A short guide to finding your way around the very confusing French political system.
The current French political system of the Fifth Republic is a hybrid presidential/parliamentary system with a President (François Hollande) who is head of state, sharing power with a Prime Minister (Jean-Marc Ayrault) who is the head of government.
Parliament is made up of the National Assembly (the lower house) which sits in the Palais Bourbon with 577 députés elected from single member constituency in a two-rounds system. The Senate (the upper house) is housed inside the Luxembourg Palace and has more than 300 senators elected by around 150,000 officials from around the country and is politically conservative. Under the constitution, the two houses have similar powers.
There is a multi-party system with a great many different political parties – many more than in either the US or UK. Politicians from parties on the Right may hold views more in line with parties of the Left in other countries. In French politics, the term ‘libéral’ tends to mean free-market liberalism – the opposite of ‘socialisme’ – and the Left use it as a derogatory term to describe the perceived anti-social policies of the Right. All very confusing for étrangers (foreigners)!
Parties can be roughly categorized as ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Here are the main ones:
On the right
The ‘conservative’ Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Popular Union Movement) or UMP is one of the largest parties. It was created by Jacques Chirac after he was re-elected as President in 2002 and it united the Right in a single party. It covers a broadish range of opinions ranging from traditional conservatives, social liberals to more-right leaning Thatcherite or neo-conservatives. It describes itself as a ‘Gaullist’ party, upholding social conservatism which is patriarchal and nationalistic. Nicholas Sarkozy was the chair, and elected President of France in 2007.
The UMP are allied in parliament with the centre right party, Nouveau Centre (New Centre). In September 2012, a new centrist federation Union des Démocrates et Indépendants (UDI) was formed. Finally, there is the Parti Radical, the oldest political party in France, and a progressive and humanist party once of the Left, is now a corporate member of the UMP.
Although these parties represent the French political Right, they are probably closer politically to the Democrats and Labour, than to the Republicans and Conservatives, in the US and UK.
In the middle
Former presidential candidate François Bayrou set up the Mouvement Démocratique (Democratic Movement) or MoDem as a middle way party, in attempt to set themselves apart from the ‘liberal’ policies of the then President Sarkozy. The Alliance Centriste is another centre-right party.
The far right
The Mouvement Pour la France (Movement for France), a small sovereignist party, rather similar to the UK’s UKIP party, is positioned between the Right and the Far Right. The Front National (National Front) or NF was founded by Jean Marie Le Pen in 1972 and is currently led by his daughter Marine Le Pen. Similar to the British BNP, the Front National is an extreme Right wing party which campaigns on national preference, law and order and anti-immigration (particularly from Islamic countries) issues. Both parties are calling for France to leave the European Union.
On the left
The Parti Socialiste or Socialist Party (PS) is the main party on the Left and was formed around 40 years ago from an alliance of parties of the non-Communist left. Originally, it was rather like the Labour party in the UK, before it became New Labour, with nationalisation, a welfare state and participative democracy as cornerstone policies. Over time, it moved away from some of these (privatizing parts of the economy, for example) but generally, it did not move with the times in the way that similar European socialist parties have done – which has caused problems both within the party and with the electorate. The party is currently led by François Hollande, who was elected the 24th President of France on May 6, 2012, defeating Nicholas Sarkozy. Hollande is the first leftwing president of France for 20 years. Since June 2012, the Parti Socialiste has been the party in power.
Up until the 1970s, the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), the French Communist Party, was a major political force, attracting a fifth of voters in French elections. But in the 2012 election, the party only won 10 seats in the French parliament. After the fall of Soviet communism in the 1990s, the PCF split into many, much smaller factions and now gets less than 5 per cent of the vote.
Europe Ecologie Les Verts is the Green Party. In a pact with the Socialists (their traditional allies), they won 18 seats in the 2012 election but are not part of the government. They are more a party of local government, with positions on city councils and in the European Parliament. How long they remain a political force at all is the question, now that environmental issues are coming to the forefront in all the main political parties.
The far left
Lutte Ouvrière (LO) (Workers’ Struggle) and Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) (Revolutionary Communist League) are the Trotskyist main parties on the Far Left (Extreme Gauche), with plenty of active support. New Far Left parties are the Parti de Gauche (PG) which was founded in 2008 and in the 2012 elections won 10 seats, and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), founded in 2009, which has developed a manifesto setting out an entirely different economic way of life from the rest of the Western world.