society that so many of the French have fought so long to build. One change that would be welcomed, though, would be making sure France France votes under a system that empowers them to extricate themselves from the dangerous position they’re now in.