French Parliamentary Elections: The First Round

June 11, 2012, Monday/ 15:51:00

On Sunday June 10th, France will vote for a new National Assembly. All 577 members are up for election and the stakes are very high. In many ways they could not be higher.

The French electorate voted last month to elect its first socialist president since 1989. After his inauguration, President Hollande created an interim government, but lacking a majority in the lower house of parliament, he could not implement any of the election pledges that he had made during his electoral campaign. 

Heading the list of promises made which need to be approved by parliament are actions related to the Euro zone crisis and ratification of a budget responsibility pact agreed to earlier this year. The president had vowed to the nation that he would fix the precarious state of public finances within five years - without undertaking painful austerity measures. He had indicated that this was possible through levying higher taxes - mostly targeting the rich - which would fund key policies such as education and the creation of 150,000 public-sector jobs.

That is why the forthcoming parliamentary election is so important for all the political parties in France. The socialists are determined to gain control of the National Assembly in order to be able to carry out their proposed policies. The French conservatives, on the other hand, are equally motivated to maintain their majority in the lower house so that they can check the President of the Republic.

Method of Election

To become a member of the National Assembly in France, a candidate needs to fulfill three criteria. Firstly, he/she must contest a constituency. Secondly, in order to be elected in the first round, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast. Finally, the received votes must be at least tantamount to 25% of registered voters.

If, and only if, all three have been fulfilled, then the candidate is elected. Most candidates of course, are not able to clear all of these hurdles. Henceforth, another round of voting takes place a week later.

In the second round, all candidates who received at least 12.5 percent of the votes of the locally registered constituency voters are eligible to stand. In this final run-off, the candidate who receives the largest share of the votes is declared the winner. Therefore, it would be correct to identify the second round as being closer to the British first-past-the-post system. The only slight difference is, candidates who received less than 12.5% in the first round are not permitted to stand in the second round.

Discouragement of Smaller Parties

What this usually means in practice is that the more extreme parties are weeded out in the first round so that the second round becomes a contest between the more mainstream political parties. Not surprisingly, in such an electoral system, smaller parties find it difficult to find representation in the National Assembly. However, there are exceptions to this general rule.

For example, a decade ago, in the 2002 parliamentary elections, the Communist Party received only 5% of the vote in the first round, but gained 21 seats. In the same election, the National Front received more than double their votes, 11% in the first round, yet was not represented in the lower house of parliament.

Therefore, the electoral system favours larger, middle-of-the-road political parties. Naturally, this narrows the current field down to two, namely the socialist party, and the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

French Political Duopoly

The socialist party, as can be expected, is in very high spirits due to the fact that they were able to secure the presidency for their candidate. For the parliamentary elections, however, rather than concentrating on their own political party, they have been very active in securing an electoral alliance.

They have succeeded in making agreements with the Greens, European Ecologists as well as the radical Left Party. They believe that such an alliance of political forces ought to be able to secure a majority in the National Assembly.

Their conservative opponents, the UMP, defending an absolute majority has followed suit and made electoral pacts with the New Centre and the centrist Radical Party. Should either of these major political forces fail to secure an absolute majority, they may very well look for parliamentary support to other political parties which they feel closer to in terms of policies and ideology.

For the socialists the most likely contender would be the more radical Left Front which is a conglomeration that houses both the Communist Party and the Left Party. They have organised themselves quite well for the forthcoming election and are fielding candidates in nearly all of the constituencies.

As for the UMP, should they lose their majority, they may look to the Centre for France and possibly even to the National Front, should they enter the Assembly to give them support. Although the latter scenario taking place would be a highly unexpected development to say the very least.

Opinion Polls

According to the latest opinion polls the socialists are the leading party. Alongside their allies they are polling at 36%, while the UMP alongside its own allies is predicted to receive approximately 32% in the first round of elections. The National Front is credited with 15% of the vote - approximately 3% less than what that their leader received in the first round of the presidential election. The Left Front is seen to gather the support of  9% and finally, the Centre for France to receive 4% of the national vote. If these poll predictions do indeed turn out to be correct, the socialists would be short of a majority and have to depend on the Left Front.

In terms of seats in the National Assembly, one poll predicts the socialists and their allies to receive between 303-357 seats. The socialist on their own, according to some, could receive 291 seats - which would be two more than what is required for an outright majority. The Left Front is predicted to receive 21-23 seats with the Greens receiving slightly less, between 17-23 seats. As for the UMP and its allies, they are expected to have between 209-255 members in the new lower house of parliament.

Another poll, whilst not disputing the general tendency of the electorate’s preference, does predict a differing distribution of seats in the National Assembly. Accordingly, the socialist party would win between 271-296 seats and the UMP between 230-267 seats. As can be seen, this poll is predicting a larger share of the seats in the National Assembly for both the Socialist Party and the UMP.

None of the polls so far have indicated that the UMP is likely to form a majority in the lower house. All of the polls predict that the outcome will be one of two possibilities. Firstly, the socialist win an outright majority on their own. Secondly, the socialists become the largest faction in Parliament and form a majority through an alliance supported by environmentalists and the extreme left.

Past as Prologue

The main question in the minds of political analysts with regard to voting intentions in the first round concerns what their original intentions had been in the second round of the presidential election. To put simply, did François Hollande receive votes for the policies that he espoused, or did the voters prefer him purely and simply because he was the only alternative to Nicolas Sarkozy? Therefore, one needs to be clear over which theme prevails in the most recent election that French voters participated in.

Did the theme of personality trump policy? Was François Hollande elected due to the widespread personal disaffection the French electorate felt towards Sarkozy? Or, were socialist policies the magnet for votes? The correct explanation of this dilemma will undoubtedly offer the best predication for the parliamentary election.

UMP woes

With only a few days to go before the first round, the UMP is in a considerably more difficult political position compared to the socialists. The latter have an identifiable leader who has very recently demonstrated that he is an electoral winner. The UMP, on the other hand, was led by the highly unpopular Sarkozy, who has since left the political stage after suffering an ignominious political defeat. The issue is, that very political stage on the right is, as yet, unfulfilled.

The party is struggling to portray a united front primarily due to the fact that it has not been able to come together and appoint a successor. The UMP has struggled in trying to create a consensus and an orderly transition towards a new unifying leader. It will most likely pay handsomely at the voting booth for this mistake.

Abstention

One key feature that both the conservatives and socialists are wary of concerns what may be termed "voter fatigue". France's forty-six million strong electorate will be asked to vote for the third time in less than two months this Sunday. Having voted in two rounds of the presidential elections, they face the prospect of another two rounds to elect a Parliament that will work in tandem with President Hollande.

At the last parliamentary elections held in 2007, the abstention rate was extremely high: 40%. This was considerably higher than the average first-round parliamentary abstention rate of 25%. If there is to be a repeat of five years ago, opinion polls will not be very helpful in predicting the outcome of the election. It will depend very much on each of the two major parties mobilising their support, rather than trying to convince the floating voter.

Hollande’s Hopeful Honeymoon

The French President earnestly desires to work with a socialist majority in the National Assembly as this will permit him to immediately repeal the increase in sales tax that his predecessor had agreed to which is scheduled to be implemented in four months’ time. Apart from opposing previous policies of Nicolas Sarkozy, he also desires to demonstrate that he has kept his word with regard to the budgetary legislation and pension laws to name but two.

Political honeymoons are very difficult to predict in terms of their duration. They are subject to the competence of its electoral conductor and to what the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously referred to as “events”.

Therefore, if France does not face a foreign policy crisis and President Hollande does not make a huge personal blunder in the next week or so, the socialist honeymoon will continue throughout the parliamentary election.

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