parties in France
with a comparison to political parties in Britain and in the USA
update: April 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
conservative".... making it pretty much the opposite of the word
"liberal" as used in the context of US politics.
The main "conservative" party is now known as "Les
- the Republicans. The then party leader Nicolas Sarkozy engineered a
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 UMP and now of 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
See below: parties of the centre.
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 (2017) 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
Marine Le Pen made it through to the second round
of the presidential election in 2017.
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.
Emmanuel Macron and "En Marche"
Emmanuel Macron - 39 years old - and France's president
Macron, chosen by voters to succeed François Hollande as President of
France, stands in the centre ground of politics. But he is not a
traditional politician. Indeed, he has never held elected
before, having been brought into government as Economics minister by
François Hollande. Prior to that he was a banker, with Rothschilds.
He has achieved the "impossible" in traditional
politics, reaching the runoff of a presidential election, and
then winning it, without
the help of any traditional or even new political party.
Macron has been presented as a French equivalent of Tony
Barack Obama, a charismatic leader, a militant moderate at the centre
ground of politics, an economic liberal with a social conscience, a
great speaker, and someone with a massive ambition to succeed.
But while Blair and Obama played by the old rules of
working their way up in a party and then moving the party in their
direction, Macron has played by the new rules, building up his power
base outside the traditional parties – a tactic of the "new politics"
that has been up to now more frequently exploited by the far right - as
with Nigel Farage in the UK - or the far left - as with Alexis Tsipras
Macron's case stands out from the rest in so far as he is
extreme left nor extreme right but – if the expression is not a
contradiction in terms – extreme centre. His political enemies on the
far left have taken to calling him, the former investment banker, the
candidate of "extreme finance".
His case also stands out by
the way that he rose to power so fast, and without the backing of any
political party at all . Macron's machine,
" ( In movement
is not a party, but a "movement", basically a grass-roots movement
supported by hundreds of thousands of people across France who have
become disillusioned by traditional politics and politicians. In this
respect Macron is an anti-system politician, like
Donald Trump or
Nigel Farage ; but in other more significant ways Macron is a classic
product of the French "system".
His parents were doctors; and he was educated at one of
top lycées, the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. He later went on to the ENA
(Ecole Normale d'Administration) - the graduate school attended by
countless future French top civil servants, leaders of
ministers and presidents. Following that he worked for
Rothschilds, before being recruited as economic adviser by President
Hollande . In this respect he is very much a product of the system –
which is no doubt why he does not believe that the
way to change the system is to defy it, but to change it from within.
In this he has already made a big start.
Marche" as a movement, not a party, was a masterstroke. It enabled men
and women from other parties, from the Socialists, from the Modem, from
the Greens, even from the Republicans, to give support to the Macron
cross-party movement, while remaining members of their current party.
Examples include former prime ministers Manuel Valls (Socialist) and
Dominique de Villepin (Republicans), or Daniel Cohn Bendit (Greens) and
François Bayrou (Modem) who all gave their backing to Macron even
before the first round of the presidential election, while there were
still official candidates from other parties in the running.
After his victory in the first round of the Presidential
election, he immediately received backing for the second
from both Republican candidate François Fillon, and Socialist candidate
Benoît Hamon – and was endorsed too by outgoing president
Having won the Presidential election, Macron's next
harder: it is to get French voters to elect enough candidates running
under the banner of
En Marche to give him a working majority in the National Assembly, and
government of consensus politicians. Success in this is by no means a
foregone conclusion as the parties of the left and the right, the
Socialists and "La France Insoumise" on the left, and the Republicans
and the National Front on the right, are all determined to ensure that
this will not happen.
But maybe it will: maybe this is
what the new politics is really all about. In the UK, Labour
moderates and many Lib Dems are already dreaming of replicating a pro
European movement like En Marche to beat the hold of the hard liners
and militants over the two main parties.
The parties of the Centre
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
insignificance. In 2017, Bayrou was an early backer of Emmanuel Macron
in the residential race.
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.
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 had 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
de Gauche" - picking up 10 seats, essentially in
traditionally communist-voting parts of France.
For the 2017 elections, the PG and the Communists
fell in behind firebrand ex-Socialist
Jean-Luc Mélenchon to campaign in the presidential election under the
(Unsubmissive France), an anti-capitalist anti-system
anti-European movement of the far left. Mélenchon - who is an excellent
orator and comes over well in TV debates - surprised the
by taking 19.5% of the vote.
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