As is the case in every election, the focus of attention in the June 2022 French parliamentary elections was on results, the final parties’ /candidates’ share, Macron’s re-election and his party’s top position, as well as on other parties’ successes. This is normal and a logical reaction given that elections function as a staircase for access to power. Some commentators and media dealt also with issues such as the rate of abstention, the shock from Le Pen’s National Rally success and other. The rule was again confirmed, and talk about those latter issues was short-lived.
High abstention rates is a highly visible issue, one that makes politicians express their worries and concerns about citizens’ alienation from politics. For more than a decade, this is an issue of “serious concern” for Cypriot politicians too. Many in Cyprus, uncritically underestimate this phenomenon, claiming that is a normal course of things, which puts the island in parallel with the situation in Europe. They tend to ignore that trends in European countries are not in one direction; when candidates that inspire hope appear, turnout in elections is higher.
In the French presidential election, in April 2022, abstention in the second round stood at 28% (exactly the same as in the first round of the Cyprus 2018 presidential election)! A few weeks later, the call to the polls for the parliamentary elections was ignored by the majority of French voters, with 54% abstaining! The winning party Ensemble /Together of the newly re-elected President, Macron, received eight million votes (28% of the valid votes, 16% of the electorate!), but it was attributed 38% of the seats. This discrepancy is the starting point for us to examine five issues that characterise a flawed Democracy, the system called Fifth French Republic.
- Abstention and legitimisation
The high rate of abstention cannot be invoked to challenge the legitimacy of the election result. It raises however a number of questions, of which there is a critical one, that of representation, where a big part of the people is not represented in the Assembly; How representative is the composition of the National Assembly in which the party that received eight million votes, which is only one sixth of the electorate, occupies 38% of the seats? In addition, what is the meaning of the term “National Assembly”, when the legislative body was constituted with the vote of only 42.6% of the electorate? Yes, no doubt about the legitimacy of the Assembly, but there is an issue of legitimisation in the mind of citizens. If citizens say “this is not my Assembly, not voted for it”, this leads to their alienation from politics, which means cutting bonds with the community. This would probably affect their will to participate in efforts and functions by the collectivity .
- Authoritarianism deriving from a two-round majority system
Failure to secure an absolute majority in the National Assembly left in trouble the re-elected President, who lamented that he “could not govern”. He probably expected a result similar to that of the previous election, five years earlier, when Macron’s self-made formation En Marche, with only nine million votes (registered voters were 48 million) it won an absolute majority in the Assembly, with 314 of 577 seats. Now, in 2022, he is not in a position to enforce his plans. He talked about an “ungovernable country” because of the result, missing the fact that a critical feature of democracy is consultation, aggregation of views and interests, respect for the rights of those that are a minority. Equally important is also cooperation of political forces and aggregation of policies.
- A perverted presidential parliamentary system
While the usual form of a parliamentary system points to a president who has a rather decorative role, generally a guarantor of the Constitution, we have in France a super-president who governs, who can dissolve the parliament. Worse than that, after limiting the president’s mandate from seven to five years (2002), parliamentary elections, which are held some weeks after the election of the president, have become a comically tragic event; Candidates from all sides, the right, the centre, the left, the greens and others are competing to joining the ticket of the “majority for the president”. Unexpectedly, the President ends up with an absolute majority in the National Assembly, he can do whatever he wishes to do, without consultation, without any effort for national understanding. At the same time, he has the power to govern by decree, as if he is a monarch.
- Political authoritarianism
The majority of seats that is secured through the perverse electoral system reinforces a fundamental feature of French politicians, a mentality of authoritarian rule. As mentioned before, the management of public affairs is founded more on the will of the leader instead of on a logic of consultation, dialogue, seeking solutions which take into account the common good, interests broader than those of the dominant class and of big businesses. Whether of the left, the right or the centre, power in France knows only one way of government, enforcement of its will. Reactions throughout Macron’s presidency by the “Yellow vests” and others, and other reactions over time in France are the product of denial to consult, to listen to those concerned, those affected by decisions. Of course, serving the interests of big businesses leads to perpetuation of inequalities, social and other. Macron’s behaviour both in 2017 and 2022, is indicative of the elite’s mentality; In 2017, he stubbornly refused to adapt his programmatic platform in the second round as a measure to facilitate voters beyond his supporters to vote for him against Le Pen. In 2022, while he managed to overtake Le Pen thanks to decisive votes from the Left, he refused to take a clear position which would exclude a vote for the extreme right in tens of constituencies opposing candidates of the Left and the National Rally. Instead, there are testimonies of right wing and Macron’s voters supporting the extreme right.
- A perverse electoral system
A critical factor, which is at the root of many of the problems in French politics, is the electoral system, a two-round majority system, albeit with the most extreme fragmentation of the territory and the electorate. France is divided into 577 one-seat constituencies. This turns elections into a competition between local clan chiefs, who occupy for decades the stage, whose only goal is access to power. Worse of all is that they can move easily towards forming a “majority for the president”, leaving aside ideology and positions of principle. It is not hard to see that the territorial fragmentation leads to fragmentation of interests, with care for the broader community and the common good receiving little attention. The mere fact that in the second round we have binary confrontations, with two candidates, and those not qualified potentially in a Pontius Pilatus role, creates the conditions for transactions which do not care much about the will of the citizens or the interests of broader groups. This results also in the very high rates of abstention, which from 28% in the presidential elections passed to 54% in the parliamentary ones.
All the above point to the need for Democracy in France to go through drastic changes. Changes should be both drastic and radical, starting with the abolition of the extreme territorial fragmentation and the two-round majority system, and reaching the top, where the election gives a president not a monarch. Changes also to mentalities and culture of political personnel are imperative.
*This article was published in Greek, in Limassol today, on 28 June 2022