How the French election process works: all you need to know for 2017
With France’s presidential election due to take place in April 2017, MyFrenchLife™ guides you through the French election process.
Through all the coverage, polls, analysis and opinion that surround election fervour, it can be easy to lose track of how this all works. So, let’s go back to the basics of the French election system.
What form of government does France have?
France is often seen as the birthplace of modern democracy, and the terminology of ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ that we use today actually derives from the French Revolution. Supporters of the king sat to the right of the National Assembly president, and supporters of the revolution sat to the left.
Having ditched its monarchy in 1792, the president now replaces the king as the head of state in France, and is elected by the popular vote of French citizens. One term lasts five years, and a president can serve a maximum of two terms.
In what is called a semi-presidential system of government, the president also appoints a prime minister, who then forms a government.
What are the main political parties in France?
As well as the main centre-right and centre-left coalitions that dominate the French election process, France has many minor political parties. Factions and splits are common, new parties often emerge and coalitions are frequent. Both far-left and far-right parties hold sway, with up to a third of the population voting for the extreme right or left.
Currently in power is the the Parti Socialiste (PS), the largest centre-left party in France.
Further to the left of the political spectrum, we have Lutte Ouvrière, and the Parti Communiste.
In the centre is Mouvement Démocratique, MoDem for short, which aims to bring together those on the left and right.
Les Républicains (previously UMP) is on the centre-right, and is one of the biggest parties in France.
On the far-right is the Front National.
At least 16 parties are expected to put forward candidates for the presidency in 2017.
How do French parties choose presidential candidates?
Traditionally, senior party members would decide the candidates, but in 2011 the Parti Socialiste held its first American-style open primary, where members of the public voted for a nominee after televised TV debates. Les Républicains have followed suit and now also select their nominees in this way.
Independent candidates can run providing they are French citizens and on the electoral register, though historically, they tend not to do well.
Anyone running for presidency in France needs to gather 500 signatures of support from elected officials from at least 30 departments, with no more than 10% from the same department. Each official can sponsor only one candidate, which makes it less likely that they will support an independent or fringe candidate.
How does the French election process work?
In coverage of French elections, reporters often mention the ‘two-round system’; this refers to the two stages of voting, also called run-off voting because it works by a process of elimination. All major elections in France (except to the Senate) are conducted in this way.
French people cast their votes on Sundays, and all political campaigning is to stop at midnight on the Friday before the election.
During the first round, every candidate appears on the ballot. If one candidate receives an absolute majority at this stage then the voting process is over; however, this has never happened. The two candidates who receive the highest number of votes then move on to the second round to compete for the presidency. This final round is usually held two weeks after the first.
In 2017 the first round will be on Sunday April 23, the second on Sunday May 7.
French people cast their votes on Sundays, and all political campaigning is to stop at midnight on the Friday before the election. Interestingly, it is forbidden to publish any sort of political poll or estimate on the Sunday of the election until after the polling booths have closed.
Voting is not compulsory, but since citizens are automatically registered at the age of 18, almost everyone can participate. This is reflected in the high voter turnout: 80.3% of the 46 million eligible to vote in the last presidential election.
According to Helen Drake, author of the book ‘Contemporary France,’ the high voter turnout is due to “a willingness to be seen, to be counted and to make a noise” that characterises French political life. Speaking to the BBC, she states that the French consider their politics “exceptional”, a view that is anchored in the French Revolution of the 1700s and still affects public life today.
Unlike in the US, the French election process is designed to only deliver a president who is endorsed by an absolute majority of the electorate.
How will the French election process play out in 2017?
After the shocks of Brexit, Donald Trump and the continued rise of the far-right in France, the 2017 presidential election is set to be an interesting one. There is much discussion surrounding the electoral chances of Front National party leader Marine le Pen.
English academic Paul Smith expresses the widely heard question in his article in The Conversation.com: ‘How Marine Le Pen could become the next French president’. He says: “There is every possibility that Le Pen will be ahead after the first round in April 2017 so the question is how much of a chance she has in the second round?”. Especially given the “left appears to have collapsed”.
However, since the surprise victory of François Fillon – a conservative Catholic from rural France – as the Républicains party candidate, the relevant question may be: will we see a face-off between Le Pen and Fillon, and who will dominate?
How will this all play out? Who knows! But now you can go into this year’s election season confident that you have your facts straight about the process.
Mark you diary now for:
the first round on Sunday April 23 2017,
and the second round on Sunday May 7 2017.
Watch this space for more informative articles about the election process and the election progress into 2017.
What do you think of the how the French election process works? How does it compare to the systems in other countries?How do you think it will play out in 2017? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Studying French at university led me to appreciate la vie française, as well as an excuse to consume French cheese and wine in the guise of cultural immersion. After moving from the UK to Lyon, I joined the MyFrenchLife™ team in 2016 as an editorial intern. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram or my blog
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