As I mentioned in a previous blog, we have two students blogging on France this semester, and both have something a bit different to offer when describing the French party system. Both bloggers spent time recently in France, and it shows in their posts! You can read the first of these blogs here (and view the nice picture they took during their time in France), but here is our second post on the French party system…
Here’s a riddle for you: how can a political party be considered important while holding no seats in the lower house of the legislature?
This is just one of the impressions about French politics you might get from the media that doesn’t match up to the numbers when examining election data. For example, extreme conservative Marine Le Pen is treated as one of the top three contenders for the period leading up to campaign time and even called a “major presidential candidate.” When I was in France, the news was constantly abuzz about her, the undetermined Socialist candidate, and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet her party is statistically one of the weakest.
Additionally, people think that in France that with many parties, there will be more options, but the majority of French citizens vote for one of the two largest parties, which are catch-all leftist and right parties, respectively. And although the conservative majority has the power to pass legislature very easily, it actually holds an extremely narrow plurality over the other major party. Let’s examine the parties and their statistics to see how things really are.
Le Parti Communiste Français, or the French Communist Party (PCF), is a socialist party occupying 15 seats, or 4.3% of the house, in the National Assembly (AN). Its ideology is based on Marxist views and rose to popularity during the heyday of the USSR. This once-strong party is now only a minor player and received 2.3% of the vote in the second (and decisive) round last election, which occurred in 2007.
The major party on the left is Le Parti Socialiste, or the Socialist Party (PS), which is the current minority party in the National Assembly. The PS occupies 186 seats in the National Assembly, 24.7% of the house, and received 42.3% of the vote in the 2007 election. It was invigorated in the 1970s with the rise of François Mitterand and the socialist doctrine, which appealed to intellectuals and workers alike.
On the center-left is Le Parti Radical du Gauche, the Radical Left Party, which operates on socialist ideology. Despite its name, this is a minor and moderate party. It holds only 7 seats in the AN, occupying 1.3% of the house, and received 1.6% of the national vote.
The most center-left party, Le Mouvement Démocrate, or MoDem, meaning the Democratic Movement, and the most center-right part, Le Nouveau Centre (NC), or New Center), were born from the rupture of l’Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF), the Union for French Democracy. MoDem is independent and truly tries to be center and not ally with a political class. However, it has only 3 seats in the NA, which is 7.6% of the house, and got 0.5% of the vote. NC is a little more prominent; it is allied with l’Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), or the Union for a Popular Movement, which is the major conservative party in France. The NC identifies with liberalism.
The UMP is the current majority party and is the party of President Nicolas Sarkozy. It holds 313 seats in the National Assembly, occupying 39.5% of the house, and it received 46.4% of the vote in the 2007 election. Its ideology is liberal conservatism and it is the catch-all party on the right side of the political spectrum.
Le Front National (FN), or National Front, is on the extreme right, with a conservative ideology. It holds no seats in the National Assembly and received 0.1% of the vote in the last election, although it has been heavily publicized recently and its presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, is often presented as being in the top three contenders along with the candidates from the PS and UMP.
So France’s election numbers don’t match up to the impressions it gives off. From the amount of media coverage given to it, one would think that the FN is a prominent party, but it doesn’t hold a single seat in the National Assembly. The UMP seems quite dominant, with the President, legislature and Prime Minister all belonging to it, but it received only 3% more of the vote than did the Socialist Party. This shows the power that is conferred upon the victorious party; it is treated as the majority despite having only a small plurality and as long as the President is of the same party, it can pass most legislation it desires.
In reality, the French population is fairly split between the left and right—and in reality, it mostly votes for the top two catch-all parties. Its electoral system does not allow it to take full advantage of the multi-party system (see my last blog on this topic here), so although it has the appearance of being multi-party, it hardly operates as such in reality.
“France,” Parties and Elections in Europe, accessed March 4, 2012, http://www.parties-and-elections.de/france.html.
“Marine Le Pen: What she means for Europe,” EurActiv France, February 23, 2012, accessed March 6, 2012, http://www.euractiv.com/future-eu/marine-le-pen-means-europe-news-510969.
“Political Parties in France,” Caspian Weekly, March 4, 2010, accessed March 3, 2012, http://en.caspianweekly.org/main-subjects/others/european-union/934-political-parties-in-france.html.
“Political parties in France,” About-France, accessed March 4, 2012, http://about-france.com/political-parties.htm.
Adam Carr, “2007 legislative election national summary,” Psephos, accessed March 4, 2012, http://psephos.adam-carr.net/countries/f/france/franceleg2007.txt.
William F. Edmiston and Annie Duménil, La France contemporaine (Boston : Heinle Cengage Learning, 2010).