Elections in France and the United States:The Same and So Very Different

Commentary No. 326, April 1, 2012

In 2012, two very important and highly contested presidential elections are taking place in France (April 22) and the United States (November 6). Virtually the same issues are being debated in each country, and almost in the same manner. And in both countries, the president is the most powerful political figure. But there is one very great difference between the two: not ideology but the rules of the election. Different rules breed strikingly different electoral tactics.

In both countries, there are two major parties which have historically presented themselves as essentially center-right versus center-left. Observers of most political persuasions agree that the actual policies of the two parties, when in power, are not that different. Yet there do exist a few differences that each feels is crucial, and these differences motivate each group to pursue presidential elections ferociously.

In both countries, there exists what might be called an extreme right and a radical left. The extreme right and the radical left denounce the two “centrist” parties as tweedledum and tweedledee, and call for a political platform that is really right and really left. This plays out however in a quite different manner because of the very different electoral systems.

In the United States, the election takes place in 50 separate units – the states – on a winner-take-all basis for a specific number of votes in what is called an “electoral college.” This system makes it extremely difficult for “third parties” to have any real impact on the decision of who gets elected. Still, there are always some who are unmoved by this and run candidates anyway. Sometimes doing this does affect the results in a few states, and thereby affects the final results. For example, in 2000, some analysts argue that the candidacy of Ralph Nader took enough votes away from the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, to deprive him of electoral victory in two states. And therefore, it is sometimes said, Nader’s candidacy resulted in Bush’s election.

In the past, the extreme right in the United States tended to abstain from electoral participation on the grounds that the Republican Party was too “liberal” for their taste. But about twenty years ago, this group decided that the way to affect the outcome was to go inside the Republican Party and force it, by contesting Republicans that were too “centrist” in party primaries, to choose more “conservative” candidates. These days, this group goes largely by the label of the “Tea Party.” This “entry”-tactic has been highly successful, and the Republican Party has indeed moved significantly to the right in the last dozen years or so.

In France, elections work quite differently. For one thing, they are national; there are no electoral sub-units. For a second, unless a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, there is always a second round of elections, in which the two parties with the largest percentages on the first ballot are the only choice that is offered.

This system allows, indeed encourages, groups of all political varieties to present a presidential candidate in the first round, since the voters know that they can give their vote on the second round to one of the two principal parties. The first round serves as a demonstration of popular strength, serving primarily to affect, they hope, the policies of the winning party after the second round.
The French system does have one flaw. Both major parties must get enough votes to be in the second round. In 2002, and quite exceptionally, the left-center party, the Socialists, fell just behind the far right party, the Front National, and so was eliminated. Therefore, this year, the Socialists are emphasizing the importance of the “vote utile” (the “useful vote”) so that this doesn’t happen again. The trauma of 2000 for the Democrats in the United States is matched by the trauma of 2002 for the Socialists in France.

Where does this leave us? In the United States, the eventual Republican candidate will present himself as “very” conservative thanks to the pressures of the Tea Party, and thereby risks losing the votes of so-called moderates, who are more “centrist.” The Democratic candidate, who will be President Obama, has disillusioned many of his more ardent supporters by moving strikingly to the right during his first term. He is now trying to win them back by a more “populist” platform, but worries that, in the process, he may lose some of those “disillusioned” Republican moderates. In 2012, there are no significant minor party candidates in view.

In France, the situation is more complicated. The present polls show that the two major party candidates – Nicolas Sarkozy for the right-center party, the UMP, and François Hollande for the left-center party, the Socialists – are running almost even on the first round. However, each has only somewhat fewer than 30% of the vote. The remaining 40-50% are expected to split their votes primarily among three other candidates: Martine LePen for the far right Front National, François Bayrou for a centrist-centrist party (condemning both the UMP and the Socialists for being insufficiently centrist), and Jean-Paul Melenchon for the Left Front who has managed to rally around him most of the radical left votes despite the participation of a number of other far left parties on the ballot.

LePen, Bayrou, and Melenchon are each polling between 14-18% of the votes at the moment. Hence none of them seems likely to get into the second round. Melenchon’s showing has been the great surprise of the election. But it is also predicted that, if the polls show Hollande going down by too much, perhaps half of his present supporters will vote Hollande rather than Melenchon in order not to risk that either LePen or Bayrou edge Hollande out.

However, if Melenchon gets a large vote and Hollande is nonetheless in the second round, two things will be true. One, there will have been a clear message to the Socialists that politically they must move left. And secondly, most Melenchon voters will vote for Hollande on the second round. On the right, however, most LePen voters will be reluctant to vote Sarkozy, and the Front National will not recommend this. Were they to do so, they would undermine the very basis for their existence.

The French system seems to work better for the radical left. The U.S. system seems to work better for the far right. But this is primarily because of different electoral rules.