Psephology Rocks: Les Regles du Jeu

noun1. the study of elections
In the wake of the elections last November, I was sort of casting about, looking for some outlet for my general sense of self-abnegation of despair at the state of our political system and that's when it came to me: I love elections. Even last November, Election Day was fun, right up until the end, that is. There's something wonderful and joyous about witnessing democracy in action- and that's when it struck me: there's got to be a better way to do this.

While I'm not pursuing a serious academic career in political science, whether through default, by dumb luck or just out of sheer random chance, I fell into the field of Comparative Politics because it honestly interested me, so I'm going to combine the fun of participatory democracy with my background in Comparative Politics, to take a look at some of the elections on tap for this year. First up: France.

Before we can get into the fun and games currently going in France in the run up to their election in April, we've got to break down the rules of the game (or, if you want to be French about it, les regles du jeu) so we can understand what they've got going on and how it's different to what we've got going on over here.  So, from the top:

France is a Republic. We're on the Fifth Edition of the French Republic currently- and yes, they've got a President, a Senate and a National Assembly- so they've got the bicameral legislature and executive branch thing going on, same as we do.

Their President is term limited- but with a five year term instead of a four year term that can be renewed once- the office and how it's structured has evolved somewhat over the years.  It's been directed elected by the people since 1962 (before that, the position was elected by an Electoral College- see, we're not the only ones with one of them goofy things!) The term length was lowered to five years from seven in 2000 and term limits were adopted in 2008 (which I didn't know, actually.)

Here's the interesting thing about the French Presidential System: cohabitation! With the lowering of the term length to five years and with the elections for President and the National Assembly being so close together, the likelihood of it happening is lower than it used to be, but it can happen. What's cohabitation, you ask? Well, here's the kicker in France: the President has the power to choose the Prime Minister. Buuuuuuuut... the National Assembly has the power to dismiss the Prime Minister's government, which means that the President has to pick a Prime Minister who has the support of the majority of the assembly.

(In a sense, that whole arrangement is sort of monarchical in many ways. The Queen in the UK technically has the power to appoint the Prime Minister, but can't just pick a random back-bencher- she's got to pick someone who has the support of the House of Commons- which is usually the head of the majority party.)

Normally, that whole arrangement doesn't rock the boat all that much- the fun begins when the National Assembly is controlled by one party and the Presidency by another. (Sort of like the divided government thing that bedevils us over here from time to time.) In situations like that, the Prime Minister controls the legislative agenda on the domestic front, while the President's powers are limited to foreign policy and defense.

Step back for a second and think of how crazy that would be... President Obama and President Reagan would have had to find a Speaker of the House from the opposition party they could live with to essentially govern...  the possibility alone encourages coalition building and respect for the other side in many respects.

Bare bones established, how do their elections actually work? (Yes, France has a legislative election scheduled for later this year as well, but for the purposes of this piece, we're focusing on The Big Kahuna, the Presidency.) The lowdown:

Elections are held on Sundays.
Campaigns end at midnight, the Friday before the election.
On Election Day, no polls can be published, no electoral publications or broadcasts can be made.
No results made available until after the polls closed.
French Overseas Territories vote on the Saturday. (This was wisely implemented in the 2000s, because having both France and their Territories vote on the same day meant that French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe knew the results- or at least had an idea before voting really got underway there, which depressed turnout.)

There's also- wait for it....  wait for it...  campaign finance limits!

Say whaaaaaaa?

Yes, that's right:  Spending is capped at 20 million euros but the government will pony up 50% of that if the candidate scores more than 5% in the polls. If it's less than 5%, they get a cool 8 million euros, 4 million of which they get in advance. Best part: NO POLITICAL ADS. But candidates get free air time and the whole kit and caboodle is run by an independent agency.

(That last paragraph? You guys.  You guys we should totally do that!)

The biggest and final piece of the puzzle concerns the election itself. France has a run off system, which means that if no one breaks 50% in the first round, the top two candidates move on to a second round of voting- this ensures that no matter the winner, they have to get the majority of the vote.

There's a lot I like here. I like the idea of a run off system. I like the idea of co-habitation. I like the idea of a government committed to ensuring the integrity of the democratic process by regulating how/when results are released and monitoring political content on television. I can't tell you how much I like the idea of no political ads. Next Month: we unveil the dramatis personae of the great French Election of 2017. By then the Socialists should know what they're doing (i.e. they should have a candidate by then) and my French lessons on Duolingo should be up to enough of a snuff so I can actually read some articles on Le Monde about who's who and whats what.


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