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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

France returns to the polls for a National Assembly election

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera

Barely a month after electing conservative Nicolas Sarkozy as President of the Fifth Republic, voters in France head back to the polls on June 10 and 17 to choose members of the lower house of the country's legislature, the National Assembly.

Members of the National Assembly are elected in two rounds of voting in single-member constituencies; France's overseas departments and territories also take part in the election, returning 22 of the National Assembly's 577 deputies. As in presidential elections, candidates who obtain absolute vote majorities in their constituencies on the first round (and a vote total equal to at least one-quarter of the electorate) are elected to office. However, while in presidential elections only the top two candidates qualify for the runoff when no candidate secures a first-round absolute majority, in legislative elections third- and lower-placed candidates who obtain a number of votes equal to at least one-eight (12.5%) of the electorate may remain in the ballot for the second round - unless they choose to withdraw from the race.

Thus, the first round of a National Assembly election is not unlike a typical French presidential election, with candidates spanning the whole ideological spectrum from far right to far left; usually, few constituencies elect their deputies at this stage. Although French legislative runoff elections may have more than one candidate from the center-right or the left (or both), most second round contests are straight right-versus-left races: when more than one candidate from either ideological pole qualifies for the runoff, lower-ranked candidates usually withdraw in favor of a better-placed competitor from an allied party, in order to prevent a split-vote victory by a candidate from the opposite pole; this practice is known in France as désistement.

In the 2002 National Assembly election, a second round was held in 519 of 577 constituencies: just ten of these had three candidates, as opposed to 506 with two candidates (in the remaining three only one candidate remained on the ballot). On average, the one-eight of the electorate threshold translated into a fairly steep twenty percent of the valid vote, which partly explains the very low number of three-way races.

While the two-round voting system generally favors larger parties such as the ruling, right-of-center Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the Socialist Party (PS), usually amplifying the winning party's popular vote majority, smaller parties can do reasonably well - provided they find a suitable partner with a larger electoral following. Historically, this has been the case with the French Communist Party (PCF), which in the 2002 legislative elections polled only 4.9% of the vote in the first round and 3.3% in the second round, but secured 21 National Assembly seats (3.6% of the total) in constituencies without Socialist candidates in the runoff election (and in some cases the first round as well). Likewise, the centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF) won 29 seats (five percent of the National Assembly) with 4.8% of the vote in the first round and 3.9% in the runoff vote, mostly in constituencies where the party had no competition from the UMP.

On the other hand, small or middle-sized parties that are unable to form alliances with other parties usually fare badly under this system. The best example in this regard is the far-right National Front (FN), which despite polling as much as fifteen percent of the vote has never elected more than a single deputy (and often none at all) since the runoff voting system was re-established in 1988, after being briefly scrapped in favor of proportional representation in 1986. In the 2002 National Assembly election, the National Front won 11.1% of the first round vote, but only thirty-seven of its 565 candidates made it to the second round - nine in three-way races, and the rest in straight contests with the center-right (20) or the left (8); none of them was elected.

Presidential and Legislative Elections in France has more information about the French electoral system, as well as results of the 2002 National Assembly election.

Although the 1958 constitution of the French Fifth Republic provides for a strong presidency, its powers are contingent upon the president's ability to command a majority in the National Assembly. If opposition parties were to prevail in the upcoming legislative election, President Sarkozy would have no choice but to appoint a prime minister from the opposition ranks, and the regime would essentially revert to a parliamentary form of government, under which Sarkozy would be little more than a figurehead, with very limited influence on policymaking outside some specific areas such as foreign affairs.

However, such an outcome appears highly unlikely, barring any unforeseen developments. In past National Assembly elections held immediately after a presidential vote, the ruling party has either won an outright majority or come within striking distance of it. Moreover, opinion polls (which correctly predicted Sarkozy's victory last month) are forecasting a large popular vote plurality for the UMP in the legislative election, well ahead of the Socialists and their allies - which would translate into a crushing National Assembly majority.

Not surprisingly, most UDF deputies will be running in this year's legislative election as pro-Sarkozy "presidential majority" candidates, rather than under the banner of the new, centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem) established by UDF leader François Bayrou, who came in a strong third place in the presidential election. Both the Democratic Movement and the National Front are trailing badly in recent polls, with MoDem barely reaching double digits and the FN mired around five percent, narrowly ahead of the Communist Party, and well below its average share of the vote in French parliamentary elections since emerging as a major political force more than two decades ago.


Nationwide results of the first round of France's 2007 legislative election (aggregated on the basis of final constituency-level figures published on France's Interior Ministry website) were as follows:

Union for a Popular Movement - 10,289,737 votes (39.5%), 98 seats
Presidential Majority - 616,440 votes (2.4%), 8 seats
Socialist - 6,436,521 votes (24.7%), 1 seat
Movement for France - 312,581 votes (1.2%), 1 seat
UDF-Democratic Movement - 1,981,107 votes (7.6%), no seats
National Front - 1,116,136 votes (4.3%), no seats
Communist - 1,115,663 votes (4.3%), no seats
The Greens - 845,977 votes (3.3%), no seats
Left Radical - 343,565 votes (1.3%), no seats
Hunting Fishing Nature Traditions - 213,427 votes (0.8%), no seats
Ecologist - 208,477 votes (0.8%), no seats
Far right - 102,124 votes (0.4%), no seats
Far left - 888,234 votes (3.4%), no seats
Regionalist - 133,473 votes (0.5%), no seats
Other right-wing parties - 641,842 votes (2.5%), 2 seats
Other left-wing parties - 513,407 votes (2.0%), no seats
Others - 267,755 votes (1.0%), no seats

Voter turnout in the first round was 60.4%, down from 64.4% in 2002, and well below the turnout rate in the recently held presidential election.

A total of 110 constituencies (out of 577) elected a deputy in the first round of voting; in the remaining 467, a second round was held on June 17. Among the latter, the ruling UMP was ahead in 317, the Socialists in 110, "Presidential Majority" candidates in 17, the Communists in six, Left Radicals and Greens in two each, the Democratic Movement in one, a regionalist candidate in one, other right-wing parties in five, and other left-wing parties in six. Although twelve constituencies could have had three-way runoff races, just one actually had three candidates for the second round.

Only six Democratic Movement candidates (including founding leader François Bayrou, who topped the poll in his Pyrénées-Atlantiques constituency), four Greens and just one National Front hopeful (Marine Le Pen, daughter of party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen) qualified for the runoff, along with twenty-four Communists, twenty-one "Presidential Majority" candidates and seventeen Left Radicals; nearly all of these took part in the second round.

The results of the first round of voting appeared to confirm earlier findings from opinion polls, which suggested a landslide victory for the UMP and its allies in the second round. As it was, the ruling party won a clear victory in the June 17 runoff election, but fell fall short of a landslide, losing a substantial number of seats to the Socialists and allied left-wing parties.

Nationwide totals of the second round of France's 2007 legislative election (aggregated on the basis of official constituency counts published on France's Interior Ministry website, and including 110 deputies elected on the first round) were as follows:

Union for a Popular Movement - 9,461,087 votes (46.4%), 313 seats
Socialist - 8,624,472 votes (42.3%), 186 seats
Presidential Majority - 433,057 votes (2.1%), 22 seats
Communist - 464,739 votes (2.3%), 15 seats
Left Radical - 333,194 votes (1.6%), 7 seats
The Greens - 90,975 votes (0.4%), 4 seats
UDF-Democratic Movement - 100,115 votes (0.5%), 3 seats
Movement for France - (no runoff candidates), 1 seat
National Front - 17,107 votes (0.1%), no seats
Regionalist - 106,484 votes (0.5%), 1 seat
Other right-wing parties - 238,588 votes (1.2%), 9 seats
Other left-wing parties - 503,556 votes (2.5%), 15 seats
Others - 33,068 votes (0.2%), 1 seat

Voter turnout in the second round was 60%, marginally down from 60.3% in 2002.

The second round of voting turned out to be a very closely fought race both in terms of votes (49.7% for the center-right to 49.1% for the left) and seats (236 for the center-right, 226 for the left). In fact, the center-right parties' retained a substantial parliamentary majority only because they had previously captured 108 seats in the first round, compared to just one for the left.

The left-wing parties' fortunes were apparently bolstered by widespread opposition to a proposed increase of the VAT (value-added tax).

The most notable political casualty in the election was former Prime Minister (and sitting mayor of Bordeaux) Alain Juppé, who had been recently appointed as energy and environment minister but narrowly lost his Central Bordeaux parliamentary seat to a Socialist. Following his defeat, Juppé resigned as cabinet minister.