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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Charcutage en gros et en détail

by Patrick Appel-Muller

French Electoral Reform Bill: Retail Fiddling , Wholesale Gerrymandering

Translated Monday 16 June 2008, by Isabelle Métral

The interior ministry’s computers are running at full capacity while the prime minister’s experts monitor the simulations: away from cameras and safe from media stunts, the right is cooking up a real electoral hold-up.

Of course the right has had long experience in the fiddling and fumbling that make for small gains and narrow victories, and its present position is largely due to its arch specialist in this field: Charles Pasqua. Pasqua earned a reputation for high artistry in 1986 when he redistricted and customized France’s electoral map.

Real changes in the population map no doubt offer an easy pretext for the redistricting, at a time when the UMP (the rightwing governing party) has lost ground in the recent local elections. The aim is to minimize the effects of sudden “quirks” in the citizens’ vote.

The bill that is brewing in the ministry’s back offices is meant further to amplify the over-representation of the two dominant parties and to eliminate communist deputies, exactly as MODEM centrists, ecologists, the far left and the far right alike, were wiped out in the previous elections. Whole sections of public opinion and politics would be banned from Parliament. The tinkering was initiated before 2002 when the presidential term was reduced to five years and the presidential election set before the general election [1]. The change stands to be perfected by a redistricting that is the dark side of a constitutional reform which Socialist deputies are inclined to support for the very same ulterior motives as their UMP counterparts: the real aim being to guarantee the regular coming into office of either of the two parties under the authority of a hyper-president.

Most political leaders just cannot stomach the possibility that future events (like the 2005 majority “NO” vote against the European constitutional treaty) might take place and disrupt the lines along which they think they can reasonably carry out their more or less market-friendly policies. Some political parties believe the reform would be a safeguard against these hazards; while in fact, the trick might well aggravate the deficit in political representation and so the ensuing tensions. The Far Right, for one, might capitalize on a new “victimization” and regain the ground it has lost.

The Constitutional Committee’s concern over the fact that 27,000 votes were enough to elect a deputy in Lozère when 115,000 were needed in the second Val d’Oise constituency was legitimate enough. But it would do its members honour to denounce the inequality between the average number of votes required for the election of a Communist deputy (67,000) and the average 35,000 votes required to elect a Socialist.

Even the homeopathic dose of proportional representation the bill provides is meant to entrench the two-party system. The UMP, and in a more indirect way, the Socialist party, refuse the full proportionality that would have earned the Right only 283 deputies in June 2007 (against the present 346), and would not have enabled it to impose the regressive “social” reforms that the country opposes.

Which deputies could electors rely on in the future to defend public services, raise salaries, counter the European Commission’s initiatives, as they did with the Bolkestein directives or the reform of the constitutional treaty? Who could they rely on to fight over issues like GMOs, pensions, or the 35-hour week?

The gerrymandering that Sarkozy’s men are plotting is not just a petty trick. It also reflects an authoritarian tendency. Democracy itself can be incapacitated if democrats allow them to have their way.

Translator’s note:

[1] Originally, a president’s term under the fifth Republic lasted seven years, so that presidential and general elections seldom coincided. The constitutional change preceded the 2002 presidential election in which the outgoing prime minister Lionel Jospin (who had proposed it) came only third behind Jacques Chirac (UMP) and Le Pen (National Front), and was consequently barred from the second round. The left was again defeated in the legislative election that took place just after the presidential election (according to the new constitutional electoral calendar).

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