French politics: where extremes meet

Patrice de Beer
4 December 2006

France's political system in one important respect has a different character than its counterparts in Britain, Germany or the United States - with the result that its electoral dynamics operate by different rules.

The key variable is the power of political parties. In these three countries, competition between two hegemonic parties tends to squeeze opponents to the margins or subordinate them to alliance-seeking with one of the major players (as with the Die Grûnen or Freie Demokratische Partei in Germany) in a coalition government system. The result is that the political extremes are eliminated, ostracised or co-opted.

France, by contrast, is characterised more by a rainbow spectrum of political parties in which even the leading players face more-or-less-serious competition from those to their right and left. The influence of these currents, moreover, derives less from ideological conviction (albeit a minority of adherents do zealously uphold the respective causes of exclusivist nationalism or doctrinal Marxism) than from the desire to protest.

The massive numbers voting in France for "fringe" parties reflect the embitterment of the politically, economically or socially disenfranchised: those who feel that an incestuous political system only interested by its own survival has marginalised them and establishment parties seeking only to woo the centre and the social "insiders" have discarded them. In the United States, such alienated citizens may stay at home in sullen indifference; in Britain, they might adapt Shakespeare and rail "a plague on all your houses"; in France, they tend to express their anger through the ballot-box.

This participating opposition is well-entrenched tradition which, from the 19th century, has nurtured populists who have tried to ride on a wave of discontent by making loads of promises that they would never be in a position to have to deliver.

They exist, too, on both right and left. In the mid-1950s, the small-business and peasant populism of Pierre Poujade briefly shook the establishment in the febrile years of the fourth republic. A protest vote that both predated and outlasted the Poujadistes, however, was that of the Parti communiste français (PCF); after the second world war, the communists regularly garnered 20%-25% of voters, though for the most part its electoral supporters wished to express their dissatisfaction - knowing the party had no chance of winning power - than to see France being made a laboratory of the Stalinist paradise.

The allure of communism began gradually to crumble with the revelations (following Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" of February 1956) about Stalin's crimes. It took a long time, however, for its rival (and occasional partner) on the left, the Parti Socialiste (PS), to reap electoral dividends from the PCF's decline.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine"
(October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
(November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA"
(January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France"
(March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom"
(April 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis"
(April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed"
(June 2006)

"Zidane's farewell, France's hangover"
(July 2006)

"France and Lebanon: diplomacy of tragedy"
(August 2006)

"France in Lebanon: the strength of hesitation"
(August 2006)

"Indigènes: enlarging France's history" (October 2006)

"Ségolène Royal: the power of difference" (October 2006)

The slow renovation of the PS was accelerated after the accretion of several leftist republican groups at the Epinay congress in 1971 that brought Francois Mitterrand to the leadership, and the agreement on a "common programme" with the PCF that followed. The party established itself as the dominant force in a Union de la Gauche (Union of the Left) which helped win Mitterrand the presidency in May 1981, and proceeded to eclipse its communist allies (whose ministers resigned from the government in 1984 and went into enfeebled opposition).

The debilitation of the communists - the PCF's vote in presidential elections declined from 21% (Jacques Duclos, 1969) to 15.3% (George Marchais, 1981) to 3.4% (Robert Hue, 2002) - had the curious effect of encouraging the protest vote to started shifting to the far right. By 2002, the PCF was polling only 3.4% in the legislative election, and its presidential vote was less even than the Trotskyist groupuscules; today, it requires a little help from its PS "friends" (in the form of non-competition in certain districts of diehard communist voters) to be guaranteed a parliamentary group in the French national assembly at all.

The right of the right

This slow but significant transfer of votes from the extreme left to the extreme right saw the latter win no less than 30% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election in 2002. The stunning result was that veteran rightist Jean-Marie le Pen - the leader of the rightwing Front National (FN) - eliminated Lionel Jospin of the PS, and himself reached the second-round ballot against Jacques Chirac.

The trajectory of Le Pen's support since his first contest in 1974 tells the story: from 0.74% to 14.4% in 1988 (he was unable in 1981 to gain the support needed to qualify for the campaign) to 15% in 1995 and 16.86% in 2002 - when Jacques Chirac benefited from the disarray by crushing Le Pen with 82.21% of the decisive ballot). Today, the 78-year-old - first elected as an MP in 1956 - is basking in 13%-17% opinion-poll support for a campaign that announces his jingoism, opposition to immigration, and distaste for Arabs and black people.

There is a snag - the same one that derailed his efforts in 1981. By law, each candidate needs the support of 500 elected representatives (from national or local assemblies, or mayors) to enter the contest; for the FN this is always difficult, as the party has few elected members (none in parliament), and Le Pen has always relied on courting rightwing village mayors.

But if he can stand in the first round on 22 April 2007, he will introduce again a "wild card" into a race likely to be between the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal and (most probably, if not yet certainly) head of the government party Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) and interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Jean-Marie Le Pen combatively proclaims a determination to win; and if he can't reach the ballot, he threatens to unleash "his" voters against forces on the right he accuses of betrayal (thus the covert efforts from Sarko's" camp to help him obtain the 500 signatures he needs).

Le Pen rules the FN as he dreams of ruling France - single-handedly, brooking no dissent. He intends to stand as long as he lives and is grooming one of his three daughters, Marine, to succeed him. At the same time, there is no one on the far right with his amazing charisma (without which he would have remained an obscure, one-eyed, neo-fascist agitator). Where will all his supporters turn to when he dies?

The left of the left

An obvious answer would be: forward to the past, and (as it was before Le Pen) into the arms of the extreme left. Both tendencies, after all, have campaigned against the European constitution and against globalisation. There is indeed, in the galaxy of movements of all shades of red or green, a rich reservoir of protest votes.

Some, Les Verts (Greens) as well as the PCF, have in the past joined the socialists as junior partners in coalition governments; they seem ready to do the same if "Ségo" wins, although they loath her social-democratic leanings. Others, like the three Trotskyist parties remain adamantly opposed to class collaboration with those Stalin used to call "social traitors"; two are preparing to field their own candidates, the 29-year-old postman Alain Besancenot (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire / LCR) and (fighting what will be her sixth presidential campaign) the 66-year-old Arlette Laguiller (Lutte Ouvrière / LO).

As the economist Jean Matouk wrote in Libération, part of the self-styled "anti-liberal-left" parties don't really wish to see the PS win next year as "they never fare better than when the right is in power" (see Qui veut vraiment vaincre la droite?, 27 November 2006). This Realpolitik is in stark contrast to the idealism many far-left and green militants proclaim. Their rhetoric says that "ultra-liberalism", globalisation, the United States (and a corporate, Lisbon-agenda-led Europe) are the scourge of humanity, and that the PS's moderate bourgeois reformism has nothing anymore to do with socialism; their logic says that they would prefer the right rather than the centre-left to win.

Among the forty current self-proclaimed presidential candidates, a dozen come from the "left of the left". Three are jostling to represent the greens, and another - the popular TV presenter Nicolas Hulot - appears ready to join the field. But a further altermondialiste candidate (in addition to those of the PCF, LCR and LO) has left in disgust on 28 November; José Bové - the farmer who became famous by dismantling his local McDonald's and uprooting GM crops - is dismayed by internal leftist bickering.

He accuses the leadership of the PCF and the LCR (the LO is too pure to mingle with other soi-disant comrades) of hijacking the decision of a congress of the "left of the left" scheduled for 9-10 December to select a joint candidate (as well as Besancenot, Marie-George Buffet has already been anointed as the PCF's choice). There are further disputes over strategy; Bové charges Buffet of manipulating the 700 independent committees where all leftists are supposed to ingather to make the decision; and the LCR demands that each potential partner in the leftist alliance vouches not to compromise with the PS (an anathema for the communists, who could be wiped out of parliament).

The rationale of the "left of the left" strategy is to consolidate a force that could be matched by a counterweight on the left of the PS (which as a whole represented 26% of voters in 2002 and now stands at 14% in the opinion-polls). The left's leaders want to draw support from many of the 54% of French citizens who voted "no" to the European constitution in the referendum of May 2005; then negotiate with the PS on an equal footing, thus forcing it to lean further to the left.

So far, the political ambitions and rivalries of its main leaders - no less than a wildly unrealistic platform - mean that this strategy has got nowhere.

Any readers still able to follow these Byzantine intricacies of the far left may also wonder whether this "strategy" - if that is not too grand a word in the circumstances - for fighting Ségolène Royal on her left has any chance of success. In this case, "success" appears to mean derailing a popular female candidate from the left and displaying an electoral weight able to force the PS into negotiation. The risks are evident: torpedoing the traditional left and sabotaging its chances of power, looking like another bunch of politicians trapped by petty rivalry and personal ambition, and guaranteeing another presidency of the right in the Elysée palace.

Ségolène Royal is depending on the fact that enough elements on the left are burdened by a guilt-tinged feeling of responsibility for Jospin's defeat in 2002 and are prepared to vote against their preferred candidate to avoid a similar outcome. The question is: how many of those who don't share her social democracy, or who (unlike her) voted "no" to Europe's constitution will turn to her as the only force capable of crushing Sarkozy?

If Ségo survives a six-month-long election campaign - and some of her friends as well as her enemies still believe she won't - how many leftists will remain faithful to their own parties, how many could jump on her bandwagon? How far left - and right - will the Royal circus be able to cast its net? The ball is in play.

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