Charles de Gaulle saves France again: The National Front is boxed out by France’s electoral system

Charles de Gaulle from beyond the tomb is again saving France from the French, i.e. from the French people’s penchant for periodic self-immolation. The first time, in 1940, he rejected the armistice with Nazi Germany, denounced the Vichy government and led the WWII Resistance to Hitler. The second time, in 1958, he was called back to power to short-circuit civil strife and extricate France from its doomed Algerian War. His price was agreement to create the Fifth Republic on the ashes of the Fourth. This time around, the electoral system he designed in the early years of the Republic boxed Marine Le Pen’s National Front from winning even one of France’s thirteen regional governments after its first-ballot surge made it “France’s largest party”. It’s not. The FN is France’s largest party only in the first round of two-round elections.

Predictions of FN triumph were so wrong because of weak knowledge of French history and political institutions. The Fifth Republic’s electoral system is a permanent safeguard against the likelihood that extremist parties can win power. It not only handicaps the National Front today, it confounded the French Communist Party during all the decades of the cold war when the PCF, like the FN, had a quarter of the electorate. Boxing out extremist parties is not automatic, however. It requires that mainstream parties put national interest above party politics when the issue is facing off a party like the FN or the Communists. In the regional runoff ballot last Sunday, President François Hollande’s Socialist Party withdrew candidates to support former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right “Republicans” against the National Front. Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls didn’t hesitate to ask this sacrifice even though some ideological Socialists were outraged.

The French electoral system is a mixed form whose structure and logic is hard for Americans to understand. There are two rounds of voting, whether parliamentary, regional or presidential elections. In the first round of parliamentary or regional elections several parties run candidates in single-seat constituencies. Rarely does any candidate get the fifty percent on the first ballot necessary to win outright. The second round, two weeks later, opposes the two leading candidates. Necessarily, one of them gets the required fifty percent.

In presidential elections there are also two rounds of voting. In the first there might be ten candidates from parties big and small. In the second vote, the top two first round candidates face off and one of them gets a majority. (In the U.S. it’s the same except in a few instances historically where the Electoral College system gives the presidency to a candidate who didn’t win the most votes.)

French voters are obliged to choose one of the runoff candidates, whomever they voted for on the first round. Those whose first ballot choice didn’t make the runoff vote for their second choice. In effect, the first ballot in French elections resembles the party primaries in American politics where a contest of leaders and ideas results in a party nominee that takes on the other party’s nominee in the general election. Majority voting is the basis of the two-party system in the U.S. and why third parties are always short-lived.

What’s the point of two-round voting? In France, on the first ballot people vote their heart, on the second they vote their brain. First ballot voting is ideology, the second is about choosing the better or less-obnoxious of two run-off candidates. (Americans understand this as “anybody but X” voting.) Someone might vote FN on the first ballot in full knowledge its candidate has no chance to win. Or else as a kind of protest vote against the party in power, not because they actually want Marine Le Pen to run the country. On the second ballot people vote as a matter of realism. Either way a big first-ballot showing by the FN is nullified because it will hardly ever get to fifty percent on the second ballot, only where its vote is highly concentrated. The Socialists, Republicans and smaller parties gang up against it. In a majority runoff any party needs allies. The FN’s problem is precisely that it has no allies.

By the same token, saying the FN “collapsed” in the second round is a misconception. The FN’s meager result was predictable. Those not in the know said it might take six of the 13 regions. In fact, the FN had some chance to win, i.e. to get fifty percent, in only two regions, one in the north where Marine Le Pen was running, the other in the south where her even more strident niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen headed the cast of characters. They lost both, ending up with zero.

On the other hand, the FN’s electoral surge is certainly genuine. Whereas it got only ten percent in the 2010 regional elections, this time it won about twenty-seven. In the 2012 presidential first round, Marine Le Pen won 18 percent when Hollande and Sarkozy made the runoff. The FN’s increased presence in France’s regional and local governments will stimulate party activism and patronage about Marine Le Pen’s 2017 presidential candidacy. If the French and European situation goes wrong, conceivably she may get to the runoff ballot. But, as in the current election, a considerable majority would almost certainly coalesce to block her. Some cite the precedent of her father, the firebrand Jean-Marie who founded the National Front. Jean-Marie indeed made the runoff ballot in 2002 against Jacques Chirac, but only a fluke when the unpopular Socialist prime minister candidate ran a disastrous campaign. Jean-Marie then lost 80-20 percent to Chirac in the runoff. To call it a landslide was an understatement.

The upshot is this: Marine Le Pen is now alleging that the Socialists and Republicans “colluded” to keep her from winning. This is not demagoguery, it’s true. And it’s exactly what democratic politics often comes down to: avoiding the worst outcomes. As the proverb says, democracy cannot be a suicide pact.

One other scenario is conceivable, also resulting from the hybrid presidential-parliamentary Gaullist institutions. The FN might one day win enough seats in a parliamentary election such that Marine Le Pen becomes a viable candidate for prime minister. What should a Socialist or Republican president do at that point? Refuse to consider the largest party’s leader? Accept Le Pen as prime minister? Rejecting her would create a crisis of legitimacy. Accepting her would create a so-called joint, “cohabitation” government, a divided government in that the president and prime minister are opposed. Normally the president is superior to the prime minister but if the parliamentary majority is opposed to the president, the prime minister can block the president and even impose decisions on him.

Cohabitation governments have occurred on a few occasions in Fifth Republic history: President François Mitterrand with Prime Minister Jacques Chirac in 1986, then Mitterrand and Edouard Balladur in 1992, then President Chirac and Socialist Lionel Jospin from 1998-2002. Cohabitation government is a touchy business. With the radical political program of a wily, straight-talking political operator like Marine Le Pen, the stakes would be far higher than the humdrum differences between center-right and center-left, and this or that politician’s personal ambition.

The de Gaulle constitution has served France well but it’s not invincible. At the least, France’s mainstream politicians must improve. They have a responsibility to think deeper than the goal of trying to win elections. They must do better against populism at home and, in that, against populism in Europe as a whole.