Ancient wisdom in today’s electoral system in France
By Robert Holloway
France goes to the polls next month to start choosing a new president with a method that would have pleased the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.
On April 23, French voters will be able to back one of 11 candidates. The two with the largest number of votes will face each other in a second round on May 7. The following day, the winner will take office as the eighth president under the constitution adopted in 1958.
Writing more than 2,450 years ago, Herodotus described how the Persians took two rounds to decide important matters of state.
"It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk," he wrote. The next day, they would reconsider their decision while sober. "If it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside."
Drunkenness might facilitate uninhibited discussion, but it is unlikely to be accepted today as a formal aid to decision-making.
However, several dozen countries, including 11 members of the European Union, have adopted two-round voting to choose their presidents. France uses the method also to elect members of parliament and of regional and local administrations.
A chance to change your mind
A two-round system gives voters an escape valve for anger, outrage and pent-up passion in a tactical, free-wheeling first round. Then in the more consequential second round when faced with two choices, voters weigh their options more carefully -- and in many cases bite their tongues hard.
Its advocates say this is a safeguard against extremism and point to the French presidential election of 2002 as illustration.
That election saw a record number of 16 candidates, including President Jacques Chirac, a conservative seeking a second term in office, and outgoing Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a Socialist.
They were the front-runners in early opinion polls. But to general surprise, Jospin was beaten into third place on the first round of voting by Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front.
Le Pen’s margin was narrow -- he took 16.86 percent of the vote to 16.18 for Jospin -- but it was enough to secure him a place in the run-off against Chirac, who scored 19.88 percent.
Some commentators blamed Jospin’s defeat on the fact that the left-wing vote was split: more than 27 percent of the electorate supported other left candidates. On the second and decisive round, however, they rallied behind the conservative Chirac, helping to boost his score to 82 percent, while Le Pen’s share increased only marginally to 18 percent.
It was one of the biggest electoral landslides in a democratic country, so large that in other circumstances it would have aroused suspicions.
If banks offer a grace period, why not the electoral system?
Le Pen’s daughter Marine now heads the National Front and is its candidate in the forthcoming election. For weeks she has been running first or second in polls indicating voters’ first-round choices. Many of her opponents are optimistic that she, like her father, will be crushed on the second round.
Critics such as the UK Electoral Reform Society, which favors proportional representation, say two-round voting is costly and only slightly more representative than the first-past-the-post system used in Britain and the United States.
The divisive outcomes of the British referendum on EU membership last June and of the U.S. presidential election last November have led to new calls for some kind of electoral reform in those countries.
Not all reforms would necessarily give voters the opportunity to think twice.
But, if a bank allows a prospective house buyer a week or more to change his or her mind about accepting a mortgage, how much stronger is the case for giving voters the possibility to reverse a decision they might have come to regret?
Robert Holloway is News-Decoder Editor. A British-born French citizen, he had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. He joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.