Could proportional representation work for France?

Proportional representation has made the French National Front more powerful in Europe than they are at home. [European Parliament]

France is mulling the introduction of proportional representation for its next legislative election. It could take inspiration from its European neighbours, all of which – bar the United Kingdom – use a version of PR. EURACTIV’s partner Ouest-France reports.

The crushing majority anticipated for Emmanuel Macron in this Sunday’s (18 June) legislative election has resurrected the question of proportional representation (PR) in France. The principle behind PR is simple: seats are allocated to parties in direct proportion to the number of votes they receive.

But the system conjures up bad memories of the political instability of France’s Fourth Republic between 1946 and 1958. During this period, France was run by 20 different governments in just three legislative terms.

Proportional representation has been used in only one legislative election in the French Fifth Republic: in 1986, when President François Mitterand wanted to limit the Socialist Party’s defeat against Jacques Chirac’s centre-right Rally for the Republic Party.

This system gives a voice to smaller parties by allowing them into parliament. Governments are often formed as coalitions of several parties, and are therefore more prone to instability.

France: Unique in Europe

France and the United Kingdom are the only EU countries not to use PR for parliamentary elections. France uses a constituency-based two-round majority system, while the UK uses a constituency-based one-round winner-takes-all system called First Past The Post.

Britain’s voting system is partially responsible for holding back women’s representation

The proportion of women elected to parliament in the UK remains low compared to other countries. Nevertheless, Chris Terry suggests switching to a system of proportional representation would increase the descriptive representation of women faster than is likely under the current First-Past-the-Post system.

Systems used by other EU countries are largely proportional, often with corrective mechanisms to increase political stability. In Greece, for example, the party that comes out on top is gifted 50 extra MPs, out of a total of 300, to ensure it is in a position of force when forming a government.

The German example

Supporters of PR in France often use Germany as an example that could be followed. The German electoral system is complex because each voter casts two votes on their ballot paper: the first for a constituency candidate; and the second for a national party. Half of MPs are elected in constituencies and half from party lists. But only parties that obtain more than 5% of the national vote are allowed into parliament.

For French onlookers, the negotiations of forming a government are the most attractive feature of this system. In 2013, the 470,000 members of Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party validated a deal negotiated by party leaders on forming a ‘grand coalition’ government with Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union.

Italy: The counter-example

Matteo Renzi tried – and failed – to reform the Italian constitution with a referendum on 4 December 2016. Parallel to the doomed constitutional reforms, the government managed to pass an electoral reform law for the lower house of parliament, giving the biggest party a large bonus representation in a bid to increase stability, similar to the Greek system.

Italy has had more than 60 governments in the last 70 years. Both houses of parliament are elected on pure proportionality and both have the power to topple governments. With regular elections and low turnout, majorities switch hands regularly.

Belgium offers quite a different example of the potential pitfalls of PR. Due to linguistically separated political systems and the emergence of a Flemish separatist party, it has become very difficult to form a majority government. The Plat Pays even went 541 days without a national government in 2010-11, after which a coalition of six parties finally rallied behind Walloon Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo.

France’s system excludes the National Front

European elections use PR, with seats allocated according to how many votes parties obtain. Since 2014, France has been represented by 24 National Front (FN) MEPs, out of a total of 74, on the back of a 25% vote share. So the extreme-right anti-EU nationalists have used the EU itself as a stage on which to build a stronger national presence.

Due to France’s two-round majority system and the so-called ‘Republican Front’ that often comes together to block extremists from winning run-off votes, the FN has almost no representation at national level, despite consistent vote shares between 15% and 25%.

Roundly defeated, Le Pen promises extreme-right renewal

The National Front’s defeated presidential candidate has called for France’s patriots to come together ahead of legislative elections in June. The message went down well with her supporters last night (7 May), despite the tense atmosphere. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.