France Prepares to Vote: A voting system to end shifting alliances: With the ruling Socialists in apparently terminal decline, Julian Nundy in Paris previews the coming polls

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The Independent Online
THE French election will be conducted under the well-tried Fifth Republic's two-round majority vote. Responsibility for introducing this system fell to Georges Pompidou who, as the chef de cabinet to Charles de Gaulle when the constitution was drawn up in 1958, advised against the purely proportional vote that De Gaulle at first favoured.

The argument was that proportional representation led to a fragmented parliament and weak coalitions while the new president needed a strong majority behind him to put an end to the shifting alliances of the discredited Fourth Republic.

The first round of voting to the National Assembly takes place on Sunday 21 March. If one candidate in any of the 577 constituencies takes 50 per cent of votes that day, he or she is elected. Any candidate whose score is equal to 12.5 per cent of voters can go forward to the final round on the following Sunday. If only one candidate or none meets this criterion, the top two go forward.

Since the system was introduced for Assembly elections, the convention has been that candidates step down in favour of the best-placed member of their political camp. Thus, if a Socialist and a Communist each mustered 12.5 per cent or more of the electoral roll in the same constituency, only the candidate with the better chances of defeating the right would go forward. This invariably produced a straight contest between two candidates in the second round.

This year, however, the game should be more complicated. The far right, anti-immigration National Front has given notice that it will go through to the second round wherever it can in protest at the Gaullist RPR and centre- right UDF's refusal to contemplate alliances with Jean-Marie Le Pen's party.

The ecologists have said they will adopt a similar tactic. In their case, this is born of a reluctance to be seen as allies of right or left. So a number of constituencies should have a three-way fight in the second round, complicating predictions of the outcome.

The public pre-election stances may, however, turn out to be posturing; they might crumble in last-minute local negotiations between rounds. The ecologists have promised not to do anything which might ease the election of a National Front deputy. A recent opinion poll predicted that the ecologists could save up to 40 Socialist seats by standing down in crucial constituencies.

The poll, in the current issue of Paris Match, predicted that the conservative opposition could take between 401 and 461 seats out of a total 577 with only 40.5 per cent of the vote. With 17 per cent, the ecologists would take just five to nine seats while, with 20 per cent, the Socialists would get between 81 and 99, down sharply from their current 270. Such figures demonstrate that, even with two rounds, the majority voting system produces a parliament which is far from reflecting the political make- up of the country at large.

In 1986, when the first 'cohabitation' began, France had a brief experiment in proportional representation. As a result, 35 National Front deputies were elected. This angered the right, which saw the system as a Socialist device to fragment the right-wing vote.

Voting then was by lists in each department, with parties which gained 5 per cent or more entitled to seats. In a department with 20 seats, each party would put forward a list of 20 candidates. A party which took 40 per cent of the vote would see its top eight candidates elected. A party with only 5 per cent was guaranteed one seat.

During the two years of conservative government after the 1986 election, the system was abandoned. Since then, the ecologists, who have everything to gain from PR, and the National Front have called for a return to PR.

This month, a parliamentary commission presented a report which proposed 'a dose' of proportional. Under this hybrid, the current number of National Assembly seats would still be filled by the two-round majority vote. To these would be added 10 to 15 per cent of new seats which would be filled by proportional voting. The extra deputies would be on party lists subjected to a national vote.

Antoine Waechter, the Greens' leader, described the proposal as 'patchwork where we needed reform. We need a real proportional . . . accompanied by a reform of the constitution guaranteeing stable institutions, along the lines of the German example.'

Another suggestion for reform is to choose the Senate, or upper house, by PR. Currently, the 321 Senators are chosen by 'grands electeurs', other elected officials from National As sembly deputies to mayors and town councillors.

(Photograph omitted)