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Why do French elections normally have two rounds?

The Local France
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Why do French elections normally have two rounds?
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)

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.


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.


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. 


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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