A Lesson from France

Yesterday Macron won in France as expected, defeating white nationalist Le Pen by a comfortable margin—65.5% to 34.5% per preliminary results. The definitive victory of a “moderate” capitalist over an overtly fascist far-right leader is a relief after witnessing the 2016 electoral disaster in the United Sates.

The media had eagerly compared the French and American candidates—Le Pen to Trump, Macron to Clinton, and Mélenchon (or the less popular Hamon) as the “French Bernie Sanders.” The analogy is accurate as white nationalist movements seek to take power throughout the West while radical movements refuse to allow the right or the center to proliferate oppression across the globe. Le Pen is very Trumpian in that context, while the anti-Le Pen sentiment far outweighed any direct enthusiasm for Macron among the electorate.

While the comparison between the two elections is easy to imagine, a major difference should be just as obvious to the casual observer of politics. In France, the parliamentary system and the two-round election process ensured greater democratic participation and prevented the worst-case candidate from being selected, while the two-party, presidential system in the U.S. facilitates the empowerment of a more hated person. If Americans had participated in a multi-party election with a two-round run-off, Trump may have lost with a margin similar to Le Pen’s defeat.

There are two reasons why a run-off would have prevented an unpopular, fascist victory in America. Hypothetically, let’s re-run Trump, Clinton, Sanders, Stein, and Johnson as candidates from five distinct parties. (I believe there were eleven candidates in the first round in France). Knowing that the first vote would narrow the race to two candidates rather than decide the final outcome, voters would typically feel free to vote for their preferred candidate rather than vote “strategically” for “the lesser of two evils.” The votes would have been more evenly distributed among the various parties, and there would have been an increased chance in somebody other than Trump or Clinton making the second round. In any case, the results would reflect a more accurate political spectrum than a single-vote process. In France, for example, the top four candidates each won between 19 and 24 percent of the votes.

Next, let’s assume that Clinton and Trump still emerge as the top two candidates after a competitive first round election with several choices. At this point voters no longer have an option to vote for a “third party” candidate because those have been eliminated. Therefore, no votes for Stein or write-ins for Sanders would “steal” the election from Clinton. Also, since the process would allow people to vote for their first picks during the initial round, I think they would be more likely to go ahead and vote for “the lesser of two evils” rather than “stay home” out of spite and bitterness.

The problem is that there is almost no chance of developing a more democratic voting process in America in the near future. Indeed, we are struggling not to lose ground as the two-party system—though primarily the Republicans—erodes what voting rights the public has. But what we can learn broadly from France nonetheless is that the democratization of the process matters as much or more than the campaign of a particular candidate.

While implementing something like Instant Runoff Voting (which the U. S. Green Party has supported for a couple decades) at the federal level seems unlikely, we can begin by pushing for greater democracy in all of our smaller institutions, such as local government, classrooms, workplaces, neighborhoods, and religious organizations. We need to practice democracy in our daily lives while mobilizing our broader system towards more empowerment. Otherwise, we will only ever have two terrible choices until the end result of that false dichotomy takes us so far that we don’t have any choices at all.