Voting systems and the French presidency

I’m seeing some people criticise the two-round system in France for the way it enhances the Front National’s prospects.  This is reasonable, but they go on to suggest AV, which wouldn’t make it better. France has a host of problems, and changing the voting system for president won’t help any of them.

French politics has the same problem as most countries – the median voter is centrist, but very few others are.

If you look at the left vote in the opinion polls – and that’s 43% or so of the country – then 20% are intending to vote for a candidate to the left of Hollande. Hollande was originally a candidate from the left of the PS and has largely governed as such. Think more Ed Miliband than Corbyn, but still on the left of the main French left party. Yet nearly half of the left electorate will vote for candidates to his left – mostly (15% or so) for Mélenchon (who is ex-PS and left in protest at how rightwing the party was before Hollande), with a few (2%) voting for the Greens or one of the two Trotskyist candidates (about 3% between them).

This leaves Hollande on 8%, with Macron (essentially a Blairite in UK terms, though I’m sure he’d reject that – still, he left Hollande’s government in protest at how left-wing it was) on 15%.

So if you have AV, how are those transfers on the left going to work out? Well, the Trots would go to Mélenchon, the Greens will likely do the same, which means that Macron would need to either pick up transfers from the right, or win over virtually all of Hollande’s vote to stay ahead.  I’d guess that neither of those happens, and Mélenchon ends up ahead of Macron.

And on the right?

Obviously, Le Pen is on 25% and getting lots of publicity, but the mainstream right has more votes – Juppé was on 28-30% in polls because the centrist candidate (Bayrou) had a pact to step down for Juppé. However, Bayrou will run against Fillon (and would have done so against Sarkozy), so that splits out at 20% for Fillon and 8% for Bayrou.  If you add the numbers up, you get 96% – this is because there is Dupont-Aignan, who is a euroskeptic rightwinger with about 4%. His vote is one of the very few for whom Le Pen is transfer-friendly.

So the next question is how the Bayrou transfers move – there aren’t enough of them to put both Fillon and Macron ahead of the two extreme candidates. I suspect they mostly go to Fillon. At which point, Macron is eliminated in fourth place (numbers will be something like Mélenchon 23, Macron 22, Fillon 26, Le Pen 29). Now, there might be enough transfers there to put Le Pen from first to third – at which point Fillon wins in a landslide, or it could end up with Mélenchon v Le Pen, which is probably the only way Le Pen can win a final round.  If somehow Macron sneaks past Mélenchon, then he will grab transfers from first Mélenchon, then from Fillon and win a landslide over Le Pen in the final round.

Regardless of the system, the odds are heavily that one of the two moderates (Fillon or Macron) wins, and the ideal system would have them face each other in the final round – after all, if they’re the only ones who can win, shouldn’t the final decision be between them?  The problem is that when you get down to the four candidates in double digits, there is probably certainly a majority who prefer either Mélenchon or Le Pen (my back-of-an-envelope has this as about 52-48), which usually means that either Macron or Fillon gets squeezed out in fourth (probably Macron).

There is no step in the process – either in AV or in the French two-round system – that is likely to result in a Macron v Fillon contest; they are both trying to consolidate their left and right coalitions, and usually one of them fails.

Condorcet, incidentally, probably elects Bayrou as President, because that’s where the median voter is. I don’t think there are a lot of people who prefer both Fillon and Macron to Bayrou, which is what you need to stop Bayrou under Condorcet.

Most systems do elect Fillon – Le Pen will really struggle to break past 32-33% of the first-round vote in the second round – so even if a lot of the left refuses to vote for Fillon, he only needs about 20% of the left to switch rather than stay at home.

Just to be clear, this election is very close to being a pathological worst-case scenario for voting systems. It’s the sort of election that gets used in proofs of Arrow’s Theorem.  Criticising the two-round system is fine; it’s not a good voting system. But don’t go thinking you have a better system, because I’ve looked at a whole bunch (including approval) and they’re all awful – there are so many ways to elect one of the extreme candidates very narrowly.

My solution, by the way: don’t have a Presidency in the first place. Have a proportional election to your parliament and then you can work the mess out in coalition negotiations. You probably end up with a left-right coalition of everyone bar the extremes (a coalition from Hollande to Fillon has a bare majority), which is, well, the same as Germany’s fairly effective current government.

Quick set of rough analogies for British readers:
Trots : Trots
Mélenchon: Corbyn
Greens: Greens
Hollande: Ed Miliband (or maybe Gordon Brown in 2010, worn out by governing)Macron: Blair (young Blair of 1997, but less charismatic and in a much tougher political environment)
Bayrou: Nick Clegg
Fillon: Thatcher.
Dupont-Aignan: the sort of Tory/UKIP backwoodsman who can’t shut up about Europe
Le Pen: Farage’s younger, better-looking, be-suited successor

And for American readers:
Trots: Trots
Mélenchon: Sanders but leftier.
Greens: Greens who care more about the environment and less about leftiness
Hollande: Sanders if he’d been President four years and was worn out by failure
Macron: Bill Clinton in 1992. Cory Booker if he was white.
Bayrou: Huntsman? Do you have any liberal Republicans left?
Fillon: Ryan is probably the closest, but much more boring. I can’t name someone, but he’s a non-evangelical religious conservative who mostly cares about economics?
Dupont-Aignan: Imagine if Trump lost and a boring incompetent tried adopting his coalition.
Le Pen: Imagine if Trump lost and competent people tried adopting his electorate.


2 thoughts on “Voting systems and the French presidency

  1. Have a proportional election to your parliament and then you can work the mess out in coalition negotiations. . You probably end up with a left-right coalition of everyone bar the extremes

    But then how do you vote out a failing government? Surely every election will return basically the same government with just a slightly different mix of left and right — so the senior figures of both parties are basically guaranteed high positions, the only question is which is to be the PM and which the deputy.

    I don’t agree with Tony Benn on much, but I do agree that the problem with PR is that it makes it next to impossible to kick people out of power, and that that is the basic safety-valve — the ability to change governments without having to take up arms — which allows democracies to survive.


    1. If you have extreme parties taking a near-majority of the vote, then you’re going to have a problem regardless. Either they get into power, or everyone else gangs up on them.

      If you don’t, as most of Europe didn’t for generations until the last ten years, then you get a big left coalition, a big right coalition and sometimes a small centre party or two. Then you choose between the coalitions and you also get to choose within your coalition between several parties. And the whole coalition gets turfed out for the opposite one every so often.


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