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.

The party bosses have priorities of their own. Thinking ahead to the key parliamentary battles of 1986-88, they all want their strongest teams in the Assembly – which means parachuting front-bench figures into leading positions in favourable departments, thus increasing the squeeze on the (highly indignant) sitting Deputies. There is also the pressure to broaden the parties’ appeal by including allegedly non-partisan ‘personalities’ here and there. But not a few of such notables have realised that Le Pen’s FN offers the best chance of all. Under the present majoritarian system he has no Deputies at all but under PR he will have several dozen. Although the early expectation that the film star Alain Delon might figure on a FN list has been disappointed, there has been a considerable flocking of local celebrities onto FN lists – thus creating furious ructions among the FN’s militants de première heure who had begun to preen themselves as future Deputies but now find their ambitions indefinitely deferred.

PR has robbed the election of any element of surprise it might still have had. Although it is clear that the parties will spend as never before – £50,000 per party, for each of the 96 departments seems a likely figure – not only the overall result but that for most individuals is already assured. In our hypothetical department, for example, the top two men on the PS, UDF and RPR lists are, effectively, already elected. Similarly, numbers four to ten on their lists are there only for the ride. All of these candidates can sleepwalk their way through the election. Only the marginal third man on the list is likely to break sweat. Similarly, while a swing of 2-3 per cent could well settle the whole election under a majoritarian system, under PR it will only modify the overall result very slightly: PR, as the Italian example shows, means almost complete immobility and the campaign itself becomes a largely bogus form of popular entertainment.

One talks of the top ‘men’ on the various lists advisedly, for once the party bosses get down to the nitty-gritty of allocating the ‘eligible’ list positions, it is usually the women who get squeezed out. Realising what was happening, the Minister for Women’s Rights, Yvette Roudy, led a uniquely cross-party campaign to shame the (male) party bosses into concessions. This was not wholly disinterested – Madame Roudy was finding herself left out of the ‘eligible’ places in one department after another. The PS has responded by trying hard to impose at least its women Ministers on usually very reluctant departments. Mme Roudy, having been rejected in Hauts-de-Seine, seems likely to find a place in Calvados. The Minister for Social Affairs, Georgina Dufoix, has been parachuted into Gard – but is being fiercely resisted by the local party. The Minister for Foreign Trade, Edith Cresson, is having a similarly difficult time after being parachuted into Vienne. The Minister for the Environment, Huguette Bouchardeau, has trekked all over France, being angrily resisted by local (male) vested interests everywhere. The Right has reluctantly doubled its number of ‘eligible’ places for women – from three to six. Only the Communists have a really strong feminine representation on their lists, but given the Party’s poor prospects, few of these will get elected. Overall, it is already clear that PR will be a disaster for women: from 27 Deputies out of 491 they will diminish to 24 or 25 out of 577. Shirley Williams please note.

What is true for women is also true for the young. The party bosses are naturally more susceptible to the powerful pressure of the senior sitting Deputies than to the claims of younger hopefuls with less bargaining power. It already seems clear that PR will have a strongly ossifying effect, entrenching the old political class, more able to elbow its way into ‘eligible’ places. As the weekly Le Point put it, ‘on the right the lists resemble the court of Louis XVIII, a veritable Restoration, replete with old powdered marquises, their hairpieces whitened with the passage of time, and with great local feudatories.’ On the left the difference is one only of degree.

The exception to this rule, of course, is that new faces are welcome if they belong to the rich, the powerful and the well-connected. With a handful of men in all the parties making the crucial decisions behind closed doors, money and influence can buy their way in as never before. One sitting PS Deputy has angrily resigned from the party altogether after finding ‘his’ eligible place assigned to a 28-year-old who happens to be Mitterrand’s grand-nephew. In Indre-et-Loire, a split in the RPR seems likely after the imposition of Bernard Debré, a son of de Gaulle’s first premier. In Eure, Chirac’s imposition of another of Debré’s sons has led to similar trouble. In Deux-Sevres, Chirac has had less difficulty in imposing the young Jean de Gaulle: no one in the RPR is very keen to oppose – publicly at least – the General’s grandson.

The most remarkable case, though, is that of the press tycoon, Robert Hersant – the third richest man in France. Hersant’s Vichyite and anti-semitic past does not make him an attractive candidate: the last time he stood in a parliamentary election in one of the safest conservative seats in France, he was roundly defeated. That, though, was under the old majoritarian system. With the coming of PR Hersant has gobbled up ‘eligible’ places not only for himself and his son but for another 13 of his collaborators and assistants as well. The only real question is whether Hersant will use his leverage to become a minister or will prefer to buy one of the public TV channels the Right is promising to sell off.

The introduction of PR also has a great deal to do with the fact that the election campaign is likely to be disfigured by a good deal of anti-immigrant racism. Under the old majoritarian system Le Pen could have said what he liked on this theme, got his 10 per cent of the first-round vote, and then watched his support flock towards orthodox conservatives on the second ballot without ending up with much leverage or a single seat. Under PR, however, every vote Le Pen takes is a direct loss for the RPR and UDF – and he will get lots of seats. His leverage is, accordingly, enormous: he can even dream of making and unmaking governments. The result is an alarming and escalating auction in racist promises and threats as the orthodox Right engages with Le Pen in a fierce competition for every last racist vote. Already Chirac has made it clear that he personally would like to see all unemployed immigrants expelled from France – which would give employers virtual power of deportation over many of their workers. Even official RPR policy calls for continuous street-corner identity checks by the police to clamp down on illegal immigrants (clandestins) and for the discontinuation of family allowances to immigrant families for their third and subsequent children. The assumption that more French children are a good thing and more immigrant children a bad thing is quite openly racist. This amounts to the almost complete adoption of the FN platform by the man who will be the next prime minister. It is no good, of course: Le Pen is only too happy to go further. The FN is now calling for the total abolition of all family allowances to immigrants; their deprivation of free education and of all trade-union and works-council voting rights; and the stripping of French citizenship from the most recently naturalised.

The atmosphere engendered by this auction is, as they say, something else. The Hersant press, with its apocalyptic warnings that French national identity will soon be lost, has become more and more openly racist – particularly Figaro, whose editorial staff includes an unashamed FN clique which reportedly ‘terrorises’ the more orthodoxly right-wing journalists on the paper. Le Pen’s meetings are increasingly anti-semitic as well as anti-Arab and anti-black. On TV the question put to all aspiring politicians is ‘What would you say to an Arab becoming prime minister of France one day?’ (As one looks round at the miserable Arab street-cleaners and reflects on the absence of naturalised Arabs from all the party lists, one wonders how these French variants on Anna Ford and Selena Scott manage to look so pertly relevant while posing such ludicrous questions.) Even ‘liberals’ such as ex-President Giscard make ponderous remarks about immigrants having to ‘remember that they may have rights, but they have duties too’ in such a way as to suggest that immigrants are falling down on their duties in some unexplained way. But the key mechanism is PR: it forces Chirac to compete with Le Pen; Giscard with Chirac; even the Socialist premier, Fabius, can be heard boasting on TV of the ‘exceptional firmness’ the Government would display against clandestins. PR has meant that Le Pen has been able to send powerful ripples flowing across the entire political spectrum.

Immigration seems likely to be the dominating election issue. Rather than simply berate the French for the appalling displays of racism and chauvinism this will undoubtedly produce, it is worth pointing out that historically France has been more welcoming to foreigners than any other European country. This is partly a matter of force majeure: the country has long land borders with five major foreign states (not counting Luxembourg, Monaco etc) and immigration is intrinsically difficult to control. By 1900 one inhabitant of Marseilles in five was an Italian, while the 1920s saw a huge influx of Poles. By 1930 there were three million immigrants in France (one-third of whom were Italians). Indeed, if one goes back four generations one Frenchman in three has immigrant ancestors and demographers point out that without this continuous inward flow over the last century, France would today have a population of 40 million instead of 55. Britain, by contrast, has been a large and continuous net exporter of migrants.

Moreover, immigrants have gained acceptance in all walks of life in a way that the more chauvinist British might well not have allowed. Giscard’s Interior Minister was a Polish count, Michel Poniatowski: could someone with a name like that become Home Secretary? The head of the largest trade-union federation, Henri Krasucki is a Polish Jew: could one imagine a Polish Jew heading the TUC? Among popular idols there are many of immigrant stock – Yves Montand (Italian), Johnny Hallyday (Belgian), Sylvie Vartan (Bulgarian), Constantin Costa-Gavras (Greek), Yannick Noah (Camerounian), and so on. Even the French soccer team, the European champions and the country’s pride and joy, has an immigrant majority – three Spaniards, two Malians and one Italian, who is also the captain. Indeed, the more one reflects on the immigrant presence in French life, on the one hand, and the strength of French national culture, on the other, the more one is driven to the belief that a nation is simply a defined cultural space into which large numbers of originally quite different people can be almost interchangeably fitted.

According to the most recent figures, there were, in 1984, 4,485,715 foreign migrants in France (i.e. 7 per cent of the population – the same proportion as fifty years ago). To these one has to add a guesstimate for clandestins. When the Mitterrand Government offered to regularise the situation of all clandestins on a once-and-for-all basis in 1981, 130,000 stepped forward. It seems a little unlikely that a similar number of fresh clandestins has built up again in just four years, but this does not prevent the figure being conventionally put at 300,000 – or, if you read Figaro, 500,000. (The discovery, last month, of a new source of clandestins, Chinese arriving from Zhenjiang province with bogus Cambodian passports, has received a great deal of attention, though to date the police have only found and deported 25 of these exotics – not quite the Asian tide of popular headlines.) A sensible maximum figure is probably 4.6 million, of which the largest single group (860,000) are Portuguese.

Politically, though, this is to miss the point. The heart of the matter is what Figaro refers to as the ENE – Etrangers Non-Européens. According to Gérard-François Dumont, President of the Institute of Political Demography, and Figaro’s leading expert on the subject, there are 2.6 million ENE in France. This figure immediately gained wide popular acceptance, although M. Dumont’s Institute itself turns out not to exist. When asked how he could justify his 2.6 million figure – far higher than anything the official figures will support – M. Dumont gave a glimpse of his somewhat unusual demographic techniques: ‘Every Frenchman knows in his heart of hearts that there are more than 2.6 million non-Europeans in France.’

The interesting point here is the sudden and crafty omission of the word ‘foreign’: M. Dumont is clearly including those of non-European extraction who are full French citizens and are thus assumed to be right outside the debate. But there are a lot of them, starting with the 400,000 ‘Harkis’ – Algerian Muslims who fought with the French Army and retreated en masse to France when Algeria became independent. There are also, no doubt, not inconsiderable numbers of French citizens from the old French empire, especially Senegal, and from the French Overseas Departments, especially Martinique, Guadeloupe and Réunion. One certainly meets a lot of Antillais (West Indians) in Paris, but since they are and always have been French citizens, they don’t get into official statistics about immigration. Undoubtedly, though, for the man on the metro to Saint-Denis who finds (as one easily can) that his is the only white face left in his coach by the time the train gets to the terminus, the crucial fact is skin colour, not whether his fellow passengers are Harkis, Antillais or even tourists. (Out in Saint-Denis, by the by, one right-wing mayor is barring all immigrant children from the local schools, thereby implementing part of Le Pen’s programme and doubtless hoping to provoke a confrontation with the Government just before the elections.) It is now the official policy of the RPR – and thus the next prime minister – to remove the right to citizenship of those born in France unless it is accompanied by a statement that the applicant will ‘seek integration into French society’ (by renouncing Islam?), but this is not going to get around the fact of the numerous Harkis and Antillais.

There are many ironies in the immigration imbroglio, starting with the fact that the tenacity of old French imperial assumptions has contributed a great deal to the present situation. It might, of course, have been even more difficult if the Right had got its way. Le Pen, after all, was the most extreme defender of Algérie Française: had he and the rest of the Right succeeded in keeping Algeria as a French department, another twenty million North Africans would now have entry rights to France. More mundanely, it was under de Gaulle, Pompidou and Giscard that the really massive influx of ENEs took place (the Mitterrand Government has been more restrictive than any of its predecessors) – and yet the Right has now found in that influx the perfect stick with which to beat and destabilise the Left. Then again, we have the spectacle of Robert Hersant, who has struggled for so long to overcome his unfortunate beginnings on an anti-semitic paper, reaching the culmination of his career by means of a fresh outpouring of racist panic-mongering. We have, too, the spectacle of Alain Peyrefitte, former Gaullist Minister and one of the forty ‘immortals’ of the Académie Française, solemnly warning that Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises could soon become Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées. (Peyrefitte, too, is now on the Hersant pay-roll.) Perhaps most ironic of all is the figure of Mourad Kaouah, an Algerian Deputy under the Fourth Republic and, like not a few Harkis, keen to prove that he is a sort of super-Frenchman through the strength of his hostility to Arab immigrants. A close friend of Le Pen, Kaouah was 14th on the FN list in the 1984 European elections (and thus not elected). It is assumed that several of the FN Euro-MPs will resign their seats when they get elected to the French parliament in March. Kaouah will then move up to take one of the vacant places and the Fifth Republic will have its first Arab Deputy at any level – under the colours of the Front National.

The election campaign is clearly going to be a nasty one. How permanent its effect will be is, however, quite another question. Once Chirac has control of the government, he will want to lose his rabble-rousing image and establish a calmer, more statesmanlike and, ultimately, more centrist appeal – essential if he is to appear as a Presidential winner in 1988. This could well militate against an attempt to fulfil some of his wilder anti-immigration commitments – which Mitterrand will anyway use the power of the Elysée to block. In any case, once the present racist mood has produced a right-wing government, it will have largely served its purpose. On the other hand, racism is not going to go away: the co-existence of 4.6 million immigrants and 2.37 million unemployed more or less guarantees that. Besides, the Le Pen phenomenon is well and truly established and while PR lasts Le Pen will remain powerful.

But will PR last? Quite possibly not. All polls show that a majority of Frenchmen want to go back to the old majoritarian system, which they associate with strong, coherent and stable government. Chirac is so determined to get rid of the system that every RPR candidate has been made to sign a contract engaging him to vote the old system back. The Communists and Le Pen will naturally fight for PR while they have breath in their bodies, but many Socialists, although they loyally voted the new system in, would privately prefer the old system back. The pivotal group is likely to be the Centre and Centre-Right. Publicly, they too are committed to going back to the majoritarian system, but the truth is that PR suits them in the same way that it suits the Alliance in Britain. There is already some sign of backsliding there. Chirac, naturally, wants the old system back right away but centrists are beginning to talk of such a change as something for ‘after 1988’ – the precious principle of unripe time thus making its familiar reappearance. The present betting has to be that Chirac will be strong enough to get his way and that PR will be a one-election wonder. All those who do not wish to see an escalating auction of racist rhetoric at every subsequent election will have to hope Chirac does get his way.

It will be evident that the discussion of PR in practice in France does not have much in common with the bien-pensant discussion of PR in theory in Britain. No doubt Alliance spokesmen will rush to assure us that it would all work quite differently in Britain because, well, because we’re British. But how different are we? The French example suggests that if you introduce PR to a country which has two million plus coloured immigrants, high unemployment and a muscular, nationalist Right, things can quite easily spin out of control.

Britain has, I have suggested, been less tolerant and welcoming of immigrants than France. In any case, we, too, have over two million coloured immigrants; we have at least a million more unemployed than the French; we certainly have a muscular, nationalist Right; and we have a right-wing popular press which is just as unscrupulous as its French counterpart and is run by our own passable imitations of Robert Hersant. Maybe it would be different in Britain. Maybe.