France rethinks the wisdom of its presidential elections.

In the Age of Le Pen, France Is Rethinking the Wisdom of Directly Electing Its President

In the Age of Le Pen, France Is Rethinking the Wisdom of Directly Electing Its President

Events beyond our borders.
Feb. 27 2017 12:16 PM

When the Magic Is Gone

France’s directly-elected president is the most powerful head of state in Europe. In the age of Le Pen, is that still a good idea?

france pres.
French President François Hollande, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and former president Jacques Chirac.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images.

In September 2000, two months after I turned 18, I voted for the first time. Then-President Jacques Chirac had put forward a referendum asking the voters to approve a new system in which presidential elections would take place every five years instead of every seven.

More chances to choose the most powerful person in the country? Who could say no? Only 27 percent of the voters did—I was not among them. Seventeen years later, not only do I think that electing our president more often is not the panacea, but I think it might be time for France to give up direct elections of its head of state all together. In today’s political climate, presidential elections only serve to worsen the divisions and unease of the country, and they are not really efficient.

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France’s electoral system is unique in Western Europe. In most countries, the head of state is either a hereditary monarch or a president indirectly elected by parliament. These leaders leave most, if not all, of the day-to-day governance of the country to the head of government: the prime minister. In France, presidents are directly elected by the public and have substantial powers, making them the most powerful national leaders in the region. They can appoint and fire ministers, including the prime minister, almost at will, and submit bills to a national referendum. They can take extraordinary powers in case of a national crisis. They can also dissolve the lower house to provoke a snap election, and the electoral fate of the congressmen is so strongly linked to that of the president that their parliamentary majority is much more obedient than in the United States Congress.

The system has been credited with ensuring a modicum of continuity in the French political system which, before the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, was plagued by a recurring cabinet instability that the president could not really resolve. In May 1968, for example, President Charles de Gaulle was able to regain power during the student revolt by calling for snap legislative elections that his party won decisively. As the journalist Ghislaine Ottenheimer wrote two years ago in her book Poison présidentiel (Presidential Poison), “the diktat of the vast majority of the French elites reads as follows: the Fourth Republic was a calamity, a nightmare; the Fifth is a rock. And the election of the leader is the keystone.”

French elections are, in a sense, a direct coronation of an elected king by his people, a few million votes serving as a holy chrism. In 1852, Karl Marx wrote in his classic work “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”: “The National Assembly (...) exhibits in its individual representatives the manifold aspects of the national spirit, but in the President this national spirit finds its incarnation. As against the Assembly, he possesses a sort of divine right; he is President by the grace of the people.”

This spiritual notion of presidential power is still very much alive today. Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron recently responded to criticism of his lack of a detailed program by describing politics as “mystical.”

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The idea of changing this mystical system was once seen as sacrilege, but it’s a form of blasphemy that is becoming increasingly mainstream. In 2014, Thomas Legrand, a political columnist for Radio France, wrote a book titled Arrêtons d’élire des présidents ! (Let’s stop electing presidents!) in which he criticized an electoral system that raises “false debates, false divides, artificial bipolarity, populist infantilization.”

In another book published in 2002, Stéphane Baumont, a lecturer in public law at the University of Toulouse, described “an atmosphere of cold civil war” during presidential elections: “a bloc-against-bloc struggle which does not reflect any sociological reality.” When I asked him if the idea of changing the system had become more popular within academic circles during the ensuing years, he told me that the idea is still met by “the frequent assertion that suppressing the [presidential] election would suppress democracy or the Republic, as it is the one with the highest turnout.”

The presidential election is undoubtedly the most popular among voters: On May 6, 2012, 80 percent of registered voters turned out for the runoff election in which current President François Hollande narrowly defeated incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. By contrast, only 55 percent turned up for the legislative elections a few weeks later. These elections are also extremely important: They determine which party will run the government, which according to the French Constitution, officially “determines and conducts the policy of the Nation.” In reality, it is the president who does. But when his party loses the legislative elections, he has to appoint one of his opponents as prime minister and let him decide the domestic policies: It is what the French call cohabitation, and it’s been the case for 10 years out of the last three decades.

It’s possible French citizens simply can’t be bothered to spend their summer Sundays in the voting booth. But it hasn’t always been this way. Up until 2000, legislative elections frequently happened in the middle of a presidential term with much higher turnouts—typically between 70 and 85 percent. And the interest in electing presidents doesn’t translate into confidence in those elected or in the presidency itself. Though few have matched Hollande’s dismal approval ratings, opinion polls conducted during the past decade show that the French people also rate the presidency, as an institution, lower than the Parliament, and much lower than the officials who run their cities or their regions. The presidential election produces a very high turnout but also a very high disappointment. Legal scholar Paul Alliès has described it as a “vertical” and “neurotic” form of politics that “provokes emotional disturbances which citizens cannot get rid of.”

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At least, this presidential election is supposed to be efficient. After a first round, if no candidates pass the 50 percent threshold, a runoff between the top two candidates is held, ensuring that the winner will get a majority of the electorate. (This alone would probably make it appealing to Americans at the moment.)

But this system has its flaws, too. The first round typically attracts up to at least a dozen candidates and is prejudiced in favor of those with a strong electoral base rather than wide consensus appeal. In 2002, the incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac and the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of current leader Marine, got to the second round with less than 20 percent and 17 percent of the votes, respectively, whereas the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was eliminated with slightly more than 16 percent. While Jospin had been polling neck-and-neck with Chirac throughout the campaign, Le Pen got less than 18 percent of the vote in the runoff. Five years later, the centrist François Bayrou (18 percent) was eliminated by Nicolas Sarkozy (31 percent) and Ségolène Royal (26 percent) in the first round, but the opinion polls showed that this moderate and appreciated figure would have beaten both in a runoff.

The French presidential election worked much more efficiently in the 1970s and the 1980s, when the country’s politics were divided neatly into two sides, the left and the right. Each one had two major parties officially allied but also competing for the leadership during the first round of the presidential election, then combined their electorates for the runoff: communists and socialists on one side, gaullists and the center-right on the other. The motto of French voters was “In the first round, we choose; in the second, we eliminate.”

In 1962, when Charles de Gaulle asked the French people by referendum if they wanted to directly elect their president, one of his ministers, Edgard Pisani, argued that this idea “would not allow the organization of French politics around the two trends that would be the most necessary for the future of the country: the center right and the center left.” The former leader of the Free French disagreed: “I cannot believe that the country as a whole will not be guided, when the time comes, by a kind of instinct. He will elect someone who is not an extremist.” For nearly half a century, it worked just as he hoped.

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But this system has exploded, first with the rise in popularity of the National Front, a party so extremist that it cannot have allies in a runoff neither on the right and certainly not on the left. Then with the advent of insurgent centrists, who self-describe as neither left nor right and can seduce voters from both sides in the first round, like Bayrou in 2007 and Macron this year. Ironically, this proliferation of new candidates sometimes seems to constrain voter’s options. We have so much choice that we are now afraid to choose; we just eliminate, mostly by trying to block the National Front.

Ever since 2002, when the elder Le Pen alarmed the political mainstream with his strong first-round finish, left-wing voters have been viewed with suspicion if they don’t vote for the Socialist Party candidate in the first round: Voting for anyone else could divide the left vote and increase the chances of a runoff between the right and the far-right.

This year, there is enormous pressure on the left to support the centrist, Macron, in the first round: A runoff between Marine Le Pen and the Socialist Benoît Hamon, less experienced and farther to the left than François Hollande, could be highly risky, and a runoff between Le Pen and the “Thatcherian” conservative François Fillon would just be depressing.

Given Fillon’s current legal problems, we also probably shouldn’t assume he’s guaranteed to beat Le Pen. Either way, if Le Pen makes it to the runoff on May 7, French voters will be going all-in in a high-stakes poker game, possibly with a flawed hand. The strange thing was that the open primaries, christened by the socialists during Hollande’s election in 2012, were supposed to strengthen them, but it did not really work this time. To win highly unexpected nominations, both Hamon and Fillon had to run aggressive platforms that either made them less appealing to the electorate as a whole or increased the likelihood of campaign flip-flops. And these preliminary contests have also intensified the presidential frenzy, leading to an American-style “permanent campaign.” “The virus of primaries has infested the entire presidential system,” wrote the scholar Christian Salmon in 2014. “It has multiplied the presidential figure by making the election of the president of the Republic by universal suffrage, not only the key moment of democratic life, but the element that over-determines all the strategies of the political actors.”

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But while France still invests much time and energy in the presidential election, the presidency itself has paradoxically never seemed so weak—nor its pretenders so vulnerable. In 2005, the law scholar Bastien François, one of the defenders of a regime change to a Sixth Republic, wondered whether the presidential elections had “exhausted her charms.”

The next president will have the opportunity to check that in June with risky legislative elections that could lead to an absence of majority or—in the most extraordinary scenario—a new cohabitation: an “accident of history,” in the words of the law scholar Arnaud Le Pillouer, that could then fuel a reflection on the importance of the presidential election and, more broadly, on the very powerful figure of the president.

“The idea that the successive presidents are no longer able to govern, that our aspirations for grandeur are too often disappointed, that France has become an average power... all this may suggest that this French normalization could quietly occur without too much ‘pain,’ ” explains political scientist Olivier Rouquan, with optimism, in a recent book titled En finir avec le président ! (Down With the President!).

Such a debate already took place several times, the last one in the fall of 2015. Launched inside the Parliament, a committee on the future of the institutions studied the presidential election and considered “unthinkable to deprive French citizens of what constitutes a major democratic moment—although imperfect.” Its co-president was Michel Winock, one of the most famous contemporary French historians who, in 1962, chose to vote “no” on De Gaulle’s referendum, writing that day in his diary : “To vote ‘no’ is to approve the departure of the Magician.”

How long will French keep believing in presidential magic?