Penetrating the many layers of mystery surrounding the French political system and presidential elections can at times seem a daunting task for a Brit or an American whose own system is quite different from that of the French. For an American having grown up in a two-party system with party conventions, primary elections and an electoral college, the French multi-party framework where seemingly anyone can toss their hat into the ring presents a unique challenge. And the differences between the British parliamentary system, although a few similarities exist in the selection of the prime minister, are equally vast. With all eyes turned to the upcoming presidential elections and the political campaign that is now getting under way and with so much time devoted to the issue in the French print media and especially on the nightly news on TV, it might be well to take a look at just how the French electorate goes about selecting a new president.
France has a parliamentary political system that has been refined and changed repeatedly through the political upheaval of the French Revolution in 1789 and the five successive constitutions. The Fifth Republic was born in 1958 with the adoption of a new constitution that fit more precisely with the political agenda of Charles de Gaulle than the first post-war constitution of 1946. According to the 1958 constitution, France is a parliamentary democracy with both a president and a prime minister. The prime minister is appointed by the president but must be confirmed by the deputies in the General Assembly, which means that he or she is always from the majority party in the General Assembly, a situation similar to that in Great Britain. The president, on the other hand, is elected by direct universal suffrage (a constitutional amendment in 1962 established the direct election of the president). Presidential elections and legislative elections are never held on the same dates, as is the case in the United States.
There are a myriad of political parties in France, which can contribute to the perceived complexity of the electoral system in the eyes of citizens of other countries. Each party has the right to present a candidate for president (more on the various parties in forthcoming issues), which means that for the first round of elections there can be as many as 40 different candidates on the ballot. This first round of voting serves the same purpose in essence as the primary elections in the US, with a significant difference: should one candidate get more than 50% of the votes cast on the first round, he or she is declared the winner and a second round will not be necessary. The two top vote getters in the first round will then face each other in the second round, which is held two weeks after the first. In the seven elections since direct universal election of the president was instigated, it has never happened that a particular candidate won the election outright on the first round. It has almost always been a candidate from the left facing a candidate from the right – one notable exception was the complete surprise in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen from the far-right Front National finished second to Jacques Chirac and ahead of the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin.
The current media frenzy in France involves the selection of the various candidates from the respective parties. There is considerable suspense on both the right and the left as to who will represent the major parties: Nicolas Sarkozy, the current minister of the interior and the first secretary of the reformed Gaullist party UMP is considered to be the strong front runner for that party’s nomination. His only opposition could be the current prime minister Dominique de Villepin. Both men have ambitions to be president, but Sarkozy enjoys a far greater advantage in the public opinion polls. On the left, the suspense has been even greater, especially within the Socialist Party where Ségolène Royal has caused not only quite a stir within the party but something close to a revolution in French politics. She handily defeated the former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin for the presidency of the Poitou-Charen-tes Region and has since rallied considerable support within the Socialist Party. Royal’s declaration of her intention to be a candidate for the candidacy of the party was welcomed by her supporters, but it obviously irked several of the stalwarts within the party who, rightly or wrongly, felt it was their turn. The likes of Lionel Jospin, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), Jack Lang and Laurent Fabius, who have since been labeled “Les Eléphants”, were anything but subtle in their opposition to and criticism of Ségolène Royal. The result was also something quite new in French politics: an internal “primary” election to select the presidential candidate.
Jospin and Lang withdrew from the race leaving Royal, Strauss-Kahn and Fabius in contention for the nomination. Following a series of three televised debates, the “militants” of the Socialist Party voted for their presidential candidate in the first of two scheduled rounds on November 16th (a second round, if necessary, on November 23rd). In spite of polls showing DSK closing ranks on Royal, the results have been characterized as a “tidal wave” victory for Ségolène Royal. With 60.62% of the votes cast, she won the nomination on the first round. DSK received 20.83% and Fabius 18.54%. With Ségolène Royal’s overwhelming win of the party’s nomination, she will not, however, be the first woman candidate for the presidency, but, according to the polls, she is the first woman with a strong chance of actually becoming the president of France and the most likely person of either sex to be able to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy, the likely candidate from the right.
Roger Stevenson is a professor of French language and literature in the United States for 30 years with six years of experience in directing study-abroad programmes in France.
He now works as a journalist for French Accent Magazine, an e-Magazine for expats in France, Francophiles and French students.