parties in France
with a comparison to political parties in Britain and in the USA
update: Jan 2017
This page is
recommended as a basic overview in English of political parties in
France by the United States Library of Congress.
outsiders, the French
political system can often seem bewildering and difficult to
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.
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 !
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
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
the perceived "anti-social" policies of their right-wing opponents. In
this context, it is more or less the equivalent of "neo
The main "conservative" party is now known as "Les
- the Republicans. Party leader Nicolas Sarkozy engineered a name
change in 2015, designed to distance the new party from the old, the UMP -
Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, which had been in
turmoil since the 2012 election defeat.
This is one of the
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
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 UMPn abd biw if the Republicans, has moved well
on from that.
In parliament, the Republicans are allied with
centrist (moderate) federation called the "UDI";
this was formed in 2012 from an alliance of the Radical
Party and the "Nouveau
Centre" , the latter being the rump of the UDF,
party of former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, together
a dozen smaller centre right and centre left parties.
The other centre right party is the MoDem,
(see below), formed in 2007 when its leader,
and his supporters defected from the UDF to form their own social
Although the main French conservative party is now called "Les
Républicains", it would be quite wrong to imagine that it is
version of the "Republican party" in the USA. The fact is that the
spectrum in France is further to the left than in the main English
speaking countries. Though les Républicains represent the
right wing of
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 far right in French politics is occupied by two parties, the Front
(National Front, founded by Jean Marie Le Pen, and
currently led (2016) 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 very marginal MPF is a sovereignist party, more
Britain's UKIP, with whom it is allied in the EFT movement in
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
curtailment of the EU's role.
Another small and more recent sovereignist party, also
similar to the UK's UKIP, is Debout
la France (Stand up France), led by former Gaullist
parlementarian Nicolas Dupont-Aignan.
Trying to weave a decidedly tricky course between the left and the
right in French politics, former presidential candidate
created the MoDem, or Mouvement
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.
After supporting François Hollande in
round of the 2012
presidential elections, and arguably helping him to get elected, Bayrou
lost a lot of credit, and the Modem has since then fallen into relative
Of more recent creation, the Alliance
Centriste is a centre-right party, part of the UDI, and is
led by Jean Arthuis, a
former Conservative minister. They also have two deputies.
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
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 general election.
However, having failed singularly to turn round the French
economy, and overseen a worsening of unemployment, Hollande saw his
popularity ratings had sink to a record low by the end of 2014.
In 2014 Hollande appointed a new modernising centre left
prime minister, Manuel Valls, to put through some unpopular but
much-needed economic and social reforms. However the appoitment of
Valls led to an increase of tensions within the Socialist Party and
open rebellion by the left wing of the party. Ensuing in-fighting
between the hard left and the modernisers has left the party struggling
to preserve a semblance of unity. In departmental elections in March
2015, the party lost control of almost half the departmental councils
they previously controlled.
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
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
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
party virtually fell apart in 2016 on account of internal rivalries and
splits between those wishing to hang on to some kind of power through
an alliance with the Socialists, and those wanting the Green party to
go it alone.
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
and active force in French politics, and parties such as Lutte
Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle) and LCR (the
Revolutionary Communist League) have attracted support – and
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
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.
For the 2017 elections, the current figurehead of the far
France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is standing in the presidential
election as the candidate of a far-left alliance including the PG and
the Communist party.
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