Voting Rights for Foreigners: A Left-Wing Battle for the Past 30 Years

Manuel Valls, Ministry of the Interior, at the Elysée
Photo: Associated Press

The idea of granting voting rights to foreigners in France emerged in 1981 under the initiative of François Mitterrand. Almost thirty years later, François Hollande went back to this idea with his 50th campaign promise: “I will grant voting rights for local elections to foreigners who have lived legally in France for five years.”

Granting voting rights to foreigners is one of the key claims of the Parti Socialiste (PS) and other parties on the left side. But each time the PS tries to implement this measure, it faces difficulties.

Indeed, under Mitterrand’s presidency, the public was not ready for such a change. In 1997, during Jacques Chirac’s presidency, socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin initiated a vote for the bill at the National Assembly but gave up introducing it in the Senate, since it was mainly made up of right-wing members at the time and would not have passed. In 2001, Nicolas Sarkozy wrote in his book Libre that he would be in favor of such a reform under certain circumstances, but his discourse during the last presidential campaign show that he has changed his opinion. The last act of the left before the election of François Hollande regarding this matter occurred on December 8th 2011. The Senate, which had a majority of left-wing members at the time, voted for a bill concerning the right for foreigners to vote and be elected to office in local elections. But at that time, the National Assembly, which was had a right-wing majority, did not pass the bill.

Since the vote in the Senate, it looked like the PS was in a deadlock situation and that the project to grant voting rights for foreigners was impossible. But then, time for change had come, and with the new socialist President, the opportunity to fulfil this promise was more likely.

Since this promise did not seem to be at the top of the government agenda, 75 PS deputies wrote an opinion piece for Le Monde asking for the implementation of the law by 2013, one year before municipal elections.

However it has to be known that this project needs to reform a lot of aspects of French law. As in 1992 when France ratified the Maastricht treaty, the Constitution had been revised in 1998, art 3-88, so as to grant the right to vote and to be elected to the citizens of the European Union at local elections. If the government wants to allow foreigners to vote for these kinds of elections, it will also have to revise article 3 of the French Constitution, which defines voters as “all the people of French nationality, who are over 18, of both sexes, and enjoy their civil and political rights”.

Furthermore as a revision of the Constitution is needed, there are two ways to pass this law: the first one is the parliamentary method and the second one requires a referendum.

In the first case, the reform must be voted under the same conditions as both the National Assembly and the Senate, with an absolute majority. Then the President must call the Parliament for a Congress in Versailles. At this step of the process, the Parliament has to vote on the law, and a 3/5 majority is needed to pass it.

The PS’ problem stems from this requirement because the PS and its allies cannot get the 3/5 majority needed in Congress. The only way to achieve it is to form an alliance with the centrist parties, mainly the Union des Démocrates et Indépendants and the Union Centriste et Républicaine.

The other way to pass the bill is to ask for a referendum, as the UMP deputy Henri Guaino wants to do. However, if the government chooses this solution, it runs the risk ofa sanction-vote regarding the economic crisis context and the low public opinion ratings for Hollande and his government.

Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls did not omit these points and estimated that “there is a need to correctly evaluate the consequences of a referendum, not only in terms of results, but also in terms of rift within French society. This debate is likely to cause divides. In a period of crisis, one sees how it can be used, raised.”

Moreover, the IFOP led a survey showing that between 53 and 55% are in favor of such a reform. However, as Jérôme Fourquet pointed out in an interview for Le Figaro, “there are swings. We can go under the 50% again in case of a referendum campaign.”

When Valls claimed, ”Today, is this [the right of vote for foreigners] a strong claim of French society? Is this a powerful element of integration?  No. It no longer has the same scopeit had thirty years ago. Today, French society’s challenge is that of integration,” we can agree with him that this matter does not concern the whole French society, but it concerns a part of it. It is true that the context is not the same as under Mitterrand because French society has evolved. And it in order to address this evolution that this bill has come back on the front stage, because, the right of vote is also a way to integrate and to feel part of the society.

Nevertheless many believe that this reform is a more symbolic measure since it will not dramatically change the political landscape at a local level. Finally, this project raises various concerns: indeed the reform only concerns local elections: legislative or presidential ones are not taken into account. Furthermore, if the bill passes, foreigners could only be elected as town councilors and will not have as important functions as those of mayors or senators.

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  1. [...] close to the former one, citing the examples of the debate about the Romani population and the right to vote for foreigners. She argues that the expulsions of the Romani people under Sarkozy will most likely continue, and [...]

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