Defections and the Future of the French Party System
The French party system is in deep distress. This was already apparent in 2017, when the arrival of “neither right nor left” candidate Emmanuel Macron destructured the opposition that had defined French politics since the Revolution, abetted by the collapse of the Fillon candidacy, which left the party representing the mainstream right in disarray.
This year, the advent of Eric Zemmour has accelerated the disintegration. By dangling the (in my view) illusory possibility of a reunified right, combining both the extreme right and the formerly mainstream right, Zemmour has tempted a number of politicians of both LR and RN to quit their former parties and rally to the Zemmour flag. The LR primary revealed the deep divisions within the party between the Ciotti faction, which is tempted by the chimera of right-wing unity, and the more centrist Pécresse faction. Meanwhile, former prime minister Édouard Philippe is maneuvering to create his own splinter party in preparation for the 2027 presidential election; Laurent Wauquiez is also quietly maneuvering for the same purpose. If Pécresse loses, LR is likely to explode, and the right will soon resemble the hapless left, with a handful or two handfuls of aspirants none of whom is able to command sufficient support to be noticed.
Meanwhile, Zemmour is also disrupting the far right, striking even into the heart of the Le Pen family. Marion Maréchal, Jean-Marie’s granddaughter and Marine’s niece, seems to be on the verge of joining Zemmour. This makes perfect sense in view of her politics: she has always aimed to unify the right and appeals to the same (older, more Catholic, more prosperous) voters who have left Le Pen for Zemmour.
The big story in 2022 could thus turn out to be not the presidential election in April but the the legislative elections that follow in May. These will trigger intense factional battles in what remains of the major political parties. While Macron seems fairly well assured of victory in the presidential, his party, LRM, is in a shambles, without a real network of local chapters capable of mounting a credible challenge in legislative contests. The miracle of 2017 is unlikely to be repeated, and the 2022 legislatives will amount to preliminary skirmishes in preparation for 2027.
Will a new party system actually emerge from these skirmishes, or will France be left with a scrum of personalities all contending for the one big prize, the presidency? My hunch is that things will remain fluid for some time to come, with ad hoc parties forming around strong, media-dominating personalities such as Macron, Le Pen, and Zemmour rather than around ideologies and hierarchical organizations resembling traditional parties. This is a recipe for political instability and increased polarization, as we have seen in the United States.