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Political parties in France

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Political parties in France
with a comparison to political parties in Britain and in the USA


Last update: November  2014

This page is recommended as a basic overview in English of political parties in France by the United States Library of Congress.

To outsiders, the French political system can often seem bewildering and difficult to follow. Compared to Britain or the USA, France seems to have a plethora of political parties. Politicians, supposedly of the political right, may be heard defending positions more often held by political parties of the left in many other countries, an d in recent French history, a good proportion of the economic liberalisation that has taken place in France has been pushed through by governments of the left. Even before the financial meltdown of 2008, French conservative governments were far more keen on economic intervention than their counterparts in the main English-speaking countries; and in 2008, some months after retiring as British prime minister, Labour's Tony Blair was enthusiastically received at a party political rally in Paris organised by the right-wing UMP party of President Sarkozy.
     If you are already confused, that is not too surprising.
     Yet perhaps even more confusing to outsiders is the fact that in France, a country that prides herself as a model of democracy, up to a third of voters regularly vote for extremist parties, either of the left or of the right.
      Here therefore is a short guide designed to help outsiders understand the main French political parties, what they stand for, how they reached their current situation, and how they compare to apparently similar parties in the UK and the USA.
     Most minor political parties are omitted from this overview. Such parties and movements come and go with a disconcerting regularity in France, sometimes lasting a decade or two, sometimes less than a year. For outsiders, they mainly serve to blur the main picture of politics in France. This article therefore only deals with the principal and most recognised political parties in contemporary France, to the exclusion of many small parties; even so, the situation may still seem a little hard to follow !

Important note: the word "liberal" is used, in French politics, and therefore in this article, in the sense of "economically liberal", or "free market liberal";  "libéralisme", in contemporary French political vocabulary, is thus often seen as the opposite of "socialisme", and the Left in France use the word "libéral" as a term of abuse to denigrate the perceived "anti-social" policies of their right-wing opponents. In this context, it is more or less the equivalent of "neo conservative".

The mainstream right
The main "conservative" party is the UMP - Union pour un Mouvement Populaire. This is one of the largest political parties in France, and the reason that it has achieved this status is that like Britain's Conservatives and America's Republicans, it is a party that encompasses a fairly broad range of political opinion, including traditional conservatives, social liberals, and also a Thatcherite or neo-conservative right. It also projects itself as a "Gaullist" party, and the flagbearer of "Gaullism" in French political life. Gaullism can best be briefly summed up as a peculiarly French type of benevolent social conservatism, strongly patriarchal and nationalistic; but the Gaullism of the UMP has moved well on from that.
    In parliament, the UMP is allied with the centrist (moderate) "Nouveau Centre"; this was formed from the rump of the UDF, the liberal-conservative party of former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, which fractured in 2007 when its leader, François Bayrou, split the party in two by forming his own "Centrist" (social conservative) party, the MoDem, or Mouvement Démocratique (see below) .
    The UMP also has a curious relation with a party known as the Parti Radical; while mainting its identity as a progressive and humanist party, the Parti Radical - the oldest political party in France, and once a party of the left - is currently a corporate member of the UMP.
     In November 2014, former president Sarkozy confirmed his comeback to politics, being elected as leader of the UMP party. Sarkozy is now in a strong position to have himself elected as the party's presidential candidate for 2017. However he has been beaten once in a presidentail election... by a man who has subsequently become the most unpopular french president of modern times; and there are many even in the UMP who do not want a second Sarkozy presidency. Two former prime ministers, the ageing Alain Juppé and Sarkozy's own former prime minister François Fillon, are both liable to run in the primary to chose the UMP's next presidential candidate; Sarkozy is popular with the party faithful, but Juppé in particular has a much broader public appeal.

    Although these parties represent the right wing of French political life, on the international spectrum of political positioning, most party activists and representatives would consider themselves closer, politically, to the Democrats than to the Republicans, if compared to their counterparts in the USA. The fact is that the whole political spectrum, in France, is further to the left than in the main English speaking countries.

The Far Right
The far right in French politics is occupied by two parties, the Front National (National Front, founded by Jean Marie Le Pen, and currently led (2012) by his daughter Marine le Pen), and the Mouvement pour la France (MPF). The FN is a classic extreme right-wing party, similar to Britain's BNP, campaigning on a ticket of national preference, law and order, and anti-immigration. The MPF is a sovereignist party, more similar to Britain's UKIP, with whom it is allied in the EFT movement in the European parliament; it is seen as a moderate right-wing party, and attracts conservative traditionalists such as its quite popular leader Philippe de Villiers, an aristocrat and former Gaullist minister. Both parties call for withdrawal from the European Union,  or a massive curtailment of the EU's role.
   

In the middle

Trying to weave a decidedly tricky course between the left and the right in French politics, former presidential candidate François Bayrou created the MoDem, or Mouvement Démocratique in an attempt to distance himself and his followers from the perceived "liberal" policies of President Sarkozy. This party really is in the political centre: but with just two deputies elected in the 2012 general elections, and Bayrou losing his seat, the Modem's future hangs in the balance.
   Of more recent creation, the Alliance Centriste is a centre-right party, led by Jean Arthuis, a former Conservative minister. They also have two deputies.


On the left
The main party of the left is the Parti Socialiste, or Socialist Party (PS); formed in 1969 by the alliance of existing parties of the non-Communist left, the Socialist party had much in common with the old Labour Party in the UK, before it turned into "New Labour". As was Britain's Labour Party in the Wilson / Callaghan years, the Parti Socialiste was very much a socialist party, believing in nationalisations, a strong welfare state, and participative democracy. This was the ticket on which François Mitterrand was elected in 1981 as the first Socialist President of the Fifth Republic. The Socialist governments of the 1980s and 1990s moved slowly away from the "old Socialist" model, first nationalising sectors of the economy, then doing a U-turn and developing a policy of privatisations; but the party never really turned itself into a modern social democratic party in the way most other European socialist parties did. Its failure to modernise led it to a series of electoral mishaps and disasters from which it has not (so far?) recovered.
   In 2009, the party took less than 15% of the national vote in the European elections; it was riven with strife between modernisers, reformers and traditionalists, as looking not just for a leader to pull it out of the doldrums, but also a convincing political strategy that will appeal to voters.
  In October 2011, after what can only be described as a successful process of American-style primary election, party members and sympathisers chose moderate former party-leader François Hollande to be their candidate in the 2012 presidential elections. Hollande beat runner-up Martine Aubry convincingly in the second round of the two-stage process. He then went on to win the 2012 Presidential elections, and spearhead a return of the Socialists to power following victory in the ensuing feneral election.

Historically, the other main party of the French left had been the Parti Communiste, or communist party (PCF). In the 2012 elections, the Communists - with their allies of the Front de Gauche - only managed to win 10 seats in the French parliament - down from 17 in 2007.  Long considered as stalinist, the party did not abandon its attachment to the soviet social model until 1976, shortly before it entered  government as a minor partner to the Socialists.
   Unlike the Italian Communist Party, the French Communist Party did not reinvent itself after the fall of soviet communism in the 1990s; the result was a series of internal fractures, with the once monolithic party splitting into different factions, the refounders, the reformers and the orthodoxists. Once attracting over 20% of voters in French elections, the PC now attracts less than 5%.

The other main party of the centre left is Europe Ecologie Les Verts, or the Green Party. Thanks to an electoral pact with the Socialists, the Greens won 18 seats in the 2012 legislative elections, but are not part of the government. Their great strengths are as a party of local government, with key positions in many city councils, and as a party in the European parliament. The mainstream French Green party has traditionally been an ally of the Socialists, though other French greens, and indeed other environmentalist parties, are allied to the centre or the centre right. But with environmental issues fast becoming a major platform for all main political parties, the survival of the Greens as a political force in their own right is not guaranteed.

The Far Left
Both the PS and the PCF have struggled to maintain credibility as left-wing parties, faced with the rise of social democracy in the political centre, and the emergence of new "extreme left wing" parties to their left. The Far Left (Extrême gauche) has long been a resilient and active force in French politics, and parties such as Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle) and LCR (the Revolutionary Communist League) have attracted support – and sympathy – in a way that similar parties in most other European countries could only dream of; but more recently, with the ageing of their historic leaders, these parties have given way to newer structures. One, the "Parti de Gauche" (PG) founded in 2008 has two deputies, dissident members of the Socialist Party; another, the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), was founded in 2009, to propose a complete economic alternative to current forms of western society. For the 2012 elections, the PG aligned itself with the Communists under the title "Front de Gauche" - picking up 10 seats, essentially in traditionally communist-voting parts of France.

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