Proportionnal representation in France is not a lost cause !

by Eve Robert // Published March 16, 2009
I've been in the US for about 6 months now- and I have to say that I do miss my country. In France, we have wonderful wine and delightful cheese, we work no more than 35 hours a week, and have at least 5 weeks of holidays a year. College is almost free and health care is universal. I can tell you it has nothing to do with the "American way of life" .

But we do have a very important thing in common with the US: our voting system. Indeed, France and the U.S. are among the very few major well-established democracies to use winner-take-all electoral systems for their Congress. Opponents to proportional representation even evoke French constitutional history- notably the very instable French 4th Republic (1946-1958)- as a striking example of how PR leads to political instability, bad government, lack of a clear majority in Parliament, and the rise of extremist single-issue parties.

On the contrary, the instability of the 4th Republic mostly resulted from the lack of checks and balances and the overwhelming dominance of the Parliament among the institutions. Despite frequent government changes,  the 4th Republic was successful in implementing many crucial economic and social reforms, allowing for an outstanding modernization of the country. Historians are also increasingly highlighting how lively and deep the political debates were at the time, allowing for diversity of opinions and genuine consensus-building;- undoubtedly a result of the PR system used. In addition, the 4th Republic, far from seeing a rise in extremism, decimated the Poujadiste far-right. Our current, winner-take-all based 5th Republic has in contrast proved unable to stop the steady increase in the electoral support of the far-right (except for the very last election cycle, because of a recent, alarming trend towards bipartisanship).

But the 4th Republic is not our only experiment with PR. France has had 21 Constitutions through its long history, and the form of PR that we most frequently used (2nd Republic, 1986 elections…) is list-PR in countywide constituencies. Under that system, clear majorities in Parliament are very common. Indeed, a recent study by the Foundation for Political Innovation has concluded that all legislative elections since 1958 (except for the 1997 one) would have allowed a clear majority in the National Assembly if they had been conducted under such a voting system. More strikingly, our last, brief experiment with that form of PR (1986 elections) allowed for a clear, solid right-wing majority. In contrast, the following elections, conducted under traditional single-member district winner-take all, only allowed for a plurality of National Assembly seats for the Socialists. So much for the long lasting myth of PR "inefficiency". France currently uses various forms of PR for a wide range of elections: European Parliament Members, municipal councils in cities with more than 3500 inhabitants, and senators (even though they are indirectly elected by an electoral college) in some regions. And the ongoing debate about constitutional reform is generally focused on the idea that we should also change the way that we elect our National Assembly. Indeed, 11 out of the 12 2007 presidential candidates (i.e. all of them except …President Sarkozy) were in favor of using either MMP or list-PR for national elections. The Balladur Committee on Institutional Modernization, appointed by President Sarkozy in 2007 to formulate constitutional reform proposals, wrote, in its final report, that 20 to 30 Members of Parliament (about 5% of the MPs) should be elected with list PR. Unfortunately, (but not surprisingly- since his party has a wide majority under the current system) President Sarkozy did not include this proposal in his Constitutional Reform Bill, which was adopted last summer. But this refusal to consider any meaningful electoral reform in the bill triggered a NO vote by the main opposition party (the Socialist Party).

There are many reasons why proportional representation is gaining such momentum in France: citizens don't feel represented by the two major parties anymore; the redistricting currently going on is widely seen as an antidemocratic, partisan gerrymandering process; the Parliament is becoming a mere rubber stamp for decisions made at the UMP Party headquarters or in Sarkozy's office. It is probably only a matter of time before we finally adopt a balanced, representative, more democratic electoral system.

Read the Balladur Commission White Paper in english and learn everything you should know about French Political institutions here.