Friday, June 26, 2015

Electoral Systems of the World-France (Part 1 of 2)

France is one of the world's oldest democracies, and one of the first republics in Europe. It has used many different governmental systems over the years, from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy to republican parliamentarism to empire to presidentialism. Over this period of time, a wide variety of electoral systems have been used, all of which have had different impacts.

The early days

Direct elections with wide suffrage are a fairly new idea in the world. Most elections for national legislatures in the 18th and 19th centuries either had limited suffrage or were indirect. For the most part, France was no different.

The first legislative election in France took place in 1791, directly after the French Revolution. These elections were held under the monarchy, and as such did not offer extremely broad suffrage. Voters over the age of 25 who paid taxes were entitled to vote for electors; 100 voters for each elector. These electors would then vote for members of the unicameral National Assembly.

This election had three significant political groups. The Jacobins, the furthest-left group, won 136 seats, while the centrist Marais won 345 seats and the pro-monarchy Feuillants won 264 seats. An electoral system with a tax-paying requirement would disadvantage the Jacobins, whose voter base was weighted towards poor voters.

Of course, after this, the constitutional monarchy collapsed when the King was executed. In 1792, a new electoral law was introduced for the republic by the Constitutional Convention. Suffrage was extended to all people over the age of 21 who had not accepted poor relief. However, this law was never implemented, owing to the Constitutional Convention adopting all powers and making Robespierre dictator.

Robespierre fell in 1794, and a new constitution was implemented. This created government by the French Directory, which had a bicameral legislature. The Council of Five Hundred was the lower house, with 500 members, while the Council of Ancients was the upper house. The houses elected five Directors, who held executive power.

These legislatures were elected for three-year terms one-third at a time. Suffrage was limited to taxpayers who were 21, and elections were to become indirect once again.

The new parliaments also had a three-party system. The Marais was still there, as well as a royalist group split between moderate constitutional monarchists and ultra-monarchists. The third group was the Thermidorians, a centre-right republican group.

Only two elections were held under this new constitution before Napoleon Bonaparte's coup, and so it's kind of hard to outline any long-term trends. This is in addition to France's long tradition of lousy electoral record keeping.

Bonaparte's coup was confirmed by a referendum in 1800, where 99.94% of voters voted in favour of the heavily authoritarian constitution. While elections still took place, most power was vested in three consuls, of which Napoleon was one. The elections under this period were not recorded, as this republic only lasted only four years, until Napoleon declared France to be an Empire. Elections under the Empire were not recorded either.

Return to a Monarchy

In 1815, the monarchy was restored to France. A bicameral parliament was introduced. The upper house was called the Chamber of Peers, and it was appointed by the King for life terms. The Chamber of Deputies was the lower house, with 402 members. This monarchy is known as the 'Bourbon Monarchy'

Voting rights for the lower house were severely limited. Only people who paid more than 300 Francs in tax (quite a substantial sum) could vote, thus reducing voting rights to 0.3% of the population, while only those who paid 1000 Francs in tax could be elected, thus reducing the possible pool of candidates to 0.07% of the population. The electoral system used multi-member constituencies where voters could vote for exactly the number of members to be elected.

An electoral system such as this would be expected to favour pro-royalist and wealthy (the two groups tended to overlap) parties. And, to no one's surprise, the ultra-royalists won a big majority in the first legislature.

For the second election in 1816, a new electoral system was introduced. The citizens who paid the most tax were entitled to vote for 40% of members, while all voters (including those who had already voted) voted for the remaining 60%.

Now, it would be expected that such an electoral system would favour the parties of the wealthy, and this is indeed what happened. Conservative parties won 228 out of 258 seats, divided between 136 for the moderate right and 92 for the ultra-royalists, while only 30 leftist candidates were elected, divided between 20 for the republican/Bonapartist left and 10 for the liberal left.

In the 1820 election, this pattern continued. The conservatives won 384 out of 464 seats, while the liberal leftist group won the remaining 80 seats. Similar results happened in 1824, when 413 conservatives were elected compared to just 17 for the liberals.

The 1827 results were something different entirely. The liberals won an astonishing 180 seats, the same as the ultra-royalists. The moderate right won only 70 seats. While the combined right did win a majority, this legislature did not last long, and another election was held in 1830.

This election took place during the overthrow of the absolute monarchy and its replacement by the more liberal July Monarchy, and candidates favourable to the overthrow won 274 seats, to just 104 seats for the government.

The new monarchy made some changes to the electoral law; the tax requirement for voting was lowered to 200 francs, members of certain universities were permitted to vote without paying that amount of tax, and membership of the Chamber of Peers on family ties was banned, while the requirement for running for office was lowered to 500 francs.

While these reforms hardly turned France into a liberal democracy, they were certainly positive changes for democracy. The first elections under the new constitution were held in 1831, and these resulted in a win for the moderate liberals, who won 282 out of 459 seats. Supporters of the previous monarchy won 104 seats, while republicans won 73 seats.

As you can see, the broadening of the franchise advantaged liberals, but was not broad enough to allow more radical candidates to prosper.

The statistics from the next election, in 1834, are a bit harder to follow. A new conservative party seems to have been formed, which won 320 seats, to 75 for the opposition liberals, 50 for the seemingly liberal Third Party, and 15 for supporters of the previous monarchy.

The 1837 election saw a number of new parties form.

There was no majority for any party, and as such, another election was held two years later. At this election, the left formed themselves into a single group, which won 240 seats out of 459, while candidates in favour of the current monarchy won 199 seats, and candidates in favour of the previous monarchy won 20 seats.

The next election, held in 1842, saw further political consolidation. The conservatives organised themselves into a party, and the liberals and socialists organised themselves into another, thus creating a two-party system. The conservative party won 266 seats, to 193 for the liberal-socialist party. This continued in the next election, which turned out to be the final election of the French monarchy.

In 1848, a revolution took place in France to overthrow the monarchy, which, despite being more liberal than its predecessors, people had grown frustrated with. High unemployment and poor working conditions created discontent against the King, and, after riots in Paris, the King abdicated and fled to London.

A Democratic Republic

A provisional government was established, led by poet (only in France!) Alphonse de Lamartine, and universal suffrage was declared, thus increasing the voting population from 240,000 to 8.2 million, and a constitutional assembly was announced.

This assembly would have 880 members. It would be elected using a variation of multiple non-transferable vote. Voters would be able to vote for as many candidates as there were seats to be filled, but candidates had to win 2000 votes to be elected. If they did not, a runoff election would be held 14 days later.

The election to the Constitutional Assembly had the following results.


The result gave supporters of the liberal republican order a comfortable majority, and thus meant that a new constitution would not have much more difficulty in being passed.

This new constitution was adopted in November. It called for a National Assembly with 750 members, elected through universal suffrage. The electoral system used for the Constitutional Assembly was retained. Given that the new nation was to be a republic, it was decided that a President would have to be elected. This was to be done directly, but through a variation of the two-round system; if no candidate won a majority in the direct vote, the National Assembly would pick the winner.

The first presidential election took place later that year, in 1848. This resulted in a win for Napoleon the Third, who won 74.4% of the vote to 19.6% to Moderate Republican candidate Louis-Eugine Cavaignac and 5% for Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, the Socialist candidate. Napoleon was a populist, who was able to win through his opposition to radical republicanism, his vaguely left-wing economics, and his strong name recognition.

The next year, a legislative election took place. 


This assembly clashed with President Napoleon, and in 1850 the Conservative majority passed a law restricting suffrage, which Napoleon did not like. This was used as justification for a coup, which took place in December of 1851. This coup was followed by a referendum, where 92% voted in favour of giving Napoleon the authority to write a new constitution. By 1852, Napoleon was firmly in control of the French government, and like his father, he was determined to keep it that way.

The Second Empire

Napoleon decided to write a new constitution, modelled after the one his uncle introduced. The major part of the constitution was his own crowing as Emperor, with fairly broad powers. His strong result in the presidential election convinced him that universal suffrage would be to his advantage, and so it was re-introduced for the lower house. An upper house was introduced, comprised of members of the military and clergy, along with members appointed by the Emperor.

The electoral system used for the lower house was fairly simple. France's regions, called departments, were given a member of the lower house for every 35,000 voters (a voter was defined as a male citizen over the age of 21 who had lived in their district for six months or more. The departments were divided into a number of constituencies equal to the number of members of the lower house.

A majoritarian two-round system was used, with candidates required to win a majority of the votes in the first round as well as 25% of the total eligible electorate. If no candidate won a majority or 25% of the eligible electorate, another election would be held. Under the Napoleonic system, anyone eligible for election could stand in this second ballot, and the candidate with the most votes was elected. Voting was nominally secret, but apparently this was violated. The government strongly supported their candidates by gerrymandering, ballot stuffing, and voter intimidation, thus making these elections more of a charade than genuine democracy.

The first election under the new constitution took place in 1852. To absolutely nobody's surprise, pro-Napoleon candidates won 253 out of 261 seats, off 86.55% of the (officially reported) vote. Candidates opposing Napoleon's rule won 13.45% and 8 seats, 3 of which were won by Republicans and 5 by Monarchists.

The 1857 election had almost identical results.  Napoleon's popularity was still fairly strong, but the election was obviously heavily rigged against opposition candidates. Most republicans and monarchists refused to participate, but five republicans were elected, with 10.9% of the vote. Pro-Napoleon candidates won the remaining 89.1% and 276 seats.

However, the 1862 election saw a bit of change, for the first time. A slowing economy and growing opposition caused by liberalisations meant that the government, while not being seriously challenged, faced the threat of a serious opposition caucus.

The result was, once again, a comfortable majority for the pro-Napoleon candidates. Republicans won 32 seats, and monarchists won 15 seats: in total, opposition candidates won about 25.8% of the vote. The liberalisations encouraged more opposition voters to turn out, and turnout increased to 75% of the vote. Pro-Napoleon candidates won 251 seats and 74.2%; the beneficiaries of strong rural support and voter suppression.

The Second Empire was losing popularity under Napoleon's rule, and the 1869 election reflected this. The pro-Napoleon faction had divided into two groups; the liberals and the authoritarians. The liberal candidates won 120 seats, and the authoritarians won 98 seats: in total, pro-Napoleon candidates won 55% of the vote. Republicans won 30 seats, and monarchists won 41, and in total 45% of people voted for opposition candidates.

The empire did not last long after this. The French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to a revolution overthrowing the Second Empire. Napoleon fled the country, and a new republican government was formed.

A French Republic-third time lucky?

The new government was to be a republic, and this new government were interested in holding elections as soon as possible. As a result, they decided not to write a new electoral law, instead using the system used from 1849. 

"This assembly would have 880 members. It would be elected using a variation of multiple non-transferable vote. Voters would be able to vote for as many candidates as there were seats to be filled, but candidates had to win 2000 votes to be elected. If they did not, a runoff election would be held 14 days later."

The assembly would have some changes; only 768 members would be elected (in theory, but the Prussian occupation of the north of the country meant that only 675 members would be elected). The wartime situation meant that the campaign wasn't especially competitive, but it was clearly more liberal than elections under Napoleon.

The election resulted in a majority for pro-monarchist candidates, who were more in favour of peace with the German Empire than the more nationalist republicans.

Later in that year, a number of by-elections were held. These resulted in a win for republicans; radical republicans won 35, moderate republicans won 38, and Catholic republicans won 26 seats. Supporters of the Bourbons won 9 seats, and pro-Napoleon candidates and Orleanists won 3 seats each.

The 1849 electoral law was not to last long, and in 1873 the monarchist majority voted for the return to the majoritarian 1852 electoral system, introduced by Napoleon the Third.

A two-round system was used, with candidates required to win a majority of the votes in the first round. If no candidate won a majority, another election would be held. Under the Napoleonic system, anyone eligible for election could stand in this second ballot, and the candidate with the most votes was elected.

A republican constitution was eventually introduced in 1875. This constitution called for a bicameral parliament, with a lower house initially comprised of 533 members that would be directly elected by the Napoleonic system. An upper house, called the Senate, was introduced. This body would have 300 members. 75 of these would be elected by the parliament for life, while the remaining members would be elected by electoral colleges (groups of local politicians) for nine-year terms. One-third of members were elected every third years. The president would be elected by the National Assembly for a seven-year term.

The first election under this constitution took place in 1876, and the results were a majority for the republicans.
The result was a comfortable win for the Republicans, who ensured that France's new constitution would stay in place. However, the new parliament only lasted a year. President Patrice de MacMahon, a Royalist, demanded the resignation of Republican prime minister Julius Simon, and replaced him with a royalist. The National Assembly refused to support the new government, and so MacMahon dissolved the National Assembly.

The next election, in 1877, saw the Republicans form into a single party, in order to protest the decision of President McMahon.

As you can see, the election resulted in a win for the Republicans, and a decisive rejection for President MacMahon. He soon resigned, and the event reduced the likelihood of dissolution in France's political future.

Over the next few years, France's republicans were dominant. Socialist groups began to emerge, but they were generally weak. The graph below shows the balance of power between the major groups over this period.

An electoral system change did take place in 1885, when a block vote system was introduced. One member was appointed for every 70,000 votes, and seats were distributed by department. Voters would have as many votes as there were members to be elected. Candidates had to receive a vote from 50% of the voters to be elected. Candidates who did not win this progressed into the second round, where the candidates only needed to be the highest polling. This was repealed in 1889.

As you can see, the dominant faction was the moderate republicans up until 1898.

The game began to change in 1902, when the socialists allied with the left of the republicans to create the Left Block. The results of that election are below.


The Left Block won a narrow majority, but the government didn't last, and in the 1906 election, the old coalition of the centre and centre-left won a majority, winning 340 out of 585 seats. The left-wing won 74 seats, and 174 were won by the right.

This happened once again in 1910, when the centre-left and centre won 371 seats out of 595. The socialists won 75 seats, and 149 seats for the right.

The 1914 election saw an increase in support for the left, who won 126 seats to 349 to the centre and 75 for the right. This might be seen as support for the anti-war position of the left and a shift from the centrists to the left. No election took place during the First World War, and all major parties formed a wartime coalition that lasted until the 1919 election.

After the First World War, a number of changes took place in French governance. A proportional representation system was introduced. Constituencies were multi-member, and one member was appointed for every 75,000 citizens. Candidates could either stand for office as independents or as members of a list. Voters had as many votes as there were seats. They could vote for candidates of different parties.

Counting was done in three stages. In the first round, candidates who had won a majority of the vote were elected. In the second round, the Hare quota (votes divided by seats) was calculated, and the average votes per candidate was calculated for every list (the total number of votes for a list divided by the number of candidates). Parties were given seats based on how many times the electoral quota fitted into the average, and remaining seats were distributed based on the highest averages.

On these lists, candidates were required to win 150% of the list average to be elected on their own steam, and otherwise candidates were elected based on the list order. Individual candidates were required to win with 50%.

A runoff system, normally quite a rarity in party-list systems, was added on to this system. If turnout was below 50%, or if no list won the Hare quota, an election was held 14 days later where these restrictions did not apply.

The election results saw a win for centre to centre-right republicans.
The National Bloc, a coalition of the Republican Union, the Democratic Republicans, the Independent Radicals, and the Conservatives, won 53.4% of the votes and 68% of the seats. The election was highly fragmented, but this was nothing unusual in that time in France.

The next election, in 1924, was notable not just for the consolidation of the right into the Republican Union, but also the electoral d├ębut of the new French Communist Party.

The coalition of the Socialists and the Radical Republicans won 46.2% of the seats and 38% of the votes, and won government. However, due to controversies surrounding German reparations, the government fell, and a coalition government of the radicals and Republican Union was formed.

The next election took place in 1928, and the results were once again fairly divided..

The election resulted in 55% of the seats for the right and 42% for the non-communist left, a win for the right, although not a landslide, and certainly a result that showed the French parties as divided.

In 1932, another election saw a change of government, to the left this time. This election saw the left form into a second coalition, including the radicals and socialists, but not the communists, who were still a pariah party.

The election saw a majority for the left, and showed the instability and fragmentation of French politics at the time. Voters, especially those on the right, were divided between many factional parties, even though these parties soon coalesced into coalitions.

This began to reduce in the 1936 election, when the number of parties was reduced dramatically. For the first time ever, the Communist Party entered into a deal with the parties of the more respectable left.

Note: The somewhat odd looking results on the right group in this graph are due to vote totals being available for the two right-leaning parties, but seat totals only available for the alliance between them known as the 'National Front'. Yes, I know it's confusing.

The Third Republic did not last long after this election. Germany was rapidly rearming, and the weak French government was unable to mount an effective defence. In 1940, the German Army occupied France, and the Third Republic was over.

Despite its instabilty (the 1936-1940 parliament had seen fifteen Prime Ministers), the Third Republic had been remarkably stable, compared to the empire. It had also created a political consensus around republicanism, thus making any return to the monarchy after the Second World War impossible.

The government had also been fairly democratic, compared to previous governments. However, at the end of the republic, the voting public were heavily polarised between left and right. This would create problems in the future, but would also stick around.

In terms of electoral systems, the proportional representation system could hardly be blamed for the increase in the number of parties. This behaviour was already encouraged by the two-round system, which did not penalise large numbers of parties on each side of politics. This is because the two-round system allows factional parties within the left and right to contest the first round, and the highest polling parties of the left and right to contest the second round.

The parliamentary system was also a legacy of the Third Republic. The monarchy and empires, which had strong executives, created an association of presidentialism with dictatorship. The result of the 1848 presidential election also stoked concern amongst elites that, given the chance, the country would vote for a populist dictator.

In effect, the political system of France had been shaped by fairly old events. And, as you will see, this 'conventional wisdom' would be profoundly challenged by events following the Second World War.

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