Proportional Representation casts a shadow over France

R.W. Johnson

After the first five years of left-wing government the Fifth Republic has known, the result of the March 1986 parliamentary elections is already, and quite universally, taken for granted. The Left will lose its majority and without much doubt the next government will be formed by the leader of the RPR (Gaullists), Jacques Chirac. This result seems so inevitable that pollsters are amusing themselves by asking such questions as whether voters would object to voting for a candidate who was two-timing his wife with another woman (78 per cent would not object), while political sophisticates are already turning their minds to the real showdown, the Presidential election of 1988. Without much doubt Mitterrand hopes to neutralise a Chirac government via his considerable Presidential powers and then secure the election of another Socialist President in 1988 – who would dissolve the Assembly and hope to sweep in a Left-Centre coalition, thus reducing 1986-88 to the proportions of a brief interregnum. Chirac, naturally, has other ideas and since no one knows what will happen in 1988 there has been a Gadarene rush towards him by key élites. The RPR boasts that every single head of a nationalised industry has already been in touch with them. This is unlikely to save many of their jobs. The heads of TV channels are equally unlikely to survive.

The pre-electoral period is dominated not by the usual who-will-win question but by two concerns which are threatening a wholesale bouleversement of French political life: the introduction of Proportional Representation, and immigration. Speculation continues as to why Mitterrand has introduced PR. To be sure, the Communists demanded it and the President is thus fulfilling a promise to them: and defensively it has ensured that though Socialist losses will be heavy, the party will have about a quarter of the Deputies in parliament. But it also means that the PS (Parti Socialiste) can never again hope for the sort of absolute majority it won in 1981 and that it will not in future have the same leverage to force the Communists into supporting a PS Presidential candidate. The real reason probably goes deeper: it is Mitterrand’s revenge on de Gaulle. For with PR every future President will face the likelihood of shifting, conditional parliamentary majorities. The President will thus need to coax and curry favour with the Assembly, and the Bonapartist Presidency of the Fifth Republic will at last be cut down to size. It is the revenge of the Third and Fourth Republics on the Fifth.

The introduction of PR has already profoundly changed the political environment. It has, above all, transferred enormous power to the national party bosses and the select circle of cronies who fill their smoke-filled rooms, for it is they who will decide on who is to carry their parties’ colours on the 96 departmental lists and, more important, who is to get the ‘eligible’ places on those lists – i.e. the list positions likely to result in being elected. Thus a reform supported by the rhetoric of a wider, fairer democracy has immediately resulted in the key decisions being taken more secretively and by fewer people than ever before.

The best way to understand the anomalies thus created is to take the case of a hypothetical department with, say, ten seats. In 1981, let us imagine, the combined vote of the Left parties was 55 per cent and that of the combined Right 45 per cent. However, since the PS was the dominant party within the Left and the RPR within the Right, the final result produced by the majoritarian system in force in 1981 was six PS and four RPR Deputies (a perfectly typical result). In 1986, however, the polls point towards a 60-40 per cent majority for the Right in terms of the popular vote. With ten seats up for grabs and the small parties (Ecologists, Trotskyites, Independents etc) bound to take up to 10 per cent between them, it seems likely that 8-9 per cent of the popular vote will be enough to win a seat for one of the major parties.

Everyone does their sums – and panic ensues. The PS knows that the Left can get only four seats. But even though the Communists are weak, they can surely get 8-9 per cent and take one seat – leaving the PS with just three. This means that only the first three places on the PS list are of any serious interest, which means that three of the six sitting PS Deputies have to be dumped: virtual war between the six and their clients ensues. On the right the situation is no easier. Le Pen’s Front National (FN) is bound to take 8-9 per cent and thus one of the seats, but the Giscardian Centre-Right, the UDF, will run its own list and probably get 20 per cent and thus two seats. This leaves only three seats for the RPR, which has four sitting Deputies ... And nobody can be fobbed off with the offer of fourth place on either the PS or RPR lists, for everyone can see that it will take an electoral swing of enormous – and thus highly unlikely – proportions to make these of more than academic interest. To offer such a place to a sitting Deputy is insulting.

The situation has been further complicated by a (helpful) increase in the total number of seats from 491 to 577 – but also by the first proper redistribution along population lines for 27 years. This means that many departments have suffered a sharp drop in their number of seats – Paris has gone from 31 to 21 seats and the in-fighting in the capital is the fiercest of all, especially since Le Pen is standing here and is bound to be elected with at least one other FN candidate.

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