HomeLatest NewsAre Traditional Political Parties Dead in France?

Are Traditional Political Parties Dead in France?


PARIS — Since the 1950s, France’s traditional left- and right-wing parties have provided three-quarters of the country’s presidents and nearly all of its prime ministers.

Parliament has also swung from one to the other in alternating waves of pink, the color associated with the Socialist Party or its predecessors, and blue, which represents the main conservative party, known today as Les Républicains.

But in this month’s presidential election, candidates for both parties cratered.

In the first round of voting, Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist candidate, got only 1.75 percent of the vote. Valérie Pécresse, the Républicain candidate, got 4.78 percent, far less than the 2017 candidate for her party, François Fillon, who garnered 20.01 percent — even after a scandal involving a no-show job for his wife.

Both Ms. Hidalgo and Ms. Pécresse were unceremoniously knocked out of the race.

President Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist party was created just six years ago, then battled Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Rally party, and won a second term.

The stark collapse of the Socialists and Les Républicains capped a yearslong downward spiral for both parties, which have struggled to persuade voters that they could handle concerns including security, inequality and climate change, experts say.

The old left-right division has given way to a new landscape, split into three major blocs. Mr. Macron’s broad, pro-globalization center is now flanked by radical forces: on the right, Ms. Le Pen and her anti-immigrant nationalism; on the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a fiery politician who champions state-led policies against E.U. rules and the free market.

Many now wonder what will remain of the former stalwart political parties.

“Before, there was the left, the right — that was clearer,” said Jeanette Brimble, 80, speaking recently on a narrow cobblestone street in the southern French town of Aix-en-Provence. For decades, she voted for mainstream conservatives. This time, pleased by Mr. Macron’s shift rightward, she cast a ballot for him.

The downfall of the traditional parties, Ms. Brimble said, was “a bit disturbing for my generation.”

In 2017, Mr. Macron’s first election landed an initial blow to the system, shattering the left. With the vote this month, the right is feeling the damage.

Mr. Macron is set to be in office until 2027 — French law limits presidents to two consecutive terms. After that, it is unclear whether the traditional parties will be able to rebound.

Dominique Reynié, a political analyst who heads the Foundation for Political Innovation, a research institute that focuses on European and economic policy, said a departure from politics by Mr. Macron “would give the traditional governing parties a chance to get back into the game.”

But some expect volatility instead.

“I don’t believe that traditional parties are going to be reborn on the ashes of La République en Marche,” said Martial Foucault, director of the CEVIPOF political research institute at Sciences Po in Paris, referring to Mr. Macron’s party. In France’s increasingly personality-driven politics, disillusioned voters could shift from one charismatic leader to another, regardless of party affiliation, he said.

“Citizens want efficiency,” he added. “So they are prone to these electoral movements, effectively leaving the system in total turbulence.”

In Aix-en-Provence, a city of 145,000 that has long leaned right, the collapse was striking. Five years ago, Mr. Fillon came in first there with 27.45 percent of the vote. This month, Ms. Pécresse came in sixth with 5.5 percent.

Nationwide, the Elabe polling institute found that roughly a third of those who had voted for Mr. Fillon in 2017 chose Mr. Macron this time, versus only a quarter for Ms. Pécresse, Mr. Fillon’s successor as the candidate of Les Républicains. Even Nicolas Sarkozy, the party’s last French president, from 2007 to 2012, didn’t endorse her.

In a particularly humiliating turn of events, Ms. Pécresse came in fourth behind Mr. Mélenchon in Versailles, the bourgeois Parisian suburb that she once represented in Parliament. Ms. Hidalgo, who has been mayor of Paris for over eight years, got only 2.17 percent of the capital’s vote.

Financial concerns compound the embarrassment.

Presidential candidates can get a state reimbursement of up to 8 million euros for funds that they personally contribute to their campaigns. But the amount is much lower — 800,000 euros, or about $865,000 — if they get less than 5 percent of the vote.

Mainstream candidates long considered 5 percent a low bar, allowing them to take out loans with the assurance that a large chunk of their expenses would be reimbursed once they cleared the threshold. But Ms. Pécresse, now personally in debt for €5 million, has been forced to appeal for donations.

“At stake is the survival of Les Républicains, and beyond that, the survival of the republican right,” she said. (So far she has collected €2 million.)

Both the Socialists and the Républicains failed to capitalize on anger against Mr. Macron, who wooed voters with sweeping promises of pragmatic centrism but whose first term was divisive. Mainstream parties have struggled to address issues like immigration, security, inequality or climate change, experts say, partly because Mr. Macron has cherry-picked from their platforms, especially on the right.

Alix Fabre, who voted for Mr. Fillon in 2017 before turning to Mr. Macron, said in Aix-en-Provence that the president’s pro-business policies and those of the mainstream right felt similar.

“Most people around me are from the right, and they’ve joined Macron,” she said.

Experts also see a deeper disconnect, saying that both parties grew complacent in the belief that their turn in office would always come again. Fixated on internal quarrels and hemorrhaging dues-paying members, they lost touch with ordinary citizens, failing to harness movements like the Yellow Vest protests, experts said. They have also been unable to offer convincing alternatives to more radical forces like Ms. Le Pen.

“It’s a constant, lasting failure to represent social conflict,” said Mr. Reynié, the analyst. For Mr. Foucault, of the CEVIPOF, “these parties haven’t understood what citizens are asking of them, in terms of renewing their platforms and their ideology.”

Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen’s parties have issues too. Few see La République en Marche outlasting Mr. Macron’s political ambitions. The National Rally has been a Le Pen family affair for decades, marked by eight defeats in presidential elections.

France’s traditional political forces still control many cities and other local or regional offices, where voters are more likely to trust familiar faces with day-to-day concerns.

In 2021, Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen’s parties failed to win a single one of France’s 13 mainland regions, although Mr. Foucault said appearances were slightly misleading, because without American-style midterm elections, the French only have local elections to voice discontent with the government.

Corinne Narassiguin, a top Socialist official, said that her party’s disastrous results at the national level marked “the end of a cycle” that started in 2017, after which the party was forced to sell its headquarters in an upscale Paris neighborhood and move to the suburbs.

“Voters have made it clear that we’re no longer able to tell them why they should vote for the Socialists at the national level,” she said.

The Socialists and the Républicains are now scrambling to shore up support ahead of the legislative elections in June, which will fill all seats in France’s lower house of Parliament. But both face serious challenges.

The Socialists, whose strength in Parliament has already shrunk, could end up with even fewer lawmakers as Mr. Mélenchon’s party gains prominence. The Républicains are torn between those favoring an alliance with Mr. Macron’s party, those wanting to stay independent, and those leaning toward Éric Zemmour, an anti-immigrant pundit who also ran for president.

Marie Ronzevalle, 29, who works in event management in Aix-en-Provence, voted for Mr. Macron in 2017 — she liked his vow to “break with traditional codes” — but was disappointed by some of his policies and picked Ms. Hidalgo in the first round this year.

She said that her family struggled to pick a candidate in this election — unlike her now-deceased grandmother and great-grandmother, loyal Socialists who worked for the party.

One of her grandfathers, who always voted for the mainstream right but strongly hesitated this time, even briefly considered a blank ballot.

“There is less of that feeling of belonging and automatically giving your vote to a party,” Ms. Ronzevalle said. “People are sick and tired of being asked to fit into a box.”

“They want to see things change,” she added. “But maybe the old parties are no longer the solution.”

Aurelien Breeden reported from Paris, and Constant Méheut from Aix-en-Provence, France.

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