Letters

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LE PEN IN FRANCE...

San Francisco

* Far-right populist Jean-Marie Le Pen's upset in the first round of French presidential voting was variously ascribed to rising xenophobia in Western Europe, a crisis of the French left, rising crime rates in France and other possibilities. Doug Ireland, in "Le Pen: The Center Folds" [May 13], subscribes to all three. Yet the evidence doesn't necessarily corroborate these explanations. Instead, what we saw was a major breakdown of France's two-round runoff method of electing the president.

A full 64 percent of voters supported candidates other than the two who advanced to the runoff. Many left voters, looking to send a message of dissatisfaction to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round, split their support among seven candidates. Together, left-leaning candidates, led by Jospin, garnered more than 40 percent of the vote--and divided, none polled enough votes to make the runoff. Le Pen, with 17 percent of the vote--a mere 250,000-vote increase, virtually the same popular vote he won in his other failed presidential runs--benefited from this vote-splitting.

Jospin learned what Al Gore knows all too well: In a plurality electoral system, spoiler candidates and split votes can plague the results. France's use of instant runoff voting rather than a two-round runoff would have prevented its electoral meltdown. With IRV, left voters could have sent a message to Jospin by awarding their highest rankings to other candidates but would have had the option of ranking Jospin as one of their runoff choices. During the ballot counting their votes would have coalesced around Jospin as their front-runner, who would have made it to the instant runoff over the marginalized Le Pen, who has very little runoff support from any other parties or candidates.

Yes, electoral systems do matter--sometimes dramatically. Just ask Al Gore.

 
STEVEN HILL 
Center for Voting and Democracy 

IRELAND REPLIES

New York City

* I've long favored instant runoff voting, but Hill's suggestion that there has been no marked increase in French racism and its political expression is shockingly ostrichlike. Hill's facts are wrong: The parties of Jospin's governing coalition--Parti socialiste, Parti communiste, les Verts and Mouvement de radicaux de gauche--together polled only a little more than 26 percent. Hill's claim that the 10.5 percent won by three anti-Jospin Trotskyists and the 5.5 percent won by the Pole republicain (which asserted that there was no real difference between Jospin and Chirac) should be included in the score of the left "led" by Jospin could only be made by someone ignorant about French politics. Le Pen got nearly 1 million votes more than he did in '95 (while the governing parties of left and right together lost some 5.5 million votes, as I pointed out).

Hill may not think that's a significant increase, but the French obviously did--daily demos poured more than 500,000 of them into the streets after Le Pen's victory to oppose his racist program, which includes setting up special "camps" for immigrants and special trains to deport them; and nearly all major parties, unions, media, sports stars, the patronat (MEDEF) and even the Catholic Episcopate called for an anti-Le Pen vote in the runoff.

Those who, in their obsession with process, exclude the content of politics from their considerations do so at our peril. The increasing demand in France for replacing the Gaullist constitution of the Fifth Republic does nothing to address the root causes of mounting racism while allowing politicians to pretend to have responded to the electoral evidence of France's racial fracture. And the most visible expression of this demand--the Committee for a Sixth Republic (C6R) led by Socialist deputy Arnaud de Montebourg--sadly does not include IRV in its proposals. …