OPINION: France has too many elections and it’s killing politics

After time spent on the election trail with parliamentary candidates John Lichfield looks at the biggest threat to democracy in France - the many voters who simply no longer care.

OPINION: France has too many elections and it's killing politics
Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP

France has the most cumbersome election system in the democratic world, punishing for politicians and exhausting for voters.

 Britain, Germany, the United States – most countries in fact – scrape by with one election day to choose an executive and a parliament. France requires four election days in a little over two months.  

READ ALSO What happens on Sunday and why are these elections important?

Many reasons are offered for the declining turn-out in French parliamentary elections. Voter fatigue is rarely mentioned.

I went campaigning this week with a young centre-right candidate in Chartres, 80 kilometres south west of Paris. The reaction of local people to the sight of a politician (any politician) was disturbing.

Remember “Brenda from Bristol”, who became famous for saying “Not another one” when Theresa May called a snap general election in Britain in 2017?  This week we met dozens of “Charlottes from Chartres”:  people in the age-group which does still vote in large numbers (50-plus). They fled at the sight of a campaigning politician.

Those people who did consent to talk to us were not so much anti-system as glibly anti-politics. They wanted politicians to do more about inflation or crime or hospitals but they did not want to engage in any discussion of political process or elections.

The pollsters say that the turn-out in the first round of the parliamentary election this Sunday (the third election day in  seven weeks) will be the lowest in the 66 years of the Fifth Republic. Most polls predict that only 46 to 47 percent of voters will cast a ballot, compared to 74 percent in the Presidential election in April.

I fear that it may be even lower than pollsters predict. A pair of two-round elections in rapid succession may have seemed like a good system in a more deferential, less anti-political age. It has become a machine for destroying democracy.   

Admittedly, the lack of interest in what could be a pivotal parliamentary election also has other causes. Part of the blame must go to President Emmanuel Macron. He delayed a decision on a new Prime Minister and government for over three weeks, hoping to neutralize a parliamentary campaign which initially appeared favourable to his centrist alliamce, Ensemble!

This strategy has been a failure. The ragbag Left-Green alliance Nupes (Nouvelle Union Populaire, Ecologique et Sociale) has been allowed to dominate what has limply passed for an election campaign. The once floundering centre-right ex-Party of Government, Les Républicains, has recovered and may now win up to 70 seats.

READ ALSO Ministers, maids and ‘Wolverine’ – who’s running in the French parliamentary elections

Three weeks ago the opinion poll projections for the second round suggested that Macron would win a comfortable victory – taking up to 350 seats in the National Assembly. 

The latest polls suggest that he might still scrape a majority (289 seats and above) but may have to settle for the largest bloc. To govern France and push through the promised reform of pensions, schools and hospitals, Macron and his Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, would then have to make deals with the centre-right and a handful of independent centre-left deputies.

Belatedly, Macron’s people have started to ring alarm bells about the incoherent programme of the Left-Green alliance (massive new state spending; disobeying EU laws).  Please vote, they say, or an “electoral accident” might happen.

This is déjà vu all over again. Similar warnings were made in the last days before Round One of the presidential elections in April when the far-right leader Marine Le Pen was rising in the polls.  

It is as if Macron and his allies can think of only one way to win an election: the scarecrow method. Vote for us or look what you’ll get.

It might work again, especially between the two rounds next week. Some centre-right and hard-right voters will switch to Macron’s alliance rather than risk a government dominated by the hard-left, anti-Nato, anti-EU Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

But Mélenchon, although widely loathed, is not quite so effective a scarecrow as Marine Le Pen.  On a very low turnout, a surge of votes for one camp can produce a bizarre result.

In theory low turn-out is bad for Mélenchon and the Left. Their electorate is heavily weighted towards the young and less well-off and concentrated in metropolitan and inner-suburban constituencies. These are just the people and places which vote least in parliamentary elections.

But Mélenchon – whatever one thinks of his personality and programme – has generated enthusiasm and hope and momentum in the long-divided Left.  If he can get out his vote this Sunday and next – and Macron doesn’t –  the Nupes alliance could win over 200 seats.

Can it win the largest bloc of seats? Even a majority? Will Mélenchon be the next Prime Minister and reduce Macron to an impotent figurehead? No. Electoral accidents can happen but not quite so big an accident as that.

Less than 30 percent of French people say they want Mélenchon as PM. More than 50 percent say they want Macron to have another parliamentary majority, even if they are not willing to leave their homes to vote for it.

How can French voters be encouraged to take parliamentary elections more seriously? Rebuilding the system, possibly with a one round proportional system, is one of the reforms promised by President Macron.

But the country is now split three ways between the Left, Far Right and a Macron-compatible centre. A one round Proportional Representation system would produce a series of hung parliaments and revolving governments – just like in the 1930s and 1950s. 

It is a conundrum. But I learned one lesson from the Charlottes of Chartres this week. Too much politics (and too many election days) kills politics.

Member comments

  1. For most of the past five or six decades, the two-round system served presidential elections well. It allowed all kinds of oddball candidates to stand in the first round, thus giving the impression that every shade of political opinion was represented, but the run-off was always between the two heavyweight candidates representing the Conservative (RPR or whatever) and Socialist (PS) parties. It also served as a barometer to measure support for the far-Left (Moscow-aligned PCF). If the Socialist candidate won, he would allocate cabinet posts to the Communists in direct proportion to the vote for PCF boss Georges Marchais. If Marchais polled 15% or more, the Communists could expect four Government offices. If less, three. All this collapsed when first Marine Le Pen became electable, and then the PS post-Hollande suddenly imploded. Since neither Le Pen nor Melenchon is “presidentiable”, to use the French term, and the Conservatives have no heavyweight candidates, Macron won the presidential election fairly comfortably, but no party is likely to emerge from the legislative elections as a governing party.

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French military bans Russians from chateau over Ukraine war

The French military has banned Russian nationals from visiting the Chateau de Vincennes, a medieval fortress, tourist attraction and military site on the edge of Paris, due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, officials told AFP.

French military bans Russians from chateau over Ukraine war

Once the residence of French kings and among Europe’s best-preserved monuments of its kind, the castle is for the most part open to the public, including for tours, concerts, theatre plays and other events.

But although best-known as a tourist attraction it is also technically a military site, housing part of the French armed forces’ historical archives, to which access is restricted.

The mounted Garde republicaine – a division of the French military – are also partially based at the chateaux.

It is therefore covered by a French ban on Russian nationals entering army territory that was issued after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Each year some 150,000 people visit the chateau, paying €9.50 per adult admission.

But on July 28th, two Russian women were refused access.

“A guard at the metal detector asked to see my passport,” said one of the women, 31, who works as a journalist and has been in France for five months, having left Russia “because of the war”.

On inspecting the document, the guard informed her she couldn’t pass, the woman, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

Another guard also denied her entry and gave as the reason “because you are Russian”, she said, adding she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

Contacted by AFP, the defence ministry confirmed late Monday that it had, indeed, “restricted access to military installations to Russian nationals” because of the invasion.

But after media coverage and social media comment, the ministry contacted AFP on Tuesday to say that the guards had in fact “indiscriminately applied a rule established in February concerning all military installations”.

“This rule cannot be applied in the same way for strategic sites and for sites accessible to the public, such as museums,” a spokesman said.

The ministry said security staff would now be informed of the distinction “to avoid any further incidents of this kind”.

Russian journalists could, however, apply for an exemption, a ministry official added.

The majority of France’s most popular tourist sites have no military function and would not be affected by the ban. 

Since Moscow sent troops into Ukraine in February, France has taken in some 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, government figures show.

About 73,500 Russian immigrants lived in France in 2021, according to the national statistics office Insee.

There has been debate within the European Union about whether further limits should be placed on Russians visiting the bloc for tourism or personal reasons.

Russia’s neighbour Finland last week issued a plan to limit tourist visas  for Russians but also emphasised the need for an EU-level decision on the matter.