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The Demise of the French Party System? Not Just Yet!

The French election’s central drama is more a characteristic of the rhetoric of the analysts than of the French polity, writes William Schonfeld, a professor of political science at UC-Irvine.

Most commentators on the 2017 French presidential elections have emphasized the dramatic nature of the results. The traditional parties of the left and right have been eliminated on the first ballot. Many argue that the traditions of the Fifth Republic have been irrevocably shattered. The old cleavages no longer seem to matter; they have been replaced by the issues of globalization and immigration. There has been an historic shift, a monumental change. The party system, as we knew it, is dead. Perhaps. But, perhaps the central drama is more a characteristic of the rhetoric of the analysts than of the French polity. Let us consider the two most salient features of the first ballot.

First, 2017 was the first time that the French presidential primary system was fully operational for the major parties of both the right and the left. The Republicans (the contemporary version of the Gaullist party) held an open primary of the right and the center. The Socialists also held an open primary. Not surprisingly, given what we know about primaries from the experience in the United States, these elections favored “purer” candidates on each side rather than moderate compromisers. Fillon won the Republican primary defeating the more centrist Juppé, while Hamon won the Socialist primary defeating the moderate Valls. In contrast to the American practice, in France the two major parties do not exercise de facto control over who runs in the actual presidential election. So, in addition to these two candidates, there were a number of other important contenders, including not only the leaders of other major established political parties (Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, representing the descendants of the extreme-left and the French Communist Party) but also Emmanuel Macron, former deputy secretary-general of the Elysée for the Socialist president Francois Hollande and then Minister of the Economy for the Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls. Macron was clearly a representative of the Socialist wing that lost their primary to Benoît Hamon. And soon, openly for some, and covertly for others, a number of moderate Socialist Party leaders turned away from their official nominee, and supported Macron — reminiscent of 1974 when Jacques Chirac and 43 Gaullist leaders supported Valéry Giscard d’Estaing over their own party’s candidate Jacques Chaban-Delmas. While moderate conservative politicians did not abandon Fillon, his own financial scandals soon ensured that his commanding presence in the early polls definitively evaporated.

Second, the leading candidate is a “centrist,” specifically a moderate of the left. During the campaign for the first ballot, Marine Le Pen gradually ceded the top position to Macron. While Le Pen’s score far outpaced that of her father’s in 2002, there seems little if any possibility for her winning the second ballot. The polls, which have been quite accurate, suggest that even with a low turnout, about 60% of the electorate will vote for Macron, giving him an undisputable victory. In turn, Macron will be the first centrist candidate of the left to win the presidential elections. He follows in the Fifth Republic’s political tradition of Lecanuet and Giscard, as well as of Rocard and Valls. The consequences for the party system are far from clear. Giscard’s victory led many to forecast the demise of the Gaullists and of the Fifth Republic. It did not happen. In like fashion, the future will be decided by the results of the legislative elections, elections in which the Socialists and the Republicans do not have primaries, and in which their candidates will be selected by the party elites. What happens in those parliamentary elections will be all-important for the future of French public policy and for France’s party system.

Macron may govern with the left, should there be a Socialist victory, or he may be forced into a form of cohabitation with the Republicans, should the Gaullists dominate; neither of these outcomes would have much effect on the party system. But were the new president to put together a grand coalition government of moderate forces (favorable to Europe, free trade, and immigration) including key figures from the right (like Alain Juppé) and from the left (like Manuel Valls), then serious questions about the future of the current system of French parties would have to be raised. Until that happens, the monumental change of 2017 may well be like many other dramas since 1958 which have been much discussed forecasts that have not been realized. Simply put, the reports of the demise of the French party system seem premature.


William Schonfeld is a research professor of political science at the University of California – Irvine.

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