Thursday, April 25, 2019

France: after three tries at using proportional representation, will it now see a "dose of proportionality"?

French President Emmanuel Macron proposes a semi-proportional system for France: a 20% “proportional share" for Parliamentary elections. (Also, the number of parliamentarians will be reduced by 25% to 30%.) He made this announcement April 25, after a “great national debate” that began January 14, 2019. He had stated “The system of representation is the bedrock of our Republic, but it must be improved because many do not feel represented after the votes. What is the right level of proportional representation in parliamentary elections for a fairer say to be given to all political perspectives?”

In his presidential campaign he had promised "a dose of proportionality." This share of 20% had been debated for the past year: would it be the 15% proposed last summer, 20%, or 25%?

Based on last summer’s discussions, it seems this “dose of proportionality” (PR-lite) is non-compensatory, based on national vote shares, with no threshold.

The history of proportional representation in France

France had always, before the First World War, used either a block vote system, with several deputies for each “department,” or the two-round system in single-member districts. During 1907-1914 support for PR built up, and a bill was passed in 1912 but vetoed by the Senate. PR became an election issue in the 1914 election, and a majority of the newly elected deputies had promised PR. The War started three months later.

Based on the electoral mandate, the Senate yielded in June 1919. France’s first PR election was in 1919, and again in 1924.

The 1919 election was moderately proportional in the 89 “Departments” for the 613 seats, an average of 7 seats per district, with a minimum of 3. It was an open-list system, but you have as many votes as deputies to be elected. Any candidate winning over 50% of the voters was elected, and then PR by list was used. Parties ran altogether 324 lists, 3 or 4 per department: one socialist, and 2 or 3 or 4 others of various groups of the centre and right; the right won a majority.

The 1924 election for 581 seats was won by the centre-left and left. It had the same system except that departments with more than 6 deputies were split, and the Socialists and Communists had separate lists. However, in July 1926 a financial crisis brought the right and centre-right to power, and they changed the voting system in 1927. For the 1928 election France reverted to their previous two-round system in single-member districts.

The Fourth Republic used PR for the 1945 Consultative Assembly and from 1946 to 1951 for the National Assembly. In 1945 it had closed lists. In 1946 the lists were closed unless at least half the votes for the list were personal votes, in which case the list order was applied as well as the personal votes. Districts ranged from three to nine seats in 1945, three to eleven MPs in 1946. The 1946 districts in France had an average of 5.3 MPs, 553 seats in 105 districts. The calculation was highest average.

From 1951 to 1958 this continued, except for a mechanism to favour parties other than the two biggest (Gaullists and Communists). This allowed the coalition called “Third Force,” centrists and centre-left originally led by the Socialist Party, the government since 1947, to remain in power until 1958. The lists had the opportunity to ally with each other in each district through an "apparentement". If the sum of the votes obtained by the “apparented” lists corresponds to at least half of the votes cast, these lists take all the seats allocated in the district. Also, in two districts the rule of the largest remainder was used, a gerrymander against the Communists in those two districts. Again, the lists were closed unless personal votes are at least half the votes for the list, but now in that case the list order was not applied, ranking was by only the personal votes. 

In 1951, even with the “apparentement,” the three “Third Force” parties won only 47% of the seats, squeezed between the Gaullists 19% and the Communists 16%, leaving them increasingly dependent on the other 15% won by the centre-right alliance. As these same leaders shuffled and reshuffled their alliances for five years, this left French politics as a shifting series of coalitions.

In the 1956 election the Communists became the largest party with 25% of the seats. Some apparentements continued between some centre-left, centre and centre-right lists, but accomplished little except to limit the number of seats won by the new right-wing Poujadists. With the six parties of the centre-left and centre-right badly divided over Algerian policy, governments foundered until the 1958 military coup in Algeria led to the return of Charles de Gaulle. By then, proportional representation had few defenders and was abolished. De Gaulle brought back the winner-take-all system in two rounds.   

For the 1985 election the Socialist President François Mitterand brought back PR, the system of proportional representation by district. There was a 5% threshold, and closed lists. It had 570 MPs from France, in 100 districts, an average of 5.7 MPs per district. The calculation was again by highest average. In 1986 the conservatives reversed it.

Note: with only about 6 MPs per district, this was a moderate form of PR, as indeed France has always used. Opponents were not concerned about small extremist parties. They wanted to get centrists and rightists into a big centre-right tent.

However, France understands PR very well. Municipal governments and regional assemblies used proportional or semi-proportional systems from 1947 to 1959, and again since 1982. European Parliament elections, starting in 1989, are by PR.

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