Reflections on the centre in France

First, a disclaimer: I’m not an expert on French politics so I may be just blundering cluelessly in here. For a more informed take, try this from Rainbow Murray.

Image for post

It’s not usually a good idea to try and explain one country’s politics in terms of another, so I’m not going to try and draw any great extrapolations for British politics and our upcoming election from the first round of the French election yesterday. It’s tempting to do so, given that on the surface it seems to share some of the same characteristics, but it’s wildly different beneath the surface with a heavily personalised and factionalised politics with much more fluid party structures. For instance, in my lifetime the ‘Gaullist Party’ has been through a succession of identities from Chirac’s Rally For The Republic to Sarkozy’s Republicans.

Personalisation and factionalism have been just as strong in the centre as they have on the right and left, though not as prominently because it’s rarely produced Presidents or serious Presidential contenders. Valery Giscard D’Estaing moved towards the centre to win in 1974 and Francois Bayrou almost broke through in 2007, but unlike Macron both of them were established figures within French politics and used established parties and movements in their campaigns. Even without looking at his positioning, Macron is different in having established En Marche! outside the existing structures and built it into an election-winning machine in such a short time.

The main barrier for the centre in the Fifth Republic has been the polarisation the system which has tended to reduce most contests into left-right battles, assisted by the majoritarian two-round electoral system. Centre parties and candidates suffered from the problem of being everyone’s second choice, but not enough people’s first. In 2007, polls were showing that Bayrou could beat either Sarkozy or Royal in the runoff, but he couldn’t get enough support to break past them and get into it. We saw the same in this year’s polling, with second round projections showing Macron comfortably beating everyone else, no matter how close the first round was. This came into play last night, as Fillon and Hamon quickly endorsed Macron for the second round as they conceded the race (Melenchon has yet to make any commitment on the second round, but I’ll address that later). In part, that’s the ‘republican front’ coming into play, defending the values of France against the extremist option, but it’s also perfectly in line with a Downsian political science explanation of how voters decide.

That sort of analysis presupposes that we’re still in a period where politics can be characterised as a simple straight line between left and right where everyone fits neatly on the line. The problem (and an especially acute one for someone like me who studies centre parties) is that competition is now much more multi-dimensional with a whole range of other issues just as salient as the traditional class and economic ones. I think that helps to explain Macron’s success as much as a traditional view of him as a centrist. Because the old left-right model has broken and politics is much more fractured around questions of identity, it was easier for a candidate from outside the traditional party bases to get into the second round, but it seems that Macron was also able to attract voters on the new axes of competition. This is interesting, because while we’ve seen parties and candidates able to draw support from what Hooghe et al call the Traditional/Authoritarian/Nationalist (TAN) side of competition, we’ve not yet seen those who motivate the Green/Alternative/Libertarian (GAL) side, and while Macron isn’t as far along the GAL axis as Le Pen is on the TAN side, it offers an interesting contrast. (Indeed, one reason for Macron’s second round polling lead is that he’s closer to the centre of opinion on this axis)

A quick word on Melenchon here. While he has received some flak for not making a second-round endorsement last night, it seems that he had always said that he would only do so after consulting with his supporters and once he’s done that, I expect he’ll make a statement that’s at the very least strongly anti-Le Pen, if not fully pro-Macron. The problem, I think, stems from a minority of his supporters (and their British counterparts) who push the idiotic ‘better an honest fascist than a slimy centrist’ line, and those who think that the whole system needs to be brought down and would switch to Le Pen as their preferred wrecking ball against the seeming establishment figure of Macron. I don’t hold with the ‘horseshoe theory’ of political alignment that says the far-left and the far-right are somehow adjacent, but I do think that some people’s reasons for supporting politicians of one or the other does mean that their next most likely preference is the seeming opposite.

Image for post

What comes next? Obviously, we all look towards the second round on the 7th May when Macron should roll to a convincing victory, but it already appears to me that he’s looking at a longer strategy, beyond winning just the Presidency. His rhetoric last night saw him pitching himself very much as what we in Britain would call a ‘one nation’ candidate, appealing across the political divide to bring the traditional republican values of France together. It’s a strategy that’s not just focused on winning the next round but establishing a strong base of support for the legislative elections that are coming in June. We already know that En Marche! is planning to stand in all 577 National Assembly constituencies (with promises of a diverse range of candidates, including many newcomers to politics) and if Macron can use the contest against Le Pen to position himself as the figurehead of the nation, and then use that to argue for a Presidential majority in the Assembly election. If his appeal is enough to get En Marche! candidates into the second round in many of the contests, then the same electoral factors that have almost delivered him the Presidency should give him a strong enough base of support in the Assembly to put together a government of his choosing.

Originally published at on April 24, 2017.

Written by

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store