Dispatch

France’s Mainstream Political Parties Are a Dying Breed

As the presidential election looms, the parties that ruled France for half a century are now fighting for their very survival.

By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.
Candidates for the 2022 French presidential election lay a wreath for Charles de Gaulle
Candidates for the 2022 French presidential election from the conservative Republicans party lay a wreath on the grave of former President Charles de Gaulle in Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France, on Nov. 9. François Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty

PARIS—The mainstream right and the Socialist Party dominated French politics for over half a century. But as the 2022 presidential campaign kicks into high gear, they are in unprecedented trouble, and they could both implode with a lackluster showing next year.

The meltdown risks upending the political future of a country that has long relied on a stable political center to put up eventual guardrails against extremist parties, especially from the far-right. Domestic disarray may also undermine France’s reliability on the European stage, where Paris has so far served as one of the main drivers of the European Union, alongside Germany.

Since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958, all French presidents came from either the conservatives, which formed various parties throughout the decades and are known today as the Republicans, or from the Socialist Party—until 2017, when Emmanuel Macron burst onto the scene. His presidential election victory was a huge blow to the two mainstream parties: For the first time, they both failed to get their candidates through to the second round of presidential elections, which Macron won comfortably over far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

PARIS—The mainstream right and the Socialist Party dominated French politics for over half a century. But as the 2022 presidential campaign kicks into high gear, they are in unprecedented trouble, and they could both implode with a lackluster showing next year.

The meltdown risks upending the political future of a country that has long relied on a stable political center to put up eventual guardrails against extremist parties, especially from the far-right. Domestic disarray may also undermine France’s reliability on the European stage, where Paris has so far served as one of the main drivers of the European Union, alongside Germany.

Since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958, all French presidents came from either the conservatives, which formed various parties throughout the decades and are known today as the Republicans, or from the Socialist Party—until 2017, when Emmanuel Macron burst onto the scene. His presidential election victory was a huge blow to the two mainstream parties: For the first time, they both failed to get their candidates through to the second round of presidential elections, which Macron won comfortably over far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Next year looks even worse. Both the Republicans and Socialists are struggling to make a significant mark on the campaign, with the media largely focusing on—and fueling—the surge in the polls of far-right pundit Éric Zemmour, who hasn’t even officially declared his candidacy yet. Surveys predict an eventual runoff between Macron and either Zemmour or Le Pen, with the president winning reelection against either one. 

If 2017 seemed an aberration, the hollowing out of the French mainstream parties now looks like the new norm—with far-reaching implications. 

France’s constitution sets it apart from other countries in Western Europe. With an all-powerful, directly elected president instead of a parliamentary system, major electoral shocks have a much bigger impact than in countries where voters decide who they want to govern them via parliamentary elections—which tend to buffer the impact of electoral volatility. 

“In France, this fluidity directly affects the race for the top job,” said Luc Rouban, a political scientist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. “The stakes are huge.”

At the moment, the conservatives appear divided and bereft of a coherent message, with five contenders vying for the party’s nomination. After months of uncertainty, all have finally agreed to accept the results of a vote to be held by party members in December—minimizing, at least in theory, the risk of splitting the center-right electorate.

What the party hasn’t done is agree on what level of economic liberalism it should embrace and how tough it should be on immigration. “The proliferation of party candidates blurs the message; [the Republicans] aren’t sure what direction their presidential campaign should take at the moment,” Rouban said. As things stand in the polls, the conservatives wouldn’t make it to the second round of voting—although party leaders hope a series of TV debates that kicked off this week will boost the Republicans’ visibility and improve their numbers in the polls. “Paradoxically, at a time when the right’s ideas have never appeared so hegemonic, [the Republicans party] has never seemed so fragile,” a seasoned political commentator wrote this month. 

The Socialists are in even worse shape. They have settled on one candidate, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, but she will have to share France’s shrinking left-wing electorate with other contenders, including La France Insoumise (“Unbowed France”) leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Greens’ Yannick Jadot, and former Socialist government minister Arnaud Montebourg.

“Our goal is to reinvent the left, to rebuild a big political family that takes the baton of the socialist movement’s history in France, also focusing on the environment,” said Christophe Clergeau, the Socialist Party’s national secretary for Europe. It will be an uphill battle. François Hollande, the last Socialist president, topped the first round in the 2012 election with almost 30 percent of the vote; Hidalgo is polling at barely 5 percent.

Other European countries have experienced a retreat of mainstream parties. Most conservative and social democratic parties have seen their electoral share decline across Europe in recent decades, with the drop accelerating after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Since the turn of the century, traditional parties have been challenged by various sorts of newcomers—both on the extremes and in the center—in such countries as the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Greece. Some of those traditional parties have recovered, to a degree: British conservatives parried the threat from the UK Independence Party by aping Brexit ideology, and they command a big majority; in Germany, the Social Democrats and the conservatives, despite the unprecedented result achieved by the Greens in September’s federal elections, remain by far the two largest parties in the Bundestag. 

But the disintegration in France has been far more severe. The Socialists lost 90 percent of their deputies in the legislative elections held shortly after their 2017 presidential debacle. The conservatives lost almost half their seats in the National Assembly.

“What’s happening to the Socialist Party and [Republicans] in France is something different: It’s a collapse,” said Pierre Martin, an expert on elections and party systems at the Pacte research center in Grenoble. 

And that can be a vicious circle. In France, public funding for political parties is largely based on the results of parliamentary elections. For the Socialists in particular, the dismal 2017 vote meant laying off more than 100 employees and selling their historic headquarters, said Frédéric Sawicki, a political science professor at Paris’s Sorbonne University: “It was a financial catastrophe.”

In the near term, the clearest beneficiary of the collapse of the traditional left and right will likely be Macron. His centrist, pro-European pitch resonated with large swaths of the electorate, sinking the Socialists and weakening the Republicans in 2017, and he still holds the political high ground ahead of next year’s elections. 

His presidency has been marked by liberal economic policies that are bound to boost his credentials among moderate right-wingers. That will likely intensify if he wins a second term, Sawicki said. “In 2017 he managed to break the left, but he couldn’t completely do so with the right,” he said. “Now, he will be able to.” 

For their part, the Socialists always had looser ties with blue-collar workers and trade unions than their counterparts in Britain, Germany, or Spain—and that disconnect has only grown, precipitating the party’s crisis and leaving Macron, as well as populists on the left and right, to reap the votes of the disaffected.

“You can see it very well when you look at the number of its members, or the social background of its members of parliament. The [Socialist Party] has always had very few MPs coming from the working class or from immigrant families,” Sawicki said. “For a long time, it was the Communist Party which played this role in France; since its collapse, the [Socialist Party] has been incapable of replacing it as the party giving a voice to the voiceless.”

The far-right, which already managed to get to the second round of a presidential election in 2002, aims to fill part of that void. But it’s also dragging the traditional conservative party along with it, reshaping mainstream conservative stances on issues such as immigration, security, Islam, and the EU. 

That trend has only been accentuated by Macron’s rise. Now that he has established himself as the pro-European flag-bearer, many of his opponents see no other choice but to outflank him with a more vociferous Euroskepticism.

Many conservatives, despite belonging to a political family that has provided half of all the European Commission’s presidents, never entirely got over the old Gaullist reluctance to surrender French sovereignty to technocrats in Brussels. “Europe has always been at the center of a real debate” among the mainstream right, said Jean-Christophe Martin, an official in the Republicans’ Paris branch. “When it comes to Europe, the right has never really chosen between sovranism and federalism, it is somewhere between the two.”

But now, most of the contenders for the Republicans’ candidacy are explicitly wooing the party’s Euroskeptic soul, pledging to defend “France’s superior interests” against impositions from the EU. That includes Michel Barnier, a two-time EU commissioner and former Brexit negotiator, who sent shock waves among his ex-colleagues in Brussels when he argued that Paris should toughen its immigration policies and disregard European courts’ rulings on the matter. 

Even some in the moderate left-wing camp are playing the same card. While official Socialist candidate Hidalgo is showcasing a strong pro-EU pedigree, Montebourg has called for the EU to “withdraw from peoples’ and nations’ domestic lives.”

Both mainstream parties remain well rooted on the local level, and they fared much better than the populists and Macron at regional elections held over the summer. 

Some observers also argue that in the near future these parties may end up morphing, rather than disappearing. On the right, for example, Macron’s former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe just created a new political entity that will likely seek to absorb some of the Republicans’ more moderate voters. 

But at the moment, going into next year’s election, both parties are fighting for survival, not victory.

If the Socialists end up behind the Greens next year, “it will become very difficult for them to carry on as an autonomous party,” Sawicki said.

And the future of the Republicans is no rosier. If they suffer a searing defeat in 2022, “they will probably explode,” he said.

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

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