The Electoral System

According to the Minister of the Interior, the electoral system in France is based on a few principals.

  1. The vote is universal: the right to vote belongs to all of the citizens of electoral age (18 years)
  2. The vote is strictly personal
  3. The vote is free
  4. The vote is secret: no one should seek to know nor to control the vote of someone else

In order to vote in national elections, one must be a French citizen of 18 years or older, and it is necessary to register to vote. It is also necessary to register on complimentary lists for the European elections and for municipal elections.

In order to maintain a private and free vote, voting takes place in a voting booth, in which the elector puts the ballot of his or her choice into an envelope, and then places the envelope into a transparent ballot box and signs the electoral list.

In order to be a candidate for a national election, one must meet the same requirements as are needed to vote, along with other specific conditions depending on the position. For most elections, including presidential elections, the age required to be a candidate is 18 years; for senatorial elections, it is 24 years. Finally, it is not necessary to be of French nationality for municipal elections or for European Union elections (where one need only be of a nationality belonging to the European Union).


The election process varies slightly for different offices of power. Here is a brief overview:

  1. The President

Historically, the presidential election process has undergone a sort of circular evolution throughout the different constitutions of France. Under the second Republic, which lasted from 1848 to 1852, the president was elected by direct universal suffrage. The only president elected this way was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. Next, under the third Republic (1870-1940) and the fourth (1946-1958), the president was elected by members of the National Assembly and the Senate. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle was elected for the first time under a system of indirect universal suffrage, by an Electoral College made up of members of Parliament, councilors, and municipal representatives, a total of around 80,000 voters. A constitutional revision in 1962 established direct universal suffrage once again and continues to this day. In 2000, the seven-year term was shortened to 5 years.

Before the election commences, the candidates must receive at least 500 votes from citizens who are elected officials defined by the organizational law. This group of 500 or more must come from at least 30 different departments or overseas territories, and no more than 10% of them may come from the same department or overseas territory. This policy, enforced by the Organizational Law of 1962, is meant to prevent radical groups from being represented.

The presidential election then consists of two rounds. The two candidates receiving the greatest number of votes in the first round become the final candidates of the second round (also known as the ‘Second Tour’).

Additionally, according to the Organizational Law of 1988 that regulates financial transparency in political life, candidates must submit a declaration of their legacy situations. Only the declaration of the candidate elected is announced publicly.

  1. The Legislative Elections

The legislative elections decide the deputies of the National Assembly. The Assembly consists of 577 individuals elected by direct universal suffrage for a period of 5 years, which may be renewed at the end of the term unless the legislature is interrupted by a dissolution. The vote takes place according to district. As with the presidential elections, there are two rounds.

In the first round, in order to be elected a candidate must receive the absolute majority of votes as well as a number equal to a quarter of the registered voters.
In the second round, the relative majority is enough. In case of equal number of votes received, the older candidate is elected. In order to be a candidate in the second round, the candidate must have received a number of votes of at least 12.5% of voters registered.

3.  The Senatorial Elections

The senators are elected by an electoral college made up of deputies, regional councilors of a department, general councilors, and municipal delegates. Around 145,000 people make up the Electoral College, about 95% of which are municipal delegates. The senatorial term lasts 6 years and is renewable. Elections take place every three years for half of the seats. There are a total of 348 senators.

The way in which a senator is elected depends upon the number of senatorial seats given to a department:

  • In the departments that elect 3 or fewer senators, there is a majority election in two rounds. The ballots are not blocked lists. The voter can cross out names or add new ones. The counting of votes is done by name.
  • In the departments that elect 4 or more senators, there is a proportional representation. There is only one round of voting by list, and the attribution of the seats is contingent upon the order of the candidates on each list.

The senatorial election is the only election in which the vote is obligatory among the members of the Electoral College.

4.  The European Election

The European Parliament is made up of deputies elected by direct, universal suffrage for a renewable period of five years. The elections take place across Europe on a selected Thursday and the following Sunday, depending on the country. France votes on the Sunday.

The election is based upon proportional representation. The different regions are divided into eight electoral districts. The seats are divided among lists having obtained at least 5% of votes expressed and attributed to candidates according to the order of each list.

5.  The Referendum

The referendum is the procedure in which the citizens of France are asked to vote directly regarding a specific yes or no question. A referendum may have to do with the revision of the Constitution, or it may be legislative, having to do with the organization of public power, reforms related to social or economic politics of the nation, or the ratification of a community agreement or a treaty that will effect the functioning of public institutions. The government consults the Constitutional Council about the organization of the referendum and the results. The referendum consists of a single round of voting, and must receive a majority of positive responses to be passed.

6.  Regional Elections

Regional elections elect the regional councilors to seats of the assembly of a particular region. Since 1982, these representatives have been elected by direct universal suffrage, according to departments, for a renewable period of six years. There is a two-round system of elections. A list receiving at least 10% of the vote moves on to the second round. The list receiving the absolute majority in the first ground or who has the most votes in the second round receives a quarter of the seats in the assembly.

7.  Cantonal Elections

The Canton was created by law the 22nd of December, 1789. Each canton elects a general councilor, elected for a term of six years by direct universal suffrage. There is a two-round system. In order to be elected in the first round, it is necessary to receive the absolute majority of votes expressed and a quarter of votes.  In the second round, a relative majority is sufficient to be elected, but it is also necessary to obtain at least 12.5% of the votes.

8.  Municipal Elections

Members of the municipal counsels are elected by direct universal suffrage for a renewable period of six years. The mode of election depends upon the population. It is different in communities with less than 3,500 inhabitants than in those with more, and the cities of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille have specific procedures.

Credit: Rebecca Townsend, University of Pennslyvania

Source: Minister de l’interieur, Les modalités d’élection en France.