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What's wrong with French democracy?

Tom Forth,

Every year The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes an update of their Democracy Index. Every year I look at the fantastic maps and my eye is caught by Europe, where I live.

Map from The Economist.

In darkest green are always the obnoxious Nordics; Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Just behind them are usually the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany. And then almost every year France is a lighter shade of green, a flawed democracy.

I've never thought too much about this before. France just isn't very democratic I guessed. But recently I've been working more in France, with government, and it's prompted me to look at these rankings in more detail.

Comparing the power and engagement of Lille's Council, City Mayor, Metropolitan President, Metropolitan Council, and Regional Council with the over-stretched and under-powered local democracatic institutions I deal with in England did not convince me that France's democracy was substantially more flawed than the UK's.

France scores really badly for political culture.

So I started investigating. Looking more closely at the scores, we see that France trails the UK in a few areas, but by a huge amount in what The Economist calls political culture.

To give some context for just how low France's score is here, it scores the same as Vietnam and Zimbabwe. China scores higher with 6.25. This deserves investigation.

Diving into the methods section, the poltical culture score is largely determined by answers to questions about how strongly the population back democracy and how likely they are to be tempted by technocrats, military leaders, and similar. It also looks at how well separated church and state are.

So how does France score so poorly here? Few countries separate church and state as rigorously as France, while the UK still reserves space in its Upper House of Parliament for Bishops of The Established Religion. The difference must come from elswhere.

Both the World Values Survey and Pew Research Center global survey on political systems give us data on this. So I looked up France and the UK.

In the Pew Survey, France scores similary to the UK.
In the World Values Survey, France scores similary to the UK.

Judge for yourself, but I can see barely any difference in these survey results. If anything, France seems slightly ahead. They are less tempted by a strong leader and consider politics more important. An almost equal amount, and in both cases below 10%, think democratic political systems are bad.

What's going on?

I really don't know what's going on here, so I started looking for other clues.

I looked at the most recent national elections, turnout was 68.7% in the UK, and 74.6% in France. In local eections the same pattern; The Mayor of Paris was elected on a 58% turnout, while The Mayor of London was elected on a 45% turnout. In Lyon's most recent local elections turnout was 57%, while in Greater Manchester's Mayoral contest turnout was half that, just 29%.

And yet for political participation, The Economist Intelligence Unit scores the UK higher.

If you know what's going on, I'd love to hear about it. If you're one of the experts doing the judging, perhaps you can explain the scores? But for the moment, it doesn't make sense to me.

 

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