Don’t let the French president get elected by chance

In yesterday evening’s edition of France’s daily “quality” newspaper Le Monde, Guy Carcassonne and Olivier Duhamel made an interesting suggestion for revising the French Constitution, one in which I have myself believed since 2002. Remember, that was the year in which M Le Pen, the candidate of the extreme right, qualified for the run-off in the presidential election, beating the socialist candidate, M Jospin and ensuring the victory of M Chirac.

The suggestion, then, to avoid this happening again is quite a straightforward one: that if the two candidates who are ahead in the first ballot haven’t obtained enough votes to ensure they represent a meaningful proportion of the electorate, an additional, “intermediary” ballot should be organised:

Cette solution consisterait à introduire la possibilité d’un tour intermédiaire si moins de deux candidats ont réuni chacun 20 % des suffrages exprimés au premier tour.

Si plus de deux candidats ont dépassé ce seuil, rien ne change et les deux qui sont arrivés en tête s’affrontent normalement au second tour. Si moins de deux candidats ont atteint ce seuil, un tour intermédiaire est organisé, dès le dimanche suivant, auquel participent les quatre candidats qui ont obtenu le plus de suffrages au premier tour. Les deux premiers dans ce deuxième tour participent seuls au tour décisif, quinze jours plus tard. L’élection, dans cette hypothèse, ne prendrait qu’une semaine de plus.

Si ce système avait existé dans le passé, il aurait joué deux fois. En 1988, le tour intermédiaire aurait redonné une chance à Raymond Barre, peut-être plus apte que Jacques Chirac à l’emporter sur François Mitterrand. Jean-Marie Le Pen eût également été présent, mais seulement à ce tour intermédiaire, à la différence de 2002, où Lionel Jospin et François Bayrou auraient disputé au moins un tour de plus.

L’on peut juger tout cela, a priori, bien compliqué. Toutefois, premièrement, c’est assez aisément explicable et compréhensible, et pourrait provoquer un consensus entre droite et gauche, contre lequel même les extrêmes auraient du mal à s’élever. Deuxièmement, de deux choses l’une : ou le dispositif ne sert jamais, et rien n’aura changé, ou il devra être activé et l’on sera alors bien heureux qu’il existe [i].

(G. Carcassonne and O. Duhamel, Le Monde, March 8, 2006)

The risk is far from theoretical. French politics is much more fragmented than it is in the old Anglo-Saxon democracies. It’s quite likely that in 2007, there will be six or seven candidates who, initially at least, will stand some chance of making it to the runoff. Consequently, the likelihood that both the second-ballot candidates will have more than 20 per cent of the vote in the first—a reasonable requirement—is far from high.

I’m not at all a believer in constitutional tinkering. But this small change would be a very welcome one, if not before 2007, then at any rate afterwards.

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  1. Our solution consists in introducing the possibility of an intermediary a ballot in the event that fewer than two candidates obtain 20 per cent of the votes cast in the first ballot. If more than two candidates exceed that threshold, nothing changes [compared with the present arrangements) and the two candidates who come ahead in the first ballot compete in the second. If fewer than two candidates exceed that threshold, an intermediary ballot is held the following Sunday, between the four candidates with the most votes in the first ballot. The two leading candidates in the intermediary ballot then take part in the final ballot, two weeks later. In this case, the election would take just one extra week. If this system had existed in the past, it would have been applied twice. In 1988, the intermediary ballot would have given Raymond Barre, who may have been in a better position to beat François Mitterrand, a second chance. Jean-Marie Le Pen would also have been included, but only in the intermediary ballot, in contrast with 2002, where Lionel Jospin and François Bayrou would have participated in at least one further ballot. This may seem too complicated. But first, it is actually easily explained and understood. It should also be the object of consensus between left and right, and the extreme parties will find it difficult to argue against. []