The End of the Party System?


“The system against which most voters are voting is primarily the party system,” writes Martin Schain, a professor of politics at New York University.

The French presidential election has now become front-page news, even in America preoccupied with Trump tweets. Less than a week from the first round, the closeness of the race, combined with a possible (by no means probable) victory of Marine Le Pen, has captured the interest of the American press. It seems to me, however, that the real story has been obscured by the horse-race. The real story is the breakdown of the party system that has dominated the Fifth Republic since the 1960s.

An article in Le Monde a few days ago noted that all the leading candidates now echo the anti-system refrain of the National Front party. “The system” against which most voters are voting, however, is primarily the party system. In 2015, on the eve of the current electoral cycle, fewer than 8 percent of French voters expressed confidence in political parties, far fewer than had confidence in any other major institution. Nevertheless, until this year, French voters supported candidates of the major established parties, and the National Front remained electorally important, but marginalized.

It appears that what happened was that declining voter confidence was fueled by the incompetence of two successive presidents and party leaders: Sarkozy on the right and Hollande on the left. Then the “democratic” primary system produced candidates that were so weak that they undermined, rather than built confidence. With the exception of François Fillon, none of the candidates likely to reach the second round speaks for one of the major parties of the Fifth Republic, and of course Fillon is probably the weakest of the final four.

The possible consequences may be dramatic. Even with cohabitation, the French system only works if there is governing majority in the National Assembly, led by a prime minister. For the first time since the early years of the Fifth Republic, the deeply weakened political parties may not be able to produce a coherent, stable government majority after the June legislative elections. The closest model that we have is Giscard in 1974 — but who will be his Chirac?

Is this important? Only if we consider that the strength of the most stable Republic in French history has been built around an established party system. Moreover, a weakened France will only exacerbate the problems of a European Union that is now more than ever dependent on Franco-German cooperation.

Martin Schain is a professor of politics at New York University and a fellow at the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law & Justice.