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The real lesson for America in the French and British elections

This past week saw elections in two of the world’s biggest democracies, the United Kingdom and France. The results of Britain’s July 4 election were (mostly) as expected: a romp for center-left Labour, dethroning the Conservative party after 14 years in power…



The real lesson for America in the French and British elections
The real lesson for America in the French and British elections
This past week saw elections in two of the world’s biggest democracies, the United Kingdom and France. The results of Britain’s July 4 election were (mostly) as expected: a romp for center-left Labour, dethroning the Conservative party after 14 years in power. But Sunday’s French results came as a surprise. The far-right National Rally (RN), widely predicted to triumph, came in third place. The New Popular Front (NFP), a left alliance ranging from the center-left socialists to the radical France Unbowed, took a plurality of seats — a stunning victory made possible by tactical coordination with President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance. Almost immediately after the French results came in, the takes began flying. The results proved that the center was surging against the far-right. Or perhaps that the left is on the march. Or perhaps, in one especially deluded analysis, that the results were proof of the far-right’s long-run rise. The truth is that none of these analyses really hold up. There isn’t an obvious ideological throughline here, a grand story to tell about What This All Means for the world in 2024 — or what it might say about the mindset of American voters in November. Trying to tell the story of these elections as some unified left-versus-right struggle ends up misleading more than it helps. But if you look at it through the lens of institutions — the ways that electoral systems and choices by party leaders shape outcomes — some key lessons start to pop out. In particular, the winning parties in both the UK and France won by realizing that the nature of their systems required that they sacrifice some specific candidates in order to defeat the right. And that’s where there might be a lesson for America — and for the Democratic party in particular. A muddled ideological story There is no doubt that right-wing factions lost in both Britain and France. But though both countries arrived at somewhat similar results, the actual story they tell is more complicated. Labour’s victory over the Tories in Britain was not really an endorsement of its political agenda. While the party took about two-thirds of the seats in parliament, it managed to do so by winning a large number of constituencies by relatively narrow margins (with third party help). Robert Ford, a political scientist at the University of Manchester, noted that “more than half of their seats [were] won with a majority of 20 percent or less.” Nationally, Labour only won 34 percent of the national popular vote — the lowest tally for a winning party in British history. Opinion polling on the eve of the election showed Labour leader Keir Starmer underwater with British voters. More than anything else, the British election reflected simple frustration with 14 years of Conservative rule. Nearly half of all British voters said their reason for voting was to “get the Tories out.” Voter turnout in 2024 was the second-lowest it’s been in a hundred years of UK elections, with many voters turning away from the UK’s two major parties. The centrist Liberal Democrats won a record-high number of seats; the far-right Reform party won over ten percent of the national popular vote. The French results also do not tell a simple ideological story. It’s difficult to call them a triumph for the center when Macron and Renaissance took a major electoral hit, going from 245 seats in parliament to roughly 150. The left did better than anyone expected, but still lacks a governing mandate: the New Popular Front fell well short of a parliamentary majority, while the most prominent far-left faction in the alliance made virtually no gains. And it’s impossible to call a third-place finish for the RN a victory given its expectations of an outright majority. What to make of this? Like in Britain, there’s a certain level of anti-incumbency at work: most French voters were fed up with Macron and made that clear at the ballot box. But at the same time, they clearly also still reviled the far-right — leading the center and (especially) the left to do better than most assumed they would. Anglo-French election week did not tell a story of any particular ideology rising. More than anything else, they tell us that people in Britain and France don’t especially love any of the options on offer. The real story: electoral systems and party tactics The best way to think through the British and French systems is through their electoral similarities. Like the United States, both countries elect legislative candidates based on whoever wins in majorities in particular districts — a system known as first-past-the-post. This is in contrast to proportional systems, where parties are awarded a percentage of seats that reflect their popular vote share. But unlike the United States, both countries currently have more than two parties represented in the national elections. This arrangement creates opportunities for electoral gamesmanship: for parties and their supporters to make district-by-district tactical choices designed to elevate one rival against a more hated alternative. That’s exactly what happened in both countries. In the United Kingdom, Labour and the Liberal Democrats implicitly encouraged “tactical voting” against Conservatives. In a district where Labour was better positioned to beat the Conservative, Liberal Democratic voters crossed over to vote for them — and vice-versa. This appears to have been decisive in both parties performing unusually well in Parliament despite slight improvements in the national popular vote. France has a two-stage election system, with the first vote (which took place a week ago) winnowing out weaker candidates to produce either a two or three-person race. In between the first and second rounds, hundreds of candidates from Renaissance or the NFP strategically withdrew to give the other faction’s candidate a head-to-head race against the RN in districts where they were better positioned to win. By making this deal to minimize vote-splitting, both parties ended up performing better than expected — at the far-right’s expense. The point here is that elections are not merely about the public mood or grand ideological narratives. They often come down to which party can better game the electoral system, and whether the center and the left can overcome their differences to cooperate against a radicalizing right. So what should Americans take from this? For Americans worrying about the rise of our own far-right, the main lesson from England and France is not about ideological positioning or some grand truth about the fate of the far-right movement. Rather, it’s that systems matter — as do the choices party leaders make about how to adapt to those systems. Unlike France and Britain, the United States only has two viable choices on offer: the center-left Democrats and the radical right Republicans. And when it comes to the most powerful job in our system, that’s currently a choice between two men: Biden and Trump. Biden can’t count on help from other parties to boost him the way it helped Labour or the NFP; polling suggests he actually does slightly worse when third parties are on the ballot. Instead, he and his party will be forced to face an electorate that — like their French and British peers — aren’t especially happy with any of the choices on offer. Those elections also suggest that, in such elections, incumbents tend to fare poorly. In their systems, the French and the British had a strategy for addressing their problems: sacrificing marginal legislative candidates in service of the greater good of defeating the right. But in the American system, sacrificing marginal candidates won’t be enough to overcome the effects of general public discontent and anti-incumbent sentiment. Here, the ticket is defined by the president — a man increasingly seen as too old for the public to trust in addressing their concerns. Defeating the right might very well require the center-left in America to make a more radical kind of political sacrifice: a change at the very top of the ticket. Of course, there is no guarantee that cutting bait on Biden wins Democrats the election. But this read of the developments in our peer democracy — that the center-left requires creative and unsentimental tactical thinking to defeat the far-right — is much more accurate than concluding the far-right wave is ebbing of its own accord.