Modern-day France has traditionally been credited for its very well-known reputation of being an exemplary democracy, firmly based in collectively established principles since Revolution times. Separation of powers, independence of judiciary and right of suffrage are some of the precepts which have helped form the contemporary French system. Nonetheless, it can be found recent evidence that the defence and appreciation of democratic values might be weakening in latter times. 2017 has been an election year in France, both presidential and legislative, and although Macron’s party victory was received with enthusiasm among the European political leaders, turnout in vote-castings was extraordinarily low, marking a historical record of 74.56% regarding participation in the second round of presidential election, held on May 7th, and an impressive 42.64% of turnout in the case of the legislative ballot, which happened on June 18th. Such data suggest not only a rise of abstentionism, but also a whopping difference in electors’ interest between presidential and legislative appointments. Why would French citizens reject implying themselves in the choice of their Assembly representatives, whose role is as crucial as that of their President?
In order to properly discuss the hypothetical causes of this estrangement and the possible effects it can entail, it will be fundamental to briefly draw the most relevant lines of recent French historical context. The Fifth Republic, established in 1958, had originally conceived presidential mandates of seven years of length, while Members of Parliament would be elected once in every five years. This system required a positive relationship between the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister, but in the 1980s a phenomenon known as cohabitation began to happen. Cohabitation consisted of the President and the Prime Minister being of opposite political sign, thus hindering normal collaboration between them. This occurred three times in a period of over fifteen years, and generally caused the President to dissolve Parliament and hold new legislative elections in order to try and reinforce their political party and damage the strength of the contrary. Irrespective of whether this objective was achieved or not, this situation repeated over time damaged institutional stability and liability of a vital democratic organisation such as the Parliament.
For this reason, in 2002 it was decided that both presidential and legislative elections would be held once in every five years, with less than two months of difference between them. The measure was highly successful since cohabitation has never happened to occur again, with a convincing victory for conservative right in both 2002 and 2007 ballots, a clear leadership for the Socialist Party in 2012 elections and the victory for centrist Macron in 2017. However, after four electoral appointments, some alterations in the logic and characteristics of French legislative elections are detectable. Since its beginning, the Fifth Republic had been defined by a moderate multipartisanship in its party system, with four parties obtaining a share higher than 15% of votes, and a relatively controlled index of abstentionism which oscillated around 25%. While these tendencies have remained in presidential elections (four parties obtaining approximately 20% of votes each and an abstention of 22.23% in 2017), in legislative vote-castings a very different pattern can be observed.
On the one hand, the traditional limited multipartisan system has drastically evolved towards a bipartisanship regarding popular vote in legislative elections. Although Members of Parliament are designated by a plurality voting, thus favouring parties which tend to concentrate in a particular region, evidence has it that since 2002 the majority of the vote has tended to converge to the two most voted parties in the previously held presidential elections. This propensity to coalitions was already explicitly stated in 2002, when Jean-Pierre Raffarin captained a broad right alliance called Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) which intended to offer a wide support for newly elected President Jacques Chirac by collecting votes from a vast political spectrum. This catch-all party strategy was subsequently employed in 2007 again by UMP and in 2012 by the Socialist Party (PS), with notable successes in the electoral day. As a consequence, opposition vote tended to focus in their most prominent party, be it PS or UMP, and the number of suffrages casted by the third most voted party dropped dramatically, from 14.21% for UDF (Union for French Democracy) in 1997 to 2.37% for NC (New Centre) in 2007.
On the other hand, turnout has spectacularly declined in legislative elections, as mentioned at the head of the article. While the minimum historical turnout for a presidential vote-casting was registered precisely in 2002, the year when changes were implemented, with a 71.6% of participation, abstentionism in legislative ballots consistently rose at a rhythm of around 5% between election and election, as can be seen in the graphic below. The most precipitous falls happened in 2002, 2012 and 2017, when for the first time in modern French history, less than half the constituency exerted their right to vote, resulting in a clear majority of the entire membership for REM (République En Marche!), the newly created President Macron’s party.
Graphic 2. Historical turnout in French legislative elections. [Source: Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-french-legislative-election/
The main arguments used to justify this dichotomy emphasize the traditional prominence of French presidential elections over legislative ballots even before 2002, given the attention and interest that the analysis of a certain public figure raises, in contrast to the opacity that mass political parties transmit to the population. This condition could have also determined another aspect that helped define the current situation such as the date on which elections are held. After an extremely intense, six-month campaign for presidential elections, disappointment and apathy seize a citizenship who does not feel committed enough to pursue an active implication for two more months which will eventually lead to a foreseeable similar result. Predictability has lowered competitiveness, and so has happened with turnout and social implication.
Although the future is uneasy to anticipate, a vital dilemma arises in the horizon. Stability and governability have been the top priorities for the Fifth Republic, but they have substantially transformed its party system and diminished citizenry’s faith in democratic institutions. When Parliament lacks of the major consent of the constituency, its legitimacy is unavoidably expected to collapse. This recent evolution proves that reforms are needed now, if France is to maintain its long-time liberal prestige.
- BARTOLINI, Stefano (1984). “Institutional constraints and party competition in the French party system”, published at West European Politics, Vol.7, issue 4, available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01402388408424499?journalCode=fwep20
- Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (INSEE) (2017). “Depuis 2007, moins d’electeurs votent à tous les tours des élections”, available at https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/3147276 [accessed on 01-11-2017]
- SAM, Cedric; SWARDSON, Anne and WARREN, Hayley (2017). “How Macron beat Establishment in France’s Legislative Elections”, published at Bloomberg, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-french-legislative-election/ [accessed on 04-11-2017]
- WOLINETZ, Steven B. (2006). “Party Systems and Party System Types”, in Handbook of Party Politics (SAGE Publications).