- 9.38.1 MYTH: National Popular Vote seeks to import the flawed French presidential election system into the United States.
9.38.1 MYTH: National Popular Vote seeks to import the flawed French presidential election system into the United States.
- The National Popular Vote compact would not import France’s presidential election system into the United States.
- The 2002 French presidential election forced voters to choose between two right-wing candidates in the general election because the left-wing candidates were eliminated in France’s “top two” multi-party primary.
- The existing American system for nominating presidential candidates does not have the flaws of the French system, and, in any case, the National Popular Vote compact would not affect the nominating process.
Professor Norman R. Williams of Willamette University incorrectly equates the National Popular Vote compact with France’s flawed “top two” multi-party primary system for nominating presidential candidates.
“The French President is elected on a nationwide popular vote of the sort that the NPVC seeks to introduce in the U.S.”
Williams goes on to criticize the 2002 French presidential election.
The French presidential election system starts with a multi-party primary in which candidates from different parties are forced to compete directly against each other for a spot in the final general election. The “top two” candidates from the primary then compete against each other in the general election.
In 2002, the primary in France included two prominent right-wing candidates, namely the conservative Gaullist Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac and the ultra-conservative Jean-Marie Le Pen. The primary also included a multiplicity of prominent left-wing candidates of whom the most popular was Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
In previous French presidential elections conducted under the Fifth Republic’s constitution (adopted in 1958), one right-wing candidate and one left-wing candidate had always emerged from this multi-party “top two” primary system. Accordingly, it was widely expected that the conservative Chirac and leftist Jospin would run against one another in the 2002 general election.
However, because an unusually large number of left-wing candidates entered the primary (including a Green, an independent socialist, a Trotskyist, and others), the left-wing vote in the primary was fragmented while the conservative vote was divided only two ways. In the primary, the conservative Chirac received 5.6 million votes; the ultra-conservative Le Pen received 4.8 million votes; and leftist Jospin trailed with 4.6 million votes. That is, the “top two” candidates were both conservatives.
The result was a general election in which voters were forced to choose between conservative Chirac and an ultra-conservative Le Pen. Left-wing voters (who would certainly have enthusiastically voted for Jospin over Chirac) were forced to vote for one of the two conservatives. Chirac won with 82% of the vote in the general election.
Williams (and virtually every other observer) has justifiably criticized the French presidential election system for denying the voters any real choice in the 2002 general election.
However, contrary to the impression created by Williams, the National Popular Vote compact would not import the egregiously flawed features of the French multi-party primary system into the United States.
First, the existing American system of nominating presidential candidates is not a “top two” multi-party primary such as used in France.
Second, the National Popular Vote compact would not affect the existing American system for nominating presidential candidates.
Under the existing system for nominating presidential candidates in the United States, one Democratic nominee emerges after competing with other Democrats in primaries (and caucuses), and one Republican candidate emerges after competing with fellow Republicans. Third-party nominees are similarly nominated in competitive processes in which they compete with other members of their own party for their own party’s nomination.
Then, after the nominating process is over, the eventual Democratic nominee competes in the November general election against the eventual Republican nominee (and any third-party nominees). Under the existing system for nominating presidential candidates in the United States, there is no possibility that the voters would face a choice such as that faced by French voters in 2002 (namely two Republicans but no Democrat or no third-party alternatives in the November general election).
Note that Louisiana has long used a “top two” multi-party system that is virtually identical to the French system (the so-called “jungle” primary). Washington state and California recently adopted the “top two” approach for their state elections. The “top two” multi-party primary system regularly produces situations similar to the 2002 French presidential elections. For example, the June 2012 primary in California’s newly created 31st congressional district included two prominent Republicans (Congressman Gary G. Miller and outgoing State Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton) and multiple Democrats (including San Bernardino Council member Pete Aguilar). Because of the fragmentation of the Democratic vote, the two Republicans emerged from the “top two” primary as the district’s candidates for the November 2012 general election (with Aguilar running third with 23% of the vote). Even though the district is heavily Democratic, the district’s voters were forced to choose between two Republicans (but no Democrats and no third-party candidates) in the November general election.
Also note that the multiplicity of political parties in France existed before the 1958 Constitution (as opposed to being created by it). Prior to 1958, France had a parliamentary system in which the Prime Minister was selected by parliament. The 1958 Constitution created a President elected in a nationwide popular election. The 1958 Constitution attempted to accommodate the country’s pre-existing multiplicity of parties by adopting the “top two” multi-party primary.
In summary, the National Popular Vote compact would not import France’s presidential election system into the United States. Instead, it applies the method long used to fill almost every other public office in the United States to the election of the President.
 Williams, Norman R. Reforming the Electoral College: Federalism, majoritarianism, and the perils of subconstitutional change. 100 Georgetown Law Journal 173. November 2011. Page 204.