Election Resources on the Internet:
Presidential and Legislative Elections in France
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera
   

Voters in France, which held a presidential election on April 22 and May 6, 2012, returned to the polls on June 10 and 17, 2012 to choose members of the lower house of the French legislature, the National Assembly. An overview of the French electoral system is presented here.

For information about the electoral system of Greece - which also held another early parliamentary election on Sunday, June 17, 2012 - visit Elections to the Hellenic Parliament (Vouli).

The official results of the 2012 National Assembly election's second round (including thirty-six deputies elected on the first round of voting last June 10) were as follows:

   Party    Votes    %    Seats   
   Socialist    9,420,889    40.9    280   
   Union for a Popular Movement    8,740,628    38.0    194   
   Europe - Ecology - The Greens    829,036    3.6    17   
   New Center    568,319    2.5    12   
   Left Radical    538,331    2.3    12   
   Left Front    249,498    1.1    10   
   Radical Party    311,199    1.4    6   
   National Front    842,695    3.7    2   
   Centrist Alliance    123,132    0.5    2   
   Center for France    113,196    0.5    2   
   Other right-wing parties    417,940    1.8    15   
   Other left-wing parties    709,395    3.1    22   
   Others    165,050    0.7    3   

Voter turnout in the second round was 55.4%.

France's Interior Ministry has detailed 2012 legislative election results in French. National- and regional-level results are available here for the following presidential and legislative elections:

      President       National Assembly      
      April 22-May 6, 2012              
      April 22-May 6, 2007       June 10-17, 2007      
      April 21-May 5, 2002       June 9-16, 2002      

Nationwide results are also available here for the following presidential elections:

      April 23-May 7, 1995      
      April 24-May 8, 1988      
      April 26-May 10, 1981      
      May 5-19, 1974      
      June 1st-15, 1969      
      December 5-19, 1965      

The election statistics presented in this space come from data published by the Documentation française, the Constitutional Council of France and the Ministry of the Interior.


Historical Background

Although the 1946-1958 French Fourth Republic was a period of significant progress, in which the French economy engaged in a remarkable postwar recovery, as well as important accomplishments such as the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) by the 1957 Treaty of Rome (of which France was a founding member), it was also characterized by a lack of stable leadership: from 1946 to 1958, the country had no less than two dozen cabinets, which on average lasted about six months in office. In due course, the inability of the Fourth Republic to provide strong leadership to confront a major crisis led to its demise.

In May 1958, France seemed to be on the verge of civil war, as the leaders of the Fourth Republic appeared unable to agree on the formation of a new government to deal with the worsening crisis in Algeria, which had sparked a military insurrection. At the time, Algeria was under French rule, and since 1954 it had been experiencing an armed insurrection by part of the native population. The crisis stemmed from the fact that while France had already initiated its de-colonization process, granting independence to neighboring Morocco and Tunisia, sovereignty for Algeria was deemed unacceptable, as the presence of a large number of French settlers, which numbered around a million people (but only one-tenth of the population), made Algeria an integral part of France in the eyes of many French.

After all other alternatives were exhausted, General Charles de Gaulle, who had led the Free French forces in their fight against the Nazi occupation of France and their collaborators during World War II, was asked to become prime minister. He agreed to the request, with the condition that a new constitution providing a strong presidency be drafted, in accordance with his widely known preference for a strong executive. However, due to widespread concerns that a pure presidential arrangement might concentrate too much power in the hands of a single person - who could eventually decide to do without democratic forms - the constitution of the Fifth Republic, overwhelmingly approved by French voters in a September 1958 referendum, created a hybrid system with presidential and parliamentary features. To be certain, the power and prestige of the presidency was enhanced, but at the same time somewhat weakened parliamentary forms were retained. It should be noted that while abstractly analyzed, the parliamentary aspects appear to be more important than the presidential features, in practice the regime has been for the most part more presidential than parliamentary, in large measure due to the strong personality of the founder and first president of the Fifth Republic, General de Gaulle, who clearly dominated the political landscape during his tenure in office from 1959 to 1969.

Thus, while on one hand the constitutional arrangements of the Fifth Republic make the directly-elected president the leader of the nation, on the other one the prime minister, a presidential appointee, is in charge of selecting (in consultation with the president) the members of the Council of Ministers - the cabinet - and running the government. In conformity with standard parliamentary practices, the prime minister can be removed in a vote of no-confidence by the lower house of the French legislature - the National Assembly - although the constitution imposes somewhat strict limitations around this procedure.

(In addition to the National Assembly, which is directly elected by the people, there is an indirectly elected Senate with very restricted powers. If the Senate and the National Assembly are at odds, the existing constitutional mechanisms tend to favor the National Assembly.)

However, unlike in most parliamentary regimes, members of the cabinet cannot simultaneously belong to the legislature. In practice, it is usually the case that the person chosen for the position of prime minister enjoys the confidence of the president, his or her task being to implement policy goals emanating from the presidency - as well as to be at the receiving end of any political fallout resulting from the implementation of said policies, since the president, as leader of the nation, is not supposed to engage in petty politics. Thus, by attempting to combine seemingly incompatible presidential and parliamentary forms (the former requiring the separation of powers, the latter the merger of executive and legislature), the French constitution has its share of ambiguities.

In particular, the constitution is not clear as to what happens when opponents of a sitting president secure control of the National Assembly. However, this has been a fairly common occurrence since 1986, and in such cases an arrangement known as "cohabitation" has been developed, under which the president appoints a prime minister from opposing parties holding a majority of seats in the Assembly, and the system essentially reverts to a parliamentary form of government. Nonetheless, successive presidents have sought to exercise an influential role under such circumstances, most notably on matters concerning foreign policy.

The Electoral System

The president of France is directly elected by universal suffrage in two stages of voting. All parties take part in the first round, usually promoting their own candidates. However, presidential hopefuls are required to present 500 endorsements signed by elected officials in order to secure a place on the ballot. If no candidate obtains an absolute majority of all valid votes cast in the first round, then the top two candidates qualify for a runoff election, in which the candidate with the largest number of votes is elected to office for a term of five years.

Originally, an electoral college chose the president indirectly, but a 1962 amendment to the constitution established the popular election of the president by runoff voting. A subsequent constitutional amendment in 2000 reduced the president's term of office from seven to five years.

Popular voting for presidential elections was adopted at the behest of President de Gaulle, shortly after France came to terms with reality and finally granted independence to Algeria in 1962. With the crisis over, President de Gaulle's opponents sought to amend the constitution to restore the powers of the National Assembly, but de Gaulle outmaneuvered them by ordering a referendum on his proposed direct presidential elections amendment. Although the process was carried out in a manner contrary to the provisions of the 1958 constitution, French voters nonetheless approved the measure in an October 1962 referendum, by 13,150,516 votes in favor (62.3%) to 7,974,538 against (37.7%), on a 77% turnout.

The National Assembly is composed of 577 members elected every five years in single-member constituencies by the runoff voting system. Candidates who obtain both an absolute majority of valid votes cast and a vote total equal to at least one quarter of the registered electorate are elected in the first round. Otherwise, a runoff election is held among candidates polling a number of votes greater than or equal to one-eight (12.5%) of the electorate; if fewer than two candidates meet this requirement, the runoff is held between the top two candidates. In the second round, the candidate that obtains the largest number of votes is elected to office.

Under the runoff system, a simple majority in the first round does not guarantee victory in the second round: in 1974, 1981 and 1995, the winner of the first round of presidential balloting went down to defeat in the runoff election.

The Political Parties

From 1958 until 1974 the Gaullist Party - initially known as the Union for the New Republic (UNR) and subsequently (after several name changes) as the Union of Democrats for the Republic (UDR) - was by far the French Fifth Republic's dominant political force. Nonetheless, the opposition parties still commanded significant electoral support during this time period. In the 1965 presidential election - the first held by popular voting since 1848 - President de Gaulle failed to obtain an absolute majority in the first round of voting as François Mitterrand, the candidate of the left-wing parties, put up a stronger-than-expected challenge (while at the same time centrist Jean Lecanuet finished a distant third). Nonetheless, de Gaulle ultimately defeated Mitterrand in the second round. Likewise, the Gaullists rarely held an absolute majority in the National Assembly, and usually had to depend on the support of minor allied parties, most notably the right-of-center Independent Republicans (RI).

(The only time the Gaullists won an absolute parliamentary majority was in 1968, when the French people rallied around de Gaulle following the "events of May" earlier that year - a series of widespread student riots and workers' strikes that came close to toppling the Fifth Republic.)

In 1969, President de Gaulle resigned after French voters rejected a proposed reorganization of the regions and reform of the Senate in a referendum. In the ensuing presidential election, Georges Pompidou, who had been de Gaulle's prime minister from 1962 to 1968, easily defeated centrist Alain Poher; the left, badly divided, failed to make it to the runoff election. Under Pompidou, the Gaullists, which had initially sought to portray themselves as being neither left-wing nor right-wing, turned to the right. Meanwhile, in 1971 François Mitterrand took over the moribund Socialist Party (PS); under his leadership, the party staged a remarkable comeback in the 1973 National Assembly election, in which the Gaullists suffered heavy losses to the Socialists and the French Communist Party (PCF) - at the time the second most powerful Communist party in Western Europe (after Italy's).

President Pompidou died in office in 1974, and in an early presidential election, a significant number of Gaullists, led by Jacques Chirac, supported Independent Republican candidate Valéry Giscard d'Estaing over UDR candidate Jacques Chaban-Delmas (who had been prime minister under Pompidou from 1969 to 1972). In the first round, François Mitterrand, the joint PS-PCF candidate, topped the poll with a clear plurality but fell short of an absolute majority. As it turned out, Giscard, who had come in a strong second place - well ahead of Chaban-Delmas, who fared poorly in the election - went on to defeat Mitterrand in the runoff vote by a very narrow margin.

Upon assuming office, President Giscard appointed Chirac as prime minister. However, in 1976 Giscard clashed with the ambitious Chirac, who was forced to resign as head of government; he was replaced by Raymond Barre. Chirac then established the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) as the successor of the UDR, and in 1977 secured a power base when he was elected to the revived office of mayor of Paris. Meanwhile, Giscard brought together the Independent Republicans and several centrist parties under the Union for French Democracy (UDF) coalition, and in the 1978 National Assembly election, RPR and UDF secured a comfortable majority - in no small measure because the Socialist and Communist parties had broken off their electoral pact shortly before the event.

In the 1981 presidential election, President Giscard won the largest number of votes in the first round of voting, with a slight plurality over Mitterrand, the candidate of the Socialist Party; the RPR's Jacques Chirac arrived in third place and Georges Marchais of the Communist Party came in fourth, scoring an unexpectedly poor showing when compared to previous PCF results. However, in the second round Mitterrand secured solid support from the Communists and prevailed over incumbent President Giscard, who received only lukewarm support from Chirac. After taking office, President Mitterrand called a snap parliamentary election, in which the Socialists won an absolute majority in the National Assembly and subsequently formed a coalition with the Communists (even though their support wasn't needed at the time to keep the government in power). In this manner, the left assumed control of government for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, after twenty-three years of center-right political hegemony.

At this juncture, the French political system appeared to be evolving in the direction of two-pole, multi-party politics dominated by RPR and UDF on the center-right, with PS and PCF on the left. However, the rise of the far-right National Front (FN) as a major political contender in 1983-84 upset this balance of forces. Support for the racist and xenophobic FN, previously an insignificant force, increased dramatically as France grappled with a large and increasing population of (mostly Arab) immigrants, which were perceived as siphoning jobs and welfare resources that supposedly would have otherwise gone to French nationals. The FN attracted a sizable share of the protest vote that used to go in the direction of the PCF, but it also siphoned votes from the mainstream center-right parties.

Prior to the 1986 parliamentary election, it appeared almost certain the Socialists would not only to lose their majority in the National Assembly, but face a solid center-right majority in the legislative body as well. In an attempt to prevent the opposition from winning a decisive victory, the Mitterrand government changed the electoral law to a system of proportional representation (PR). However, while the Socialists remained the largest party in the National Assembly, the center-right parties still managed to win a very small majority; the National Front (which in all likelihood would have obtained no seats under the runoff system) secured parliamentary representation; and the Communist Party (which had left the Cabinet in 1984) continued to lose ground. Faced with this outcome, President Mitterrand vowed to reality and appointed RPR leader Jacques Chirac as prime minister; the new center-right government promptly moved to restore the old electoral law.

However, Mitterrand made it quite clear that he would not be reduced to a mere figurehead while being forced to "cohabit" with his opponents. As it was, the Socialists recovered much of the lost political ground in the next two years, and scored a significant victory in the 1988 presidential election by securing the re-election of Mitterrand over Jacques Chirac (RPR), Raymond Barre (UDF) and National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen (who nonetheless improved upon his party's 1986 showing); PCF presidential candidate André Lajoinie fared badly, polling fewer than half the votes won by Georges Marchais seven years earlier. Mitterrand then called an early National Assembly election, which he hoped would deliver a Socialist majority. As it was clear by then that such an outcome could only be achieved under the traditional runoff system, the Socialist government did not reintroduce PR. Although the Socialists failed to win the desired absolute majority in the parliamentary election, they were able to govern for the next five years with the help of either the PCF or dissident centrists from the UDF.

A new period of "cohabitation" began after the 1993 parliamentary election, when the center-right won an overwhelming majority of seats in the National Assembly, crushing the Socialists. Jacques Chirac chose not to become head of government in order to focus on the 1995 presidential election, and Edouard Balladur - who had been the second most powerful figure in Chirac's 1986-88 government - was appointed prime minister. However, Balladur developed presidential ambitions of his own, and ended up running against Chirac, his former mentor. Although Socialist presidential candidate Lionel Jospin fared better than expected in the first round and outpolled Chirac (with Balladur, the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Communist Robert Hue coming third, fourth and fifth, respectively - the latter two scoring modest gains over their parties' 1988 showing), Chirac managed to prevail over Jospin in the runoff vote by a clear (if not particularly large) margin.

In 1997, President Chirac called a National Assembly election a year ahead of schedule, hoping to at least retain a reduced center-right majority. However, the move backfired disastrously, and instead a coalition of Socialists, Communists, Greens and minor leftist parties won an absolute parliamentary majority. As such, for the remaining five years of his term in office, Chirac was forced to "cohabit" with a left-wing government headed by Socialist leader Lionel Jospin.

Chirac and Jospin faced each other once again in the 2002 presidential election. However, while Chirac topped the poll in the first round, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly edged out Jospin for second place in a crowded field of sixteen candidates, and the left found itself excluded from the runoff election for the first time since 1969. The election was also a disaster for the Communist Party: its presidential candidate, Robert Hue, not only lost about two-thirds of the votes he had won in 1995, but on top of that two far-left candidates - Arlette Laguiller of Workers' Struggle (LO) and Olivier Besancenot of the Communist Revolutionary League (LCR) - outpolled him.

In the second round, President Chirac, supported by both the center-right and (reluctantly) the left, was re-elected in a record landslide over Le Pen, and Chirac's new group, the Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP; later the Union for a Popular Movement), which brought together the RPR, most of the former UDF and Liberal Democracy (DL; a 1998 UDF breakaway), secured a large parliamentary majority in the National Assembly election held shortly thereafter.

Jacques Chirac chose not to stand for re-election in 2007, and the ruling UMP chose former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy as its presidential candidate. Meanwhile, Poitou-Charentes regional president Ségolène Royal secured the Socialist Party nomination in a party primary, becoming the first major-party female presidential candidate in French history. In the first round of voting, Sarkozy came in first place, followed by Royal; UDF presidential nominee François Bayrou arrived in a strong third place, but Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front had his worst showing since 1988, finishing a distant fourth, and the Communist Party fared even worse than in 2002. No candidate won an overall majority in the first round of voting, and in a runoff election between the top two candidates - the highly anticipated "Sarko-Ségo" showdown - Sarkozy won the presidential race by a clear majority over Royal.

Following Nicolas Sarkozy's triumph, it was anticipated that UMP would go on to score a landslide victory in the National Assembly election held a month after the presidential vote. However, while the results of the first round of voting favored the ruling party by a large margin, the runoff vote turned out to be unexpectedly close. Nonetheless, UMP had won a sizable number of seats in the first round, and the party retained a reduced yet substantial parliamentary majority. Both the National Front and François Bayrou's new Democratic Movement (MoDem) fared poorly in the election, but most of the UDF deputies ran under the "Presidential Majority" banner and retained their seats.

Nicolas Sarkozy ran for a second term in the 2012 presidential election, but in the April 22 first round of voting he arrived in second place, trailing Socialist Party nominee François Hollande. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front and daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen, finished in a strong third place, improving upon his father's showing in the 2002 presidential election. However, Democratic Movement leader François Bayrou came in a poor fifth place, behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the radical Left Front, which includes the Communist Party. None of the ten candidates in the race won an absolute majority in the first round, and in a runoff election held the following May 6, François Hollande defeated President Sarkozy.

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Copyright © 2006-2012 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: June 21, 2012.