Is there proportional representation in France?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 7th March 2019

Apart from the UK, France is the only other European democracy not to use some form of proportional representation for its state-wide elections (Here’s a list of voting systems used at the state-level in Europe). Instead, French voters use the Two-Round System to elect their president and MPs, and for regional elections.

What distinguishes the way the French choose their MPs from Westminster is the fact that to get elected, a candidate needs to get more than half the votes, not just more votes than anyone else.

Many countries that directly elect their presidents, such as Austria, Columbia, Poland, Russia and Ukraine, use the Two-Round System. The system is less commonly used for electing MPs. France is an exception in this regard as it has used it on and off since 1928 for electing MPs as well.

How do elections work in France?

The main feature of the two-round system is that voting takes place on two different days. Slightly different versions are used for presidential and parliamentary elections in France – we are focusing here on presidential elections (you can find out more about elections to the National Assembly and regions on Democratic Audit).

The first round of voting is similar to voting in the UK: electors vote for their preferred candidate.

If a candidate gets over half the votes, they are elected and there is no second round. In practice, no presidential candidate has won in the first round since direct elections of the president were introduced in 1962.

If no candidate receives an overall majority, the second round of voting takes place two weeks later.

Only the top two presidential candidates are allowed to take part in the second round (i.e. those with the highest and second highest number of votes in the first round) – all other candidates are excluded. Given that voters can now only choose between two candidates, the winner will definitely receive more than half the votes.

The table below shows the results of the 2017 French presidential election. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen both progressed to the second round as they received the highest and second highest number of votes, with Macron ultimately winning the election.

Results of the 2017 French Presidential Elections

Candidate and Party 1st Round Votes % 2nd Round Votes %
Emmanuel Macron ­– En Marche! 8,656,346 24% 20,743,128 66.1%
Marine Le Pen – National Front 7,678,491 21.3% 10,638,475 33.9%
François Fillon – The Republicans 7,212,995 20%
Jean-Luc Mélenchon – La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) 7,059,951 19.6%
Benoît Hamon – Socialist Party 2,291,288 6.4%
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – Debout la France 1,695,000 4.7%
Jean LassalleRésistons! 435,301 1.2%
Philippe PoutouNew Anticapitalist Party 394,505 1.1%
François AsselineauPopular Republican Union 332,547 0.9%
Nathalie ArthaudLutte Ouvrière 232,384 0.6%
Jacques Cheminade – Solidarity and Progress 65,586 0.2%


What is interesting to note, however, is that the Two-Round System gave Marine Le Pen (of the far-right National Front – now renamed National Rally) a considerable chance of winning the entire election and becoming president of France, just because she obtained 1.3% more than François Fillon, who was eliminated from the race altogether.

Ifop-Fiducial polled a hypothetical second round where Macron was up against Fillon. Macron still won, but only beat Fillon by 52% to 48%. It seems a more popular candidate was excluded, and an extremist let through.

This goes to show that majoritarian systems do not protect against the far-right – in fact, the one-person-takes-all nature of systems like Westminster’s First Past the Post and France’s Two-Round System can give far-right parties much more power, if they manage to reach a tipping point of success.

Another disadvantage of the Two-Round System is that it’s possible for both candidates who go through to the final round to be from the same side of the political spectrum – and to go through on a small percentage of the vote (e.g. 24% and 21% respectively for Macron and Le Pen). This means that voters from the other side of the spectrum are effectively denied a genuine choice of who to vote for and may have to pick the ‘least worst’ option.

In 2002 the slogan “Vote for the crook not the fascist” became popular as the right-wing incumbent Jacques Chirac ran against the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen in the final round. Chirac won even though he was facing corruption allegations at the time.

The two-round system might appear to be an improvement on Westminster’s voting system as it stops results like Belfast South in 2015, where an MP was elected on 24.5%, as candidates need to get more than half the votes to be elected.

But it still does not give voters genuine choice on who to vote for. In the French National Assembly, it artificially boosts larger parties and excludes smaller ones, which in turn can foster disillusionment with the political system among their supporters.

Only the Single Transferable Vote – the ERS’s preferred system ­– enhances voter choice and guarantees a strong link between MPs and voters, while also distributing seats in parliament in a way that is fair and reflects how people voted. When used to elect one person, like a president, the system allows votes of left-wingers to steadily accumulate around the most widely accepted left-wing candidate, and the same for the right-wing candidate. Once it is down to two candidates the one with the most votes wins.

Rather than forcing voters to choose between just two parties as the two-round system does in the second round, the Single Transferable Vote helps ensure every vote counts and people’s voices are heard and represented.

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