French ballot proposal outrages small parties

Sunday, August 25, 2002

PARIS -- The extreme right calls it apartheid. The Greens say it smacks of villainy. Even a party representing hunters and fishing enthusiasts is outraged, warning of an ominous "end of France."

At the center of France's latest political storm is a proposal floated last week by the new center-right government to streamline elections by making it more difficult for smaller parties to make it to second-round votes.

"This reform puts our whole system of representation in danger -- small parties will be totally wiped out," said Francine Bavey, spokeswoman for the Green party. "The Republic is on its last legs."

The proposal, drawn up by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, is aimed primarily at the National Front, the extreme-right party headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen that stunned the country by taking second place in the first round of presidential elections in April.

Le Pen was soundly defeated in the second round by President Jacques Chirac, but the challenge was potent enough to send the government searching for ways to blunt a possible right-wing surge in future elections.

The centerpiece of the package is a proposal to limit the second round in legislative elections to two candidates.

This move would eliminate three-way runoffs that have pitted candidates from the mainstream right and left parties against members of Le Pen's National Front, which has tended to draw votes away from the conservatives.

There were only nine such races in the legislative elections in June, but there were 132 in the 1997 elections, largely contributing to losses by the right.

The reform is also aimed at straightening out France's often-chaotic party system, which is constantly in flux. Candidates from 16 different parties ran in the first round of the presidential race. Most of those parties are small enough to be threatened under electoral reform.

The reforms would also impact regional elections where candidates run on party lists. A list would have to win 7 percent of the vote instead of 5 percent to advance to the second round.

Opponents decry what they see as a power grab by the top parties.

"We are seeing an unacceptable attempt ... to lock up political life, to prevent the emergence of any other political force," Philippe de Villiers, president of the Movement For France party, said this week.

The measure would likely force a consolidation of parties on the right and left, with smaller parties joining larger ones as a matter of survival.

The process could push France farther toward an American-style two-party system, described with the slightly negative term "bipolarization" in French, with the right-wing under Chirac and the left led by the Socialist Party.

Critics warn that limiting choice in elections would depress already-weak interest in politics in France. A record 39 percent of registered voters stayed away from the legislative elections in June.

The shrillest vitriol, however, came from the political players with the most to lose -- such as the tiny Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Traditions party.

"This is the end of France, of differences," the party said in a statement, predicting "the coming death of democracy."

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