Mayoral Elections in Paris: Lessons from its Electoral College-type system

by Jules Leconte // Published August 9, 2010
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As an American invention, the scope of the Electoral College has largely been restricted to the United States. Countries turning to representative democracy in the 19th and 20the century were generally content to go straight to popular vote elections.

One notable exception is Paris as well as several other major cities in France. It turns out that the French are fond not only of American cheeseburgers and Hollywood movies, but also make use of its electoral system. Although France elects its president in high turnout national popular vote elections, its three largest cities, Paris, Marseille and Lyon elect their mayors in a way that is strikingly similar to how American presidents are elected.


Paris, the capital, is a city of two million people. It is divided in twenty arrondissements or city districts that are demographically, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, much like the fifty United States. Parisians do not elect their Mayor directly, but vote for 518 District Councilors in twenty separate elections, with one of their responsibilities being to elect a mayor for each city district. The highest ranking 163 councilors also sit on the City Council on top of their local responsibilities. These 163 people are the ones who elect the Mayor of Paris.

The problem, similar to one of the inequities of the Electoral College, occurs with the allocation of Council positions. A city district is meant to have twice as many District Councilmen than City Councilmen, however all districts are guaranteed a minimum of 3 City Councilmen and 10 District Councilmen. This creates a notable bias towards smaller districts. For example, the four smaller districts (I-IV) and their combined population of 100,000 accounts for a total of 12 city council seats. This is one more than the city council seats from the 11th District, that has a population count 50% higher than the population of Districts 1-4.


Another similarity to how the Electoral College works is tied to a focus on “battleground districts.” The main left-wing party is dominant in the northern and eastern parts of the city which are more populous and diverse. The right-wing party’s strongholds, conversely, are in western and northwestern bourgeois Paris. This leaves very few ‘battlegrounds’ in between the blue and pink areas (V, XIV, XV) that are actually going to be contested in 2014, when the next election will take place.

Unlike most state statutes governing the Electoral College, not all district seats go to the winner for the district – but most do. The party that wins a district-wide election receives half of the seats (rounded up), and the other half is apportioned proportionally. That means that in most cases the winner takes about 75% of the seats. Recent campaigns have shown that while mayoral elections in Paris are not winner-take-all but ‘winner-take-most’, candidates hardly differentiate between the two methods.

The inevitable happened in 2001: Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist candidate, lost the popular vote but was nevertheless elected Mayor of Paris by winning three swing districts (II, IX, XII) with less than a two-point margin. The same thing occurred in the city of Lyon with a wider popular vote defeat in its similar electoral system. Analysts believe that a small, politically zealous social group, which is well-off but rejects traditional bourgeois code, tipped the election by settling in targeted, central districts (II, III, IV, IX).


Paris mayoral races further evidence that indirect elections do not force candidates to create large coalitions, but rather encourage them to divide the electorate. This election method disunited Paris by creating a ‘pink’ right bank and a ‘blue’ left bank, separated by the Seine River. Voters, more importantly, are not enticed to show up to the polls: the 2007 presidential elections caused both affluent and disadvantaged youth to register, as they were successfully appealed to by the two front runners. One year later, turnout was lower across the board, not because the stakes were less important (one could argue that they were actually more so, given France’s decentralization policies), but simply because many votes cast would have been irrelevant.

Electing the Mayor, albeit indirectly, is certainly a step in the right direction as the head of the Parisian executive branch was state-appointed before 1977 (essentially for the same reasons which prompted the Founding Fathers to discard democratic elections for president: most civil uprisings in French history were rooted in Paris). Making all votes count equally would perhaps not change election outcomes, but candidates would certainly change the way they currently lead their campaigns.


These mayoral races contrast with France’s national popular vote elections for president. Presidential candidates campaign differently than candidates for mayor. France, like any industrialized country, has a consistent ideological divide. Western France tends to side predominantly with progressive parties and Eastern France with conservatives. Nevertheless, in 2007, the two leading candidates, Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, both campaigned outside their comfort zone as this interactive map shows – with more or less success – without focusing their attention and resources on a particular area of the country. This analysis shows candidates on the right leaning on the traditional, Gaullist, rural base and simultaneously poaching green and working-class votes, while the left has campaigned on issues such as flag-burning.
French presidential elections are turnout games (which showed in 2007, with a record-high 85%) and encourage by nature cross-party appeals. You will have noticed by now that the exact opposite occurs in the American political system: Presidential candidates pander to a few swing states while congressional and gubernatorial candidates campaign everywhere in their state. Thus, the key decisive component of a campaign strategy is not the position sought by a candidate but the rules that administer the election.

Popular vote elections (as in most city-wide, congressional and gubernatorial elections in the United States) must focus on the voter to be won, whereas indirect elections (like the U.S. presidential or Paris mayoral) create incentives to game the system and disregard the voters’ interests by driving them apart – regardless of which country they occur in. While candidates, ultimately, are for winning and against somebody else winning (any and all alterations of voting method will not change that fact), allowing all voters to make their voice heard does change politics for the better – comparing national popular vote elections for President of the French Republic with the Electoral College-type system for Mayor of Paris provides one of the clearest examples of that fact.