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POLITICS

Why do French elections normally have two rounds?

When the French choose their next president, they go to the polls not once, but twice. Here's why France has a two-round voting system and what effect that has on the country's elections.

Brigitte Macron leaves a polling booth after voting in a French regional election.
Brigitte Macron leaves a polling booth after voting in a French regional election. We investigate why France uses the two-round majority system for presidential elections. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

Most French elections are voted on in a two-round system. 

This means that a range of candidates compete in the premier tour (first round) and voters can choose their favourite.

If one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote then they are the outright winner.

While this sometimes happens in local elections, it’s very rare in presidential elections, so then a second round (deuxième tour) is held, two weeks after the first.

The two highest-scoring candidates from the first round go head-to-head and voters go back to the polls to pick their favourite (or at any rate the one they dislike the least) of the final two.

In the Assemblée nationale, France’s lower parliamentary house, two-round system is used but it differs slightly in that there is no requirement to reach a majority. If no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round, a second round is held where all candidates that won more than 12.5 percent of the initial vote can compete. After this second round, whoever wins the greatest number of votes gains the seat. 

Only EU parliament and Senate (the upper parliamentary house) elections diverge significantly from the two-round system.

So how did France end up with this system? 

France voted to implement a two-round majority system for presidential elections in a 1962 referendum – the model was applied for the first time in 1965 when Charles de Gaulle was reelected.

Prior to that the French president was generally chosen by the parliament and other elected officials – the exception to this was during the Second Republic when Napoleon II was directly chosen by the electorate (male members of the public) during the 1848 presidential election with 74.2 percent of the vote. 

In the run up to the 1962 referendum, Charles de Gaulle campaigned in favour of having a two-round voting system with a directly-elected president. 

He believed that having a directly elected president would restore grandeur to the role of head-of-state and allow him to consolidate power in the executive. 

Bruno Cautrès, a researcher with the CNRS and Sciences Po said the idea was also practical. 

“In France the idea is that you need two rounds because we have a multi-partisan tradition but also a polarity between the Left and the Right. The first round of the election gives voters the choice of a variety of candidates reflecting a range of viewpoints.

“The second round is about regrouping the electorate around broadly left and rightwing blocs,” he said. 

The idea is that if your favourite candidate has been knocked out at the first round stage, you still get a say in which of the two remaining candidates you would prefer.

Advantages 

Some argue that the two-round majority system carries certain advantages. 

“It is a tradition in France that has never really been put in question,” said Aurélia Troupel, a political scientist at the University of Montpellier. 

In one-round first-past-the-post systems, such as those used in the UK and US, a party can win an election without winning an absolute majority of votes. Two-round systems are considered by some to be more democratic because the winner ultimately has to win the support of more than half of voters.  

“When we look at one-round systems, it seems to be very violent. We have a different political culture,” said Troupel.

Cautrès noted that this electoral system created “greater stability” than France had previously seen under the pre-World War II Fourth Republic. 

Disadvantages

Others are vehemently opposed to the two-round majority system. 

“It is full of disadvantages,” said Rida Laraki, a political scientist and researcher with the CNRS research institute.   

“In France when you have two or three candidates with the same view, sometimes even more than that, it completely splits the vote. Minor candidates with just 1-2 percent of the vote can completely change the result of the election.”

As an example, Laraki points to the 2002 election when during the first round, Jean-Marie Le Pen won the second highest number of votes after Jacques Chirac, who he ultimately lost to in the second round. Lionel Jospin, the socialist candidate was less than 1 percent off qualifying for the second round, but his vote was split by other left-wing candidates like Christiane Taubira. 

READ MORE Why the Left in France has declined into electoral irrelevance

He also notes that the two-round majority system can leave voters with an unappealing choice in the second round. 

“If people don’t like the candidates, they can abstain. If we end up with Macron versus Le Pen or Zemmour, these far-right candidates might win because of high abstention rates [among left-wing or centrist voters],” said Laraki. 

In general the second round of voting has a lower turnout than the first, although in theory people can skip round one and vote only in the second round.

Once the first round of polling is done, the candidates who didn’t make it through often endorse one or other of the final two and urge their voters to back them.

In the 2017 presidential election that saw Emmanuel Macron face-off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the second round.

Almost all of his defeated rivals urged their backers to support him as the ‘anyone but Le Pen’ candidate, but only 75 percent of people on the French electoral lists turned up to vote – the lowest level since 1969.

Laraki is one of the co-inventors of a new electoral system called “majority judgement”, which he believes should be implemented in French presidential elections – it is already being used for the upcoming “popular primary” in which a number of left-wing figures are competing to win the backing of voters as a single candidate. 

Within this system, voters are asked to grade each individual candidate. The candidate that has the highest median grade ultimately wins power. 

What are the dates for the upcoming presidential votes? 

The first round of the 2022 presidential election is on Sunday, April 10th. The second will be held on Sunday, April 24th. 

Two rounds of voting for the Assemblée nationale will then be held on June 12th and June 19th, by which point French President Emmanuel Macron will either have been sworn in for a second term or France will have a new leader. 

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JOHN LICHFIELD

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.

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