Comparative Politics The United States Vs. France Essay, Research Paper
The United States vs. France
There are few countries in the world who have very similar electoral systems but continue to have differing amounts of political parties. These similarities and differences are best described in the relationship between France and the United States. Despite similar electoral systems, France has multiple political parties while the United States has only two major parties. I will argue that the United States needs this two party system in order to achieve a smooth flow and continuity of governmental operations, while the people of France do not. France requires a more expansive voice for their widespread concerns and ideals, which accounts for their more pluralist society..
Firstly, the similarities of the two electoral systems in the Unites States and France should be examined briefly. Essentially both countries use a first past the post, winner takes all style of electing their Presidents. The United States uses an electoral college to select a President from available nominees. Each state has a certain amount of electors in the electoral college, this number is equal to the number of Senators and Representatives it is entitled to in Congress. When election time is near, each states political party names electors who are committed to the party’s nominee. American voters actually place ballots for party electors, who in turn vote for the President and Vice-President. In any event, the person with the most votes wins. Similarly, France has a primary system where Presidential nominees are selected. Anyone can run on the first ballot but if a majority has not been decided in the first ballot only those with greater than 12% of the vote go to the second ballot. The person with the most votes on the second ballot wins. With these similarities, why does the amount of parties vary so greatly within these two countries? To do this, I will examine each countries party system discussing their similarities and differences between them. In comparative political analysis, evidence supporting difference is almost always another difference between two comparisons.
The United States has a two-party system where the Democrats and Republicans dominate political culture with little interference from independent parties. This duopoly, as it is referred, has been the essence of American electoral history. There are conditions which have been developed to identify the two-party system:
1. Two parties are in a position to compete for an absolute majority of seats in Congress.
2. One of the parties wins a sufficient majority.
3. One of the two parties controls the presidency.
4. Alteration and rotation in power between the two parties remains a credible expectation. 1
The United States party system follows the above conditions almost flawlessly. The Democrats and the Republicans compete for the majority of seats in congress. At times the state of the governmental process in the United States can have the two houses controlled by the same party, while having the Presidency controlled by a different one. This can lead to gridlock, because the passing of legislature is near impossible in this situation. The two party system can be understood by three general ideologies: institutional, cultural and consensual. These three ideologies can explain how and why the American’s use such a system taken that most first past the post’ systems are two-party systems. With this in mind, proportional representation would result in a multi-party system. This does not follow through in the case of France, as it is a multi-party system which also uses a plurality, winner takes all electoral system. This could not be used as a reason for why the two systems differ. “The American election system offers no reward of office to any but the plurality winner and, so the theory goes, thus discourages the chronic minority parties.”2 Contrasting this with a proportional representation system, the chronic minority party would be facilitated and proliferation would be attainable. On the other hand, France will join coalition parties in order for a larger voice to be heard, in France small parties do flourish and become larger more influential parties. Another institutional reason for two-partyism in the United States are the laws which have been passed by the only two parties in power. These laws attempt to protect the duopoly. The laws themselves outline how a party qualifies to have their name on a state ballot and what amount of federal funding they would qualify for. “To qualify to appear on the ballot many states requires either a specified percentage of the vote to have been obtained in a previous election or the submission of a petition signed by a stipulated number of voters….This can entail obtaining vast numbers of signatures.”3 Obtaining such vast amounts could and would cost millions of dollars, money that most independent parties do not have. Financing parties during elections is a very costly undertaking, restrictions have been put in place that see independent parties limited to a thousand or so dollars per candidate, per donation. With the limited following an independent party would have, this restriction limits the independent party drastically. The individual candidate would essentially be responsible for his own financing. This is very different in France where any group can run on the first ballot without a major intrusion of laws and stipulations governing party involvement. The shear population size of the United States, over two hundred and seventy million, lends itself more directly toward a two-party system because of the difficulty and expense required to reach and inform its population. In contrast, France with a population just over fifty seven million, informing and educating the population is less expensive and more capable of being handled. The second cause of two-party success in the United States can be associated with cultural theories. “It attributes the two-party systems development of a political culture that accepts the necessity of compromise, the wisdom of short-term pragmatism, and the avoidance of unyielding dogmatism…in other words, they are willing to make the kinds of compromises necessary to bring heterogenous groups of voters into two political parties.”4 These groups then develop and mature into what is considered the norm and proceed to cultivate new ideas within the two-party system. When we consider that countries which are very diverse often have multi-party systems, we can negate this theory from the United States investigation because they are a very diverse population, especially in areas of religion, race and geographic location. This is something that France and the United States have in common, they are both very diverse, yet one has a multi-party system and the other a two-party system. And lastly there are the consensus theories which help enforce the two-party system. “Since the matters that divide Americans are secondary, so the argument goes, the compromises necessary to bring them into one of two major parties are easier to make.”5 Consensus and agreement with traditionally accepted institutions of old make the American people more susceptible to easier and less complicated forms of government. The two-party systems is definitely one of those systems. A system that is necessary for the smooth operation of governmental operation, and an easier check on the power of the executive. One less convincing argument is the “tendency of two-party systems to increase representation over time also is a very different process from the tendency of multi-party systems to increase the entropy as a consequence of increased representation, mainly in small parties, at any one point in time.”6
Next is the party system of France, which despite its similarities in electoral system with the United States, its party system is very different from the American model. In fact, the multiparty system of France is what can only be described as the norm for electoral systems such as theirs. France is a culture which is very pluralist in nature. The following defines what a pluralist or multiparty system is with the following three features:
- a small ideological gap between the principal parties;
- a propensity to form coalitions between different parties, even when they
favour different programmes;
- essentially centripetal competition.7
The above is only an outline of features most multiparty systems experience, “centripetal pluralism can be said to be embodied in States where, by reason of the contradictions and heterogeneity of both the Right and the Left, competition is played out at the centre. The role of the centre is crucial, not because of its own intrinsic strength, but on account of the weakness of both the Right and Left.”8 There is, as a result, a greater tendency for parties to converge in the centre to create an alliance because the benefits are much greater when coalition governments are created. This is evident when the alternative would be a situation of permanent opposition. It is apparent through history, that France has seen much to divide the country. Conflicts over Church and state relations, democracy versus some other authoritarian alternative have created the need for a multiparty system. “French society since the 1950’s has rapidly undergone a transformation under the impact of the traumas of military defeat and occupation, of a rapid population increase, of massive industrialization and urbanization with their consequences for population mobility and the occupations structure of the country.”9 These issues do not necessarily explain the differences between France and the United States because the U.S. saw some of these events occur in their own country during these periods. Instead these are mentioned to as to eliminate them as reasons for the differences. The parties in France need to retain their effectiveness, they do this by becoming more distinct. Some parties need however to join in coalition governments in order to maintain their positions in French politics. France was pictured “as a country divided into warring and irreconcilable camps, each camp forming its own party. Hence, big, durable and stable coalitions were possible.”10 With this tendency to create coalitions we have another difference between the American system and the French. The American system does need to join in coalition governments because the issue covered by each party are so broad that most interests of the people are covered with the two parties. The need for third parties in America still exist as a method of attending and addressing the concerns of the electorate. In France, “a tradition of tampering with the electoral system as a means of marginalizing opponents in a polity traditionally lacking in consensus has ensured that no electoral system has enjoyed complete legitimacy, but has been seen rather as an instrument for securing partisan advantage.”11 This advantage is a difference between that and the American system whereby the Majoritarian electoral systems discourage parties who fail to be represented on the basis of their acquisition of seats in government and therefore lend legitimacy to those parties (Democrats and Republicans) who consistently have the attention of the public and seats in government. There are many reasons why France remains a multiparty system but none so clear as the European integration. “The rapid absorption of France into Europe, raising fears among nationalists and threatened groups, the social democratization of the Socialist Party”12 make the Multiparty system flourish in a country where many parties are needed to extend a voice to the pluralist views of its citizens. France is like no other country in the world but it has had its problems which may allow for some further explanation into its multiparty system. “Like all West European countries, France had high rates of inflation(until 1985), of unemployment(rising to over two million by 1984), of disillusionment with a state which could not control the economy or even its own expenditure, of crime rates and of demands for better protection of the environment.”13 The state of political involvement was at an all time low. Peoples satisfaction with the parties they supported was in need of help. The solution was the creation of new parties and the switching from one party to another of party constituents. Many new parties and existing ones, made new gains and were shuffled to the forefront of French politics because of the unsettling effects of inflationary times.
This essay has attempted to show why such a difference exists between the United States two-party system and the Multiparty system of France. Within the preceding seven pages, similarities have been discussed which rule them out as possible answers to the difference between the two countries. The United States use its two party system to its advantage by maintaining a check on the executive. As the Framer of the constitution had intended, they did not want the country to be ran by the few. This is why the executive has been limited in its power and why the two-party system is an acceptable party system for the time being in the United States. France on the other hand has a semi-Presidential system whereby a President and a Prime Minister exist. The Multi-party system in France attends to the needs of the electorate much more efficiently because of the plurality of concerns and ideologies that surround its politics. Many questions still exist and more time is needed for further discussion, but the direct premise has been answered.
1. McSweeney, Dean., American Political Parties: the formation, decline and reform of the American party system., Dean McSweeney and John Zvesper, 1991. Pg. 79
2. Sorauf, Frank J., Party Politics in America, Little, Brown and Company, 1984. Pg. 40.
3. McSweeney, Dean., American Political Parties: the formation, decline and reform of the American party system., Dean McSweeney and John Zvesper, 1991. Pg. 83
4. Sorauf, Frank J., Party Politics in America, Little, Brown and Company, 1984. Pg. 41.
5. Ibid. Pg. 42
6. Midlarsky, Manus I., “The American Political Science Review”, Political Stability of Two- Party and Multiparty Systems: Probabilistic Bases for the Comparison of the Party Systems, The American Political Science Association, 1984. Pg. 947.
7. Meny Yves and Knapp Andrew, Government and Politics in Western Europe, Oxford University Press, 1998. Pg. 106.
8. Ibid., Pg. 107.
9. Wright, Vincent., The government and Politics of France., Holmes and Meiers Publishers Inc., 1989. Pg. 172.
10. Ibid., Pg. 172
11. Criddle, Byron., “Parliamentary Affairs”, Electoral Systems in France., Oxford University Press, 1992 p.108.
12. Wright, Vincent., The government and Politics of France., Holmes and Meiers Publishers Inc., 1989. Pg. 179.
13. Hall, Peter A, Hayward, Jack and Machin, Howard, Developments in French Politics., St. Martin’s Press,1990. Pg 45.
Criddle, Byron., “Parliamentary Affairs”, Electoral Systems in France., Oxford University
Press, 1992 p.108-116.
Hall, Peter A, Hayward, Jack and Machin, Howard, Developments in French Politics., St. Martin’s Press,1990.
McSweeney, Dean., American Political Parties: the formation, decline and reform of the
American party system., Dean McSweeney and John Zvesper, 1991.
Meny Yves and Knapp Andrew, Government and Politics in Western Europe, Oxford
University Press, 1998.
Sorauf, Frank J., Party Politics in America, Little, Brown and Company, 1984
Wright, Vincent., The government and Politics of France., Holmes and Meiers Publishers,