Why the Political Right in France is Rising to Power

Why the Political Right in France is Rising to Power

Just five weeks after the deciding second round of France’s presidential election, French voters go to the polls yet again. In another two-round ballot, to be held on successive Sundays in June, the French electorate will vote in a new lower house of parliament. The overwhelming consensus is that voters will choose a centrist in the presidential election. But if they do, their choice may well not allay France’s heightened political risk.

Under the French constitution, the president has little power if he fails to gain majority support in the lower house. And, given the fragmented nature of French politics of late, there are solid reasons to believe that a centrist president may indeed fail to win majority support in the new lower house.

To see why, start with the left. Traditionally the left has made up around a third of the electorate. And these left-leaning voters have always been divided into two camps. Roughly two-thirds have been moderate social democrats, and at most a third have been of the extreme left, fervent supporters of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and other such self-proclaimed revolutionaries.

Although small in number, these militants are highly vocal. So, the way the social democrats always dealt with their uncomfortable bedfellows was to offer a disproportionate number of parliamentary seats to the noisiest among them. This way they hoped to secure a united front come the presidential election, in which the candidate of the left would always be a social democrat.

For a long time the strategy was successful. But it began to fracture during the presidency of François Hollande, when the refusal of the far-left to countenance even the most obvious structural reforms made France all but ungovernable. As a result, the long-standing arrangement between the center-left and far-left will not survive the Hollande presidency.

With the center-left itself fragmented, and Hollande deeply unpopular in the country at large, the militants managed to get their own man chosen as the official presidential candidate of the Socialist Party. However, the schism between the camps has become so deep, and the animosity between the social democrats and the Chavistas so great (much as in the UK), it is entirely possible that instead of one left-wing candidate, many constituencies will now have two competing for election to parliament— one representing the social democrats and one the extreme left.

So much for the left; now for the “acceptable” right. This group also represents roughly a third of the electorate. It is equally split between the Catholic right and a soft centre representing those who never had a firm opinion on anything. Margaret Thatcher called these “wets”, while Charles de Gaulle dismissed them as “white cheese”. Historically, both the Catholic right and the wets supported the elected president if he was from the right. If the president was a socialist, both camps loyally rallied behind the next presidential candidate of the right.

Now, if the official candidate of the presentable right fails to get elected—a likely outcome in what should have been an unlosable vote—these two camps could split, as they have very little in common. The result, come the legislative election, could easily be two right-wing candidates in each constituency, one representing the Christian right, the other the wets.

In France there is also the “unacceptable” right. It used to represent at most a quarter of the electorate, but these days the share is probably more like a third. Unlike the old “parties of government”, the far-right is united, with a common (if dismal) platform and a single acknowledged leader.

So, what does all this mean for the outcome of June’s legislative election? In the past, things were quite simple. There were three distinct political blocks, each commanding the support of around a third of the electorate. If, in any constituency, the candidate of the extreme right came third in the first round of the election, then the candidates of the “acceptable” right and of the left fought it out between themselves in the second round. Whatever the result, there was zero chance of a representative of the far-right getting elected.

But if the far-right candidate came either first or second in the initial round of the vote, then the third-placed candidate—whether of the acceptable right or of the left—would drop out. And in the second round he would endorse his erstwhile competitor from the other “party of government”. This arrangement was called the “republican pact”. And in the 2012 election it successfully limited the far-right National Front, which placed a strong third in the first round vote, to ninth place in the second round, with just two seats out of 577 in the lower house of parliament.

The bizarre upshot of this historical pact is that France, where at least 55% of the electorate are inclined to the right, has been governed by socialists for 20 of the last 35 years. However, the coming election may lead to a very different result.

A defaced poster of French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen.

If each constituency is contested by two candidates from the left, two from the right and one from the extreme right, nobody will be in a position to enforce the republican pact. The results could be surprising. Although she is likely to lose the presidential election, National Front leader Marine Le Pen could well find herself, just one month later, presiding over the largest single party in the parliament.

This outcome could be reinforced if large numbers of the Catholic branch of the right are so disgusted by the incompetence of the party bosses in Paris that they strike “local” deals with the National Front. Such deals could see the Catholic right campaigning for the National Front’s candidate in one constituency, in return for the National Front’s support for the Catholic right candidate in the neighboring seat.

In this world, the ‘‘white cheese” candidates and the social democrats who flocked behind independent centrist Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the presidential vote (assuming Macron, who is currently the favorite, does indeed win) could find themselves left out in the cold. With the Catholic right and the far-right together commanding the support of close to half the electorate, the center and center-right could find themselves struggling to win seats in the legislative election.

Even more likely, the candidates of the Socialist Party, having effectively split in two, could face an electoral wipe-out, much as they did last week in the Netherlands. In France, the final result could either be an ungovernable parliament in which no party commands a majority, or a stable parliament dominated by the National Front and the Catholic right.

From left to right, Conservative candidate Francois Fillon, Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, 
Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon 
pose for a group photo prior to a television debate on March 20, 2017.

Whichever the outcome, it will be the consequence of the ongoing collapse of the left, a collapse which is happening not just in France and the Netherlands, but in the UK, Italy, and elsewhere. Around the world, the left now finds itself in much the same situation as the British Liberal Party in the early 20th century when the Labour Party began its rise: about to disappear but as yet unaware of it. To govern at the center when the left is collapsing requires a swift move to the right. The alternative is annihilation.

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