France May Introduce a Little Bit of Proportional Representation to its Legislative Elections

by Sara Helmi, Devin McCarthy // Published November 12, 2012


An election reform committee formed in July by French President Francois Hollande has recommended that France elect 10% of its National Assembly, the lower house of its legislature, using proportional representation. The committee, headed by former prime minister Lionel Jospin, suggested that these 10% be elected using a closed list form of PR--meaning that parties would select an ordered list of candidates and voters would vote for the party list of their choice. The system would work parallel to the winner-take-all, single-member district system, which would still elect 90% of National Assembly members. Each French voter would cast two votes for National Assembly: one for a candidate to represent their district, and one for their national party of choice.

It is doubtful, however, that this change would have a significant effect on the results of French elections. Because the 10% would be elected in a parallel vote and would not be compensatory--that is, assigned to parties to compensate for the distortions created by winner-take-all--it would only have minimal impact on the makeup of the National Assembly. 

In the June 2012 legislative election, for instance, the left-wing Socialist Party won 280 seats (49% of the total) with 29% of the first round vote, the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement won 194 seats (38%) with 27% of the first round vote, and the far-right National Front and communist Left Front won just 12 seats combined (2%) with 23% of the popular vote. Under the proposed electoral system, assuming everyone voted for the same party that they voted for in the first round, here's how things would change: the Socialists would have ended up with 269 seats (11 fewer), UPM with 190 seats (4 fewer), and the two radical parties 25 seats combined (13 more). That's very slightly more proportional, but not enough to give parties with broad but shallow appeal like the National Front a significant role in the legislature or change the balance of power between the major parties.

Nonetheless, the Jospin commission sets a positive example for the United States by showing that the French government takes electoral reform seriously. The Obama administration would make a good start towards "fixing that" by creating similar comissions to study improvements that could be made to American elections--proportional representation among them.