Two years into Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, France’s old political parties still haven’t recovered.
The Socialists, the party of Jacques Delors and François Mitterrand, are polling at a measly 6 percent for the European elections in May. The Republicans, who trace their political roots to Charles de Gaulle, are at 12 percent. Macron’s En Marche! (Forward!) and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally split 40 percent of the vote. The remainder goes to splinter parties on the left and right.
Center versus extreme
John Lichfield argues in Politico that France’s two-party system has not been banished but replaced by a center-versus-extreme dynamic. “In a country that has seen frequent alternations of power since 1981, this is alarming.”
His fear is that, if the center-left and center-right fail to recover, the only alternative to Macron’s managerial centrism will be the anti-democratic extreme left or extreme right.
The real division in French politics, according to Lichfield, is between a reformist status quo and a hearty “screw you all”. That includes not just Le Pen but also the Yellow Vests and the far-left France Unbowed of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
I don’t agree entirely.
- “Reformist status quo” is a contradiction in terms. Macron’s ambitious public-sector reforms, coming after long-overdue labor reforms he implemented as economy minister, address the sense of being left behind that motivates the “screw you all” sentiment.
- France’s two-round voting system encourages temporary, not permanent, polarization. The single-round European elections are an exception. Usually the French can vote with their hearts in the first round and vote with their heads in the second.
But I agree with the gist of Lichfield’s argument. So long as Macron’s and Le Pen’s remain the largest parties, voters from the left to the center-right have no choice at all.
A year ago, I argued here that the Socialists and Republicans needed to decide between mobilizing their base or appealing to moderates and undecideds.
That is still the case.
- The Socialists could follow the example of Portugal’s António Costa and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez and do a deal with the far left. That should secure between a quarter and a third of the vote. But then center-left voters might stick with the man who has slightly more right-wing views than them on the economy (Macron) than accept the one with far more left-wing views (Mélenchon).
- The Republicans could follow the example of Austria’s Sebastian Kurz and emphasize cultural and social issues to make common cause with the far right. But that would mean giving up on well-educated urban professionals who support low taxes and liberalization and have liberal social views. The alternative is rejecting the far right altogether, like Germany’s Angela Merkel and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte have done, but that could leave a permanent space for nativist and reactionary parties.
Politics is about tradeoffs. The only worse option is not making a choice at all, which is what the Socialists and Republicans have done. Afraid to lose supporters to the left or the right, they have refused to take a stand and lost supporters to the left and the right.