Tue May 8th, 2012 at 08:06:50 AM EST
Now that the presidential elections are behind us, the next challenge for the PS and President-elect Hollande are the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday, June 10 (first round) and June 17 (second round).
It looks like we, the French, love the republic so much that we wanted several of them: France's current political regime is called the Fifth Republic, and was established by de Gaulle in 1958.
It is said that the 1958 constitution was tailor-made for de Gaulle and turned the Fifth Republic into a 'presidential regime', like the United States or Mexico, as opposed to, say, Germany or Italy, where the presidential position is mostly honorific and the real power is with the Federal Chancellor or the Prime Minister.
However, even under the Fifth Republic, the President is still very much dependent on the Parliament: the President appoints the Prime Minister and the cabinet members, but the National Assembly, the lower house of the Parliament, can overthrow the government by voting a censure motion (it has happened only once, in 1962).
frontpaged - Nomad
Parliament does matter
This is why it is crucial for any Fifth Republic President to be supported by a majority at the parliamentary majority at the National Assembly. This was the case for the first 20 years when the Gaullist party and its allies held both the presidency and both houses of Parliament.
Come 1981: François Mitterand is elected President but the National Assembly is still leaning right. Mitterand logically decided to dissolve the National Assembly and call for early elections. Thanks to the two-round system, and although the PS got 36% of the vote nationwide in the first round, it was enough to have an absolute majority of seats at the end of the second round.
In 1986, the right won the parliamentary elections and Mitterand had to name Jacques Chirac Prime Minister: a so-called 'cohabitation'. For the next two years, there was a tug-of-war between the two men, each trying to exercise as much power has possible and testing the constitutional limits. A similar 'cohabitation' happened after the 1993 elections (Mitterand named Edouard Balladur PM; among the Cabinet members was a junior Minister named Nicolas Sarkozy).
Lastly in 1997, following some of his advisers, Chirac decided to dissolve the National Assembly and call for early elections, in a gambit that was expected to give him a parliamentary majority until the end of his term in 2002. It didn't pan out as expected, since the PS won the majority instead, and Chirac named Lionel Jospin Prime Minister; but one of the effective consequences is that, since 2002, the parliamentary elections are taking place about a month after the presidential elections, especially now that the length of the presidential term has been changed from seven years to five years, exactly the same as the term for the National Assembly MPs.
Possibly because of the memories of the past 'cohabitation' periods, the parliamentary elections occurring in the aftermath of the presidential ones always have given a majority to the newly elected President: this is exactly what President-elect Hollande is expecting and one of his first orders of business.
A two-round, district-based system
The parliamentary elections are organized on a two-round system in each electoral district: a district is supposed to represent about 110,000 people, but gerrymandering has been a longstanding French traditions and - supposedly more conservative - rural districts tend to be smaller population-wise than urban ones.
A candidate receiving an absolute majority (>50%) of the vote in the first round is elected: in 2007, 109 MPs (out of 551) were elected in the first round.
When no candidate gets an absolute majority, a second round is organized one week later between all candidates having received a number of votes representing at least 12.5% of registered voters. This means that more than two candidates can run in the second round (unlike in the presidential election). In practice, because of the alliances between different parties, most third position and further candidates are withdrawing from the second round and supporting one of the two candidates who arrived ahead in the first round. 'Triangular' or 'quadrangular' second rounds have been the exception until the late 1990s.
But now, some parties are not playing ball, most notoriously the Front National, who has vowed to maintain its candidates in the second rounds 'whenever possible', with the avowed aim of creating maximum pain to Sarkozy's UMP party and achieve an 'implosion of the right wing'.
Small parties 'excluded' from the National Assembly
The FN's strategy is more disruptive than anything else, because it actually has little hope of gaining any seat in the upcoming assembly. The two-round, district-based system has one practical side effect: smaller parties have little hope of gaining any seat at all, barring an electoral agreement with larger parties.
Effectively, it doesn't matter for a political party to get 15% or 20% of the vote nationwide: there must be at least one electoral district where its candidate manages to get a majority (even relative) of the votes in the second round. For the FN to get seats, it would take either its candidate getting more votes than the PS and UMP candidate in a 3-way or 4-way second round, or the UMP candidate withdrawing and supporting the FN candidate: several UMP people have called for such an electoral agreement with the FN, but the UMP leadership have always resisted such an alliance... so far.
The communist party (PCF), despite getting less than 5% of the vote nationwide in 2002 and 2007, still managed to get 15 seats in the outgoing assembly thanks to its stronghold districts where its candidates could manage a majority, oftentimes with the PS calling for the PCF candidate in the second round.
The Greens have also been disadvantaged by the electoral system: for years, they had no seats at the National Assembly, despite a 10%-ish overall score. In the past decade they managed to get up to five seats thanks to formal or informal electoral agreements with the PS: for instance, in my own district, the Green candidate got more votes than the PS one in the first round of a special election back in 2010 and the PS candidate decided to withdraw and support the Green. For the upcoming elections, the PS and EELV have a formal agreement where the PS will directly support Green candidates from the first round on, in 60 electoral districts.
The Parti de Gauche (PG) which is led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and is one component of the Front de Gauche, along with the PCF, will run candidates in 100 districts, with PCF candidates running in the remainder. Although there are no formal agreements with the PS, it is expected that should a FDG candidate get more votes than the PS one in the first round, the PS candidate would withdraw and call for the FDG in the second round(and vice-versa).
As much as the two-round, district-based system excludes many small parties from gaining seats at the Assembly, it often allows a contrario the dominant party to gain an absolute majority of seats with30 to 35% of the national vote in the first round: this was the case for the UMP in 2002 and 2007, also for the PS in 1981.
In summary, some of the major issues for next month elections:
- Will the PS (plus the Greens) get an absolute majority of seats?
- Will the Front National manage to have one or more elected representatives? (and will some UMP ally with the FN?)
- How many seats will the Front de Gauche obtain?
- <your own question here>