Institutions Matter, French Edition
How rules shape the game.
Over at his Substack blog Slow Boring, Matt Yglesias offers what he deems “Some boring takes on the French election.” There’s a lot to his post but I want to focus mostly on his section Institutions and tactical voting matter.
It’s striking the extent to which major post-election media narratives are heavily shaped by institutional quirks and tactical voting considerations that are technically irrelevant to the subject of the narrative.
For example, in 2022 Le Pen got the best-ever result for the French far-right. But also in 2022, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon improved on his votes from the previous election, finishing just a hair behind Le Pen. And he did so despite the presence of a number of minor left candidates who clearly had no hope of winning. If some of those Jadot/Hidalgo/Roussel/Poutou/Arthuad voters had gone for Mélenchon instead, the story of the first round would have been a breakthrough for the French far-left.
Indeed, because the long-predicted outcome of a Macron-Le Pen runoff occurred, little attention in the American press was given to just how close Mélenchon came.
In this scenario, not making the runoff would have been a humiliating defeat for Le Pen even though she would have secured the same number of votes. A completely irrelevant consideration — Mélenchon’s struggle to fully consolidate the left-wing vote — was critical to our understanding of the outcome for Le Pen. Of course Mélenchon would’ve gotten crushed in the second round, but coverage of the race would have had a totally different tenor, focused on the question of whether a far-leftist could appeal to Le Pen voters rather than on whether Macron could persuade young leftists to vote for him.
But one key reason Mélenchon got so close to Le Pen is that seven percent of the electorate voted for Éric Zemmour, who ran to Le Pen’s right. That in turn reflects a crucial dynamic for understanding why Le Pen did as well as she did in the second round: she moved quite a bit to the center.
This is followed by a discussion of tactics particular to France, which he extrapolates to the US case. It’s interesting and debatable but, again, my interest here is in the institutional arrangements—the degree to which the rules of the game shape the outcome. While the French system is far more representative than ours, in that new parties and coalitions can much more easily emerge, the fact that the cutoff for the second round is two means that “spoiler” candidates can have a significant impact.
After a long discourse on the particular tactics and policy positioning of the French and American parties, Yglesias returns to the institutional discussion:
France has a two-phase presidential election — a broad multi-candidate first round, followed by a runoff between the two top finishers. America has a different kind of two-phase system — first a pair of multi-candidate primaries and then a general election.
I’m not quite sure that the mutatis mutandis works this way but it’s plausible:
If you ran the French results through the American system, Le Pen would have won the primary on the right and Mélenchon would have won the primary on the left, with Macron voters split between the two parties. And all signs are that Le Pen would have won the general.
Again, I’m not sure this is quite right. The fact that so many fringe parties exist makes turning out to vote in the first round much more attractive. A lot of those folks probably wouldn’t even show up in a primary system that will inevitably produce a more bland candidate. (Not to mention that the US primary system, with its serial nature, isn’t truly equivalent to the French national first round.) Beyond that, Macron, who was a leader in the Socialist party not that long ago, would have likely tacked further left in a primary to represent the leftist coalition.
Regardless, the point remains: the rules of the game very much dictate not only the outcome but who plays, using what tactics.