Does France Still Have a Party System?

22 September 2022

The 2022 presidential election marked the end of France’s old party system. The former mainstream parties of the right and the left garnered less than 10 percent of the vote between them. The ensuing legislative election made it clear that what was left of the Macronist movement could not and would not dominate the political scene either. Not only was the president himself a lame duck; his party, renamed Renaissance, lost its absolute majority and revealed itself to be a loose coalition of bickering factions. The bickering has only intensified since the election, with François Bayrou making it clear that he will not tolerate un passage en force to obtain a pension reform and Édouard Philippe building another pocket of resistance in preparation for his own presidential run in 2027.

For a while it seemed as if the old left-right cleavage might be revived in the opposition between the two dominant minority factions in the parliament, the NUPES and the RN. But the NUPES has recently run into trouble of two kinds. First, dissension has arisen on the left over the question of what the French like to call la valeur travail. The Communist presidential candidate, Fabien Roussel, took a leaf out of the far right’s perennial complaint that overly generous welfare benefits subsidized laziness and attracted immigrants eager to suckle at the state’s teat. His complaint was echoed by François Ruffin, the most insoumis of les insoumis, who claims to have been shocked on the campaign trail to discover that many voters rejected the left because they believed, with Roussel, that it encouraged l’assistanat. Despite efforts to explicate the nuances separating the communist position from that of LFI, both reflect a fundamental dilemma of a left largely deserted by the working class, which has defected to the far right and embraced its arguments regarding the debilitating effects of the welfare state and the supposed threat that immigrant labor will both undermine wages and take jobs from the native-born.

Meanwhile, LFI has been devastated by another scandal with serious implications for its future. After the estranged wife of LFI deputy Adrien Quatennens filed a domestic violence complaint against him, Quatennens admitted to having slapped her during an argument. Despite the party’s strong stance against domestic violence, Jean-Luc Mélenchon initially leapt to the defense of his protégé and heir-apparent before modifying his position somewhat after a firestorm of protest erupted both within and without party ranks.

Like Renaissance, LFI, and therefore the NUPES, faces a crisis of succession, since Mélenchon has said he would not run for president again (although he hedged on this statement shortly after making it). The Quatennens affair has brought the question of the future of NUPES front and center, complicating the issue raised by Roussel and Ruffin: How is the left going to expand its appeal? Will it try to win back the allegiance of the working class? If so, how? If the left attacks the very premise of the welfare state, as Roussel and Ruffin seem to be doing, is it still “the left”? Or is the future of the left to be sought in other directions: the green transition, perhaps, or a revival of the technocratic left once linked to the Socialist Party, where the rift between Olivier Faure and the “elephants” of old has only widened since Faure threw in his lot with Mélenchon et compagnie?

Meanwhile, the RN has been on its best behavior, displaying perfect obedience to the diktats of Marine Le Pen, who has enjoined her contingent of deputies to exemplify decorum and responsibility. The party has mostly supported the Macron government since the election as Le Pen has sought to demonstrate that her party has what it takes to become a party of government. Soon, however, she will have to demonstrate her independence as well. The showdown is likely to occur over pension reform, which will make for strange bedfellows. In the meantime, the likely election of Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s new prime minister this coming Sunday will deprive Le Pen of the distinction of being the first woman of the far right to head an EU government.

In any case, it seems that France no longer has a party system. Instead, it has a menagerie of factions gathered around strong personalities hoping to emerge as presidential contenders in an election that remains nearly half a decade in the future, as if today’s urgent problems–war in Ukraine, inflation, impending recession, climate change, the public health crisis–can somehow be finessed without coherent party positions to clarify and organize debate and without a decisive presidential majority capable of tamping down dissent. In its first months the new government has managed to muddle through a range of issues, but the road ahead looks rocky indeed.

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