France – the EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

France was a founding member of the EU, and indeed the former French foreign minister Robert Schuman is considered one of the founders of the EU. The area of Brussels where the Commission is based is known as Schuman in his honour.

France has long played an important role in EU affairs and has been one of the engines of European integration. France substantially benefits from the Common Agricultural Policy and it is often said that the deal at the heart of the foundation of the EU was for France to support Germany’s industry in exchange for Germany supporting France’s agriculture. A French desire to hug Germany so close that any war would be mutually destructive was also part of the foundation of the EU. The Franco-German partnership is perhaps the principle driving force behind European integration.

France is the EU’s second largest country by population and has the EU’s second biggest economy, just beating the UK on both points.

While the French have typically been pro-European they have sometimes had a conflicted relationship with the EU and French support for the EU is perhaps principally based on the idea that the EU helps to amplify French power on the world stage. The former French President, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed the British application to join the EU in 1961 partially on the basis of fearing Britain competing with France for power in the EU. While the French are still broadly pro-European there are increasing fears that as the EU expands French power in the bloc is watered down. The French rejected the European Constitution in a referendum in 2005, and polls showed that the rejection was partially out of objection to Turkey joining the EU and because the French felt that the Treaty embraced ‘Anglo-Saxon’ free market economics too much.

France was a founding member of the Eurozone. The European Parliament is officially based in Strasbourg in the East of France, though most parliamentary business is now carried out in Brussels. Strasbourg is also the base of the Council of Europe, an organisation separate from the EU, which polices the European Convention on Human Rights.

France has a long history of institutional instability. Since the American constitution was signed in 1787 France has seen many changes in government with the country governed as five different Republics, two imperial set-ups, and on one occasion saw a restoration of the monarchy.

The current constitutional set-up dates from 1958 and is known as the Fifth Republic. This re-structured France from a parliamentary system of democracy to a semi-presidential one. Since then, almost every French party has come to be a ‘Presidential’ party, focused around a single Presidential candidate or personality. Parties that do not behave in this way often find themselves divided between several big characters.

France uses a two-round electoral system in parliamentary elections whereby single member constituencies are used as in the UK’s First Past the Post system. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in the first round then all candidates who receive more than 12.5% of registered voters support, or, the top two candidates, go through to a second round. Typically if two, say, left-wing candidates go through to the second round together against a right-wing candidate then the lesser performing candidate will withdraw to maximise the left-wing vote. This has led to the creation of two large, allied blocs, one of the left and one of the right. The larger parties also ‘reserve’ constituencies for their allies (by not running in certain seats) to aid in gaining their support. Outside of the blocs it is almost impossible to gain large amounts of seats.

France has had serious economic problems in recent decades. In the last 25 years only Italy has seen slower economic growth in the EU. It has the largest current account deficit in the Eurozone, public debt is due to hit 95% of GDP in 2014 and unemployment has been stubbornly high for decades. French public spending is high (at 57% of GDP, the highest in the Eurozone) and many argue that France needs deep structural reforms. However, French public opinion is generally opposed to radical liberalisation of the economy. The incumbent President, Francois Hollande, entered power on a platform of opposition to EU mandated austerity, but has found himself with no other choice in power. France’s credit rating is now AA, its lowest ever (though it is still higher than other European states).

Hollande appears to be planning a serious structural reform modelled on the German Social Democrats formerly successful Agenda 2010 reforms.

The economy has grown extremely slowly under Hollande, and commentators say that there is a risk of double-dip recession in 2014. Hollande’s government has also been struck by scandal. For instance, Hollande’s Budget Minister was formally charged with tax fraud, in a huge embarrassment to a government trying to clamp down on tax evasion. Hollande’s approval ratings are now the lowest for any French President ever, and now stand below 20%.

France also has problems with integration and multiculturalism. France has seen high immigration from North Africa, in particular, where France previously maintained colonies. Around 5-10% of the population is now Muslim. Such communities experience large amounts of discrimination. A 2010 study found that a CV sent out with a Muslim sounding name was two and a half times less likely to be invited for interview than a similar CV with a Christian sounding name. Tensions have partially led to the strength of the far-right Front National, one of Europe’s largest and most enduringly popular far-right parties.

European elections in France have historically tended to be used as a chance to kick the incumbent President, even more so than in other EU countries. The President’s party has only won one European election since 1979 – in 2009, an election dominated by fragmentation on the left. European elections have also tended to benefit fringe and minor parties. The Front National had its first major electoral breakthrough in the 1984 European election. The 1994 election saw the Radicals of the Left, usually a tiny party allied to the Socialists, do well in a campaign marked by internal infighting on the left. 1999 saw the Eurosceptic Rally for France/Movement for France joint list win the most votes on the right. And 2009 saw the green coalition, Europe Ecologie almost beat the Socialists.

Electoral System

France will elect 74 MEPs, the same as it received under the Lisbon Treaty redistribution in 2009. Only Germany will elect more MEPs.

Since 2004 France has elected its MEPs in eight constituencies, electing between 3 and 14 MEPs each. This system benefits larger parties more than a single national list due to it being harder for smaller parties to reach the necessary number of votes for a seat. In theory there is a 5% threshold below which a party in a constituency cannot win seats but, in reality, it is unlikely that a party below this level would get seats anyway.

The smallest French constituency represents French departments and overseas territories, meaning that the 3 MEPs for that European Parliament constituency uniquely only represent citizens of France outside Europe. While other countries allow citizens abroad to vote in their European elections gives explicit representation to Europeans outside Europe.

France uses a closed-list system in which voters vote for a party and seats are assigned to candidates based on their party’s own pre-ordered rankings.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) + New Centre (NC) European People’s Party 27.9% 30
Socialist Party (PS) Socialists and Democrats 16.5% 14
Europe Ecologie – The Greens (EELV) European Green Party 16.3% 15
Democratic Movement (MoDem) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 8.5% 6
Left Front (FG) European United Left 6.5% 5
Front National (FN) None 6.3% 3
New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) None 4.9% 0
Movement for France (MPF) Europe of Freedom and Democracy 4.8% 1
Arise the Republic (DLR) Europe of Freedom and Democracy 1.8% 0

Likely results

Polls show a tight race between the UMP and FN for the top spot. Guessing which of the two is more likely to win is difficult, as the UMP seems to be getting its act together of late after the chaos of the party’s recent internal struggles, but polls often underestimate the FN and it is liable to benefit from low turnout.

Polls show the Socialists around or slightly above their 2009 score. Even a small gain may prove a rather disappointing result considering the party’s poor 2009 performance and a likely third place to the UMP and FN. The EELV is likely to lose a not insignificant amount of support, with polls showing it on around 6-9%. It has lost its status as the principle competitor on the left to the PS to the Left Front, which is likely to win upwards of 9% of the vote.

The DLR may be able to win a seat, or the MPF may be able to save Philippe de Villiers in West France, presuming he runs.

Whether it comes first or second the FN is likely to be the big winner of the election, with it likely to score above 20% of the vote in a nationwide French election for the first time.