Politics of France

The Politics of France take place in a framework of a semi-presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President of France is head of state and the Prime Minister of France head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in the government, Senate and National Assembly. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

Left and Right in France and main political parties

Since the 1789 French Revolution, the political spectrum in France has obeyed the left-right distinction. However, due to the historical association of the term "droite" "right" with monarchism, conservative or right-wing parties have tended to avoid officially describing themselves as representing the "right wing".

The Left

At the beginning of the 20th century, the French Left divided itself into reformists and revolutionaries: beside the Republican, Radical and Radical-Socialist Party and the SFIO (French Section of the Workers' International) of Léon Blum, the French Communist Party (PCF) remained an important force to take into account despite it remaining in the opposition since the May 1947 crisis. After World War I and the 1920 Tours Congress leading to the creation of the SFIC (future PCF), the Left was in power during the "Cartel des gauches" (Left-Wing Coalition), from 1924 to 1926 and from 1932 to the 6 February 1934 crisis, and then under the Popular Front in 1936.

The PCF was however contested on its left by various parties and by the New Left or "Seconde Gauche", including Cornelius Castoriadis's "Socialisme ou Barbarie" from 1948 to 1965, Arlette Laguiller's Workers' Struggle (LO), the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) or the various anarchist movements. Others components of the New Left included the environmentalists (who would eventually found the The Greens in 1982) or advocates of new social movements (including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, etc.). The Unified Socialist Party (PSU) was formed in 1960 by the merger of a the Parti social autonome (a spin-of the social-democrat Socialist Party (PS), which replaced the SFIO in 1969), the "Union de la gauche socialiste" (UGS) and the "Tribune communiste" current in the PCF (led by Jean Poperen). Headed by Michel Rocard, the PSU, related to the CFDT trade-union, advocated at its origins "auto-gestion".

Finally, the Radical Party, which inherited of the tradition of the French Left and of Radical Republicanism (sharing left-wing traits such as anti-clericalism), progressively slid more and more to the center, being one of the main governing parties of the Third Republic after World War I. Despite some ambiguities (support to Pierre Mendès-France's center-left Republican Front during the 1956 legislative elections), it finally embraced economic liberalism and slid to the center-right. In 1972, Radicals still anchored in the left spun out to form the Left Radical Party (PRG), which has remained to this day an ally of the PS. Finally, in 1993, Jean-Pierre Chevènement left the PS to form the Citizen and Republican Movement (MRC), a left-wing euro-sceptic party attached to the tradition of Republicanism and universalism (secularism, equal opportunities, opposition to multiculturalism, etc.).

The Right

On the other hand, the right-wing has been divided, according to historian René Rémond's famous classification, into three broad families, classified in the chronological order of their appearance:
*the Legitimists, counter-revolutionaries who opposed all change since the French Revolution. These included the ultra-royalists during the Bourbon Restoration; the "Action française" (AF) monarchist movement; the supporters of the Vichy regime's "Révolution nationale"; the activists of the OAS during the Algerian War (1954-62); most components of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front (FN), including Catholic fundamentalists such as Marcel Lefebvre's Society of St. Pius X; and finally Philippe de Villiers' Movement for France (MPF);
*the Orleanists, who had rallied the Republic at the end of the 19th century and advocated economic liberalism (referred to in French as simply "libéralisme"). These included the right-wing of the Radical Party, the Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance (UDSR), the Christian-democrat Popular Republican Movement (MRP), Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's Independent Republicans (RI), the Union for a French Democracy (UDF) and, today, a large majority of the politicians of Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
*the Bonapartists, a family in which René Rémond included Charles de Gaulle's various parties (first the Rally of the French People, RPF, then the Union of Democrats for the Republic, UDR), but also "Boulangisme" or "Poujadisme".

The Gaullist UDR was then transformed by Jacques Chirac in the Rally for the Republic (RPR) in 1976, a neo-Gaullist party which embraced economic liberalism. In 2002 the RPR became the Union for the Presidential Majority and then the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in an attempt to unify the French conservatives together. However, a small section of the former UDF, headed by François Bayrou, refused to align themselves on Nicolas Sarkozy's lines, and created the MoDem in an attempt to make space for a center-right party.

In conclusion, Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to unify most of the French far-right in the National Front (FN), created in 1972 in the aftermaths of the Algerian War (1954-62), and which succeeded in gaining some influence starting in the 1980s. Residual monarchists movements, inheritors of Charles Maurras' "Action française" (AF), also managed to survive, although many of them joined Le Pen's FN in the 1980s. Some neo-fascists who considered Le Pen to be too moderate broke away in 1974 to form the Parti des forces nouvelles (PFN), which maintained close links to the far-right students'union "Groupe Union Défense" (GUD). Another important theoretical influence in the far-right appeared in the 1980s with Alain de Benoist's "Nouvelle Droite" movement, organized into the GRECE. Despite Le Pen's success in remaining present at the second turn of the 21 April 2002 presidential election, his party has been weakened by Bruno Mégret's spin-out, leading to the creation of the National Republican Movement (MNR), as well as by the concurrence of Philippe de Villiers' Movement for France (MPF), and also by the internal struggles concerning Le Pen's forthcoming succession. The leader was Michael Gimote

The Fifth Republic (1958-1981)

During the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958 amid the troubles brought by the Algerian War (1954-62), France was ruled by successive right-wing administrations until 1981. The successive governments generally applied the Gaullist program of national independence, and modernization in a "dirigiste" fashion. The Gaullist government, however, was criticized for its heavy-handedness: while elections were free, the state had a monopoly on radio and TV broadcasting and sought to have its point of view on events imposed (this monopoly was not absolute, however, since there were radio stations transmitting from nearby countries specifically for the benefit of the French). Although Gaullism, which had gained legitimacy during World War II, initially also attracted several left-wing individuals, Gaullism in government became decidedly conservative. In 1962, de Gaulle had the French citizens vote in a referendum concerning the election of the president at universal suffrage, something which had been discredited since Napoleon III's 1851 coup. 3/5th of the voters approved however the referendum, and thereafter the President of the French Republic was elected at universal suffrage, giving him increased authority on the Parliament. De Gaulle won the 1965 presidential election, opposed on his left by François Mitterrand who had taken the lead of the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left (FGDS), a coalition of most left-wing parties (apart from the French Communist Party (PCF), then led by Waldeck Rochet who did call to vote for Mitterrand).

In May 1968, a series of worker strikes and student riots rocked France. These did not, however, result in an immediate change of government, with a right-wing administration being triumphantly reelected in the snap election of June 1968. However, in 1969 the French electorate turned down a referendum on the reform of the French Senate proposed by de Gaulle. Since the latter had always declared that in the eventuality of a "NO" to a referendum he would resign, the referendum was also a plebiscite. Thus, the rejection of the reform by more than 52% of the voters was widely considered to be mostly motivated by weariness with de Gaulle, and ultimately provoked his resignation that year.

May '68 and its aftermaths saw the occupation of the LIP factory in Besançon, one of the major social conflict of the 1970s, during which the CFDT and the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), of which Pierre Mendès-France was a member, theorized workers' self-management. Apart of the PSU, the autonomist movement, inspired by Italian "operaismo", made its first appearance on the political scene.

Georges Pompidou, de Gaulle's Prime Minister, was elected in 1969, remaining President until his death in 1974. In 1972, 3/5 of the French approved by referendum the enlargement of the European Economic Community (CEE) to the United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, and Norway. After Pompidou's sudden death, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing managed to overhaul the remaining Gaullist barons — with the help of Jacques Chirac —, and won the subsequent election against François Mitterrand on the left. Giscard transformed the ORTF, the state organism in charge of media, and created several different channels, including Radio France. However, it was not until François Mitterrand's accession to the Elysée Palace in 1981 that media were liberalized.

The Fifth Republic (1981-1995)

In 1981, François Mitterrand, a Social Democrat, was elected president, on a program of far-reaching reforms (110 Propositions for France). This was enabled by the 1972 Common Program between the French Socialist Party (PS), the Left Radical Party (PRG) and the French Communist Party (PCF) — which had remained, just as in Italy, a strong party through-out the Cold War. After securing a majority in parliament through a snap election, his government ran a program of social and economic reforms:
* social policies:
** abolition of the death penalty;
** removal of legislation criminalizing certain homosexual behaviors: lowering of the age of consent for homosexual sex to that for heterosexual sex (since the French Revolution, France had never criminalized homosexuality between adults in private Fact|date=August 2007);
**liberalization of media
**creation of a solidarity tax on wealth (ISF) and reform of the inheritance tax
* economic policies:
** the government embarked on a wave of nationalizations;
** the duration of the legal workweek was set to 39 hours, instead of the previous 40 hours.
**increase of the SMIC minimum wages
* institutional reforms:
**repealing of exceptional judicial procedures (court-martials in peace-time, etc.)

However, in 1983, high inflation and economic woes forced a dramatic turnaround with respect to economic policies, known as "rigueur" (rigor) – the Socialist-Communist government then embarked on policies of fiscal and spending restraint. Though the nationalizations were subsequently reversed by both subsequent left-wing and right-wing governments, the social reforms undertaken have remained standing. Furthermore, the end of the "Trente Glorieuses" (Thirty Glorious) period of growth witnesses the beginning of a structural unemployment, which became an important political issue. Since the 1980s, unemployment has remained permanently high, at about 10% of the population, regardless of the policies applied to fight it.

In 1986, Jacques Chirac's neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) party won the legislative election. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, a left-wing President was forced to compose with a right-wing Prime minister, leading to the first cohabitation. Although many commentators were surprised at the time, and considered it to be an institutional crisis, some claiming the Fifth Republic could not accommodate itself of such rivalry at the head of the state, cohabitation repeated itself after the 1993 elections, when the RPR again won the elections, and then after the 1997 elections, when the Socialist Party won, leading to the constitution of Lionel Jospin's Plural Left government while Chirac was only at the beginning of his first presidential term. The tradition in periods of "cohabitation" (a President of one party, prime minister of another) is for the President to exercise the primary role in foreign and security policy, with the dominant role in domestic policy falling to the prime minister and his government. Jospin stated, however, that he would not "a priori" leave any domain exclusively to the President, as that was a tradition issued from de Gaulle.

Since then, the government alternated between a left-wing coalition (composed of the French Socialist Party (PS), the French Communist Party (PCF) and more recently "Les Verts", the Greens) and a right-wing coalition (composed of Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic (RPR), later replaced by the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), and the Union for French Democracy, UDF). Those two coalitions are fairly stable; there have been none of the mid-term coalition reorganizations and governments frequently overthrown which were commonplace under the Fourth Republic.

The 1980s and 1990s saw also the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front (FN), a far-right party which blames immigration, more particularly immigration from North African countries such as Algeria, for increased unemployment and crime. The social situation in the French suburbs ("banlieues": literally, "suburbs", but in France a euphemism for large suburban housing projects for the poor, with a high proportion of the population of North African descent) still have to be successfully tackled. Jean-Marie Le Pen's relative success at the French Presidential election, 2002 has been attributed in part to concerns about juvenile criminality.

Massive general strikes followed by all the trade-unions were triggered in November-December 1995, paralyzing France, in protest against the Juppé plan of "libéral" (in French, free market) reforms. These strikes were generally considered a turning point in the French social movement. It remains to be seen how much of these reforms will now be enacted by Sarkozy's first government, as Sarkozy was elected President on a similar platform in May 2007.

The Fifth Republic (1995-2007)

During his first 2 years in office, President Jacques Chirac's prime minister was Alain Juppé, who served contemporaneously as leader of Chirac's neo-Gaullist (RPR) Party. Chirac and Juppé benefited from a very large, if rather unruly, majority in the National Assembly (470 out of 577 seats). However, the administration was increasingly embroiled in corruption scandals regarding the past of the RPR (see Corruption scandals in the Paris region); furthermore, some reforms were highly unpopular and caused a series of strikes. Mindful that the government might have to take politically costly decisions in advance of the legislative elections planned for spring 1998 in order to ensure that France met the Maastricht criteria for the single currency of the EU, Chirac decided in April 1997 to call early elections.

The Left, led by Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin, whom Chirac had defeated in the 1995 presidential race, unexpectedly won a solid National Assembly majority (319 seats, with 289 required for an absolute majority). President Chirac named Jospin prime minister on June 2, and Jospin went on to form a Plural Left government composed primarily of Socialist ministers, along with some ministers from allied parties of the Left, such as the Communist Party and the Greens. Jospin stated his support for continued European integration and his intention to keep France on the path towards Economic and Monetary Union, albeit with greater attention to social concerns.

Chirac and Jospin worked together, for the most part, in the foreign affairs field with representatives of the presidency and the government pursuing a single, agreed French policy. Their "cohabitation" arrangement was the longest-lasting in the history of the Fifth Republic. However, it ended subsequent to the National Assembly elections that followed Chirac's decisive defeat of Jospin (who failed even to make it through to the second round of voting) in the 2002 presidential election. This led to President Chirac's appointment of Jean-Pierre Raffarin (UMP) as the new prime minister. On May 29, 2005, French voters in the referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe turned down the proposed charter by a wide margin. This was generally regarded as a rebuke to Chirac and his government as well as the Socialist Party leadership, all of whom — apart of Laurent Fabius — had supported the proposed constitution. Two days later, Raffarin resigned and Chirac appointed Dominique de Villepin, formerly Foreign Minister as Prime Minister of France.

An enduring force is Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front party, whose anti-immigration, isolationist policies have been described by critics as inspired by xenophobia. Le Pen's survival into the second round of 2002's "Présidentielle" had many observers worried this time, but in the 2007 first round Le Pen finished a distant fourth.

The issue of "libéralisme"

One of the great questions of current French politics is that of "libéralisme" — that is, economic liberalism, as opposed to government intervention in the economy. Broadly speaking, supporters of "libéralisme" want to let the forces of the free market operate with little or no regulation. As an example, they want little regulation of the workforce, e.g. French laws setting a 35-hour work week rather than leaving this to contract negotiations. Critics of "libéralisme" (realists/mercantilists) , with respect to this example, argue that individual employees are weak compared to market forces and employers, and thus that governmental intervention is necessary for their welfare; they point out that great gains in workers' rights were historically achieved by government intervention (as during the Popular Front in 1936-38). Similarly, proponents of "libéralisme" favour free markets and the free movement of goods, which critics contend benefit the wealthy business classes at the expense of the ordinary worker. Of course, liberalists argue that the wealth gained by free trade causes a lowering of prices for all classes, not just the wealthy. French conservative parties such as, today, the UMP, or before the RPR, the UDF or the Independent Republicans of Giscard support economic liberalism. According to historian René Rémond's famous classification of the right-wings in France, this tradition belongs to the Orleanists inheritance, while Gaullists inherited from Bonapartism and a tradition of state intervention issued from the National Council of Resistance (CNR)'s welfare state program after the war. However, neo-Gaullists have since rallied economic liberalism thesis, inferring the right-wing of the Socialist Party's social-liberal stance (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, etc.). Libertarianism as such is rare in France; it is considered a form of "ultra-liberalism" or neo-liberalism and upheld only by right-wingers such as Alain Madelin.

Some, such as Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, favour radical change in the relationship between the government and the economy. They argue that for the last 30 years, under both left-wing and right-wing governments, the French have been misled into believing that things could go on without real reforms. One may say that they favour a Thatcherite approach to change. Others on the right (Dominique de Villepin) as well as some on the left argue for gradual reforms. In comparison, the refusal of the French electorate to vote for the proposed European Constitution was interpreted by some — in particular the French Communist Party and far-left parties such as Workers' Struggle (LO) or the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) as a popular refusal of "libéralisme", which the European Union is perceived to embody. Some such as Laurent Fabius have argued that the Socialist Party should thus have a more "left-wing" line.


The February 23, 2005 law on the alleged "positive values" of colonialism was met by a public uproar in the left-wing. Voted by the UMP majority, it was charged with advocating historical revisionism, and after long debates and international opposition (from Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria, or Aimé Césaire, founder of the "Négritude" anti-colonialist literary movement), was repealed by president Jacques Chirac himself, against his own majority, start of 2006.

In Autumn 2005, civil unrest erupted in a number of lower classes suburbs. As a result, the government invoked a state of emergency which lasted until January 2006. Interior Minister Sarkozy's political discourse veered in favour of increased repression of young delinquents and illegal immigration.

In 2006, Prime minister Dominique de Villepin enacted amendments that established a "first employment contract", known as CPE, a special kind of employment contract under which workers under the age of 26 can be hired and fired liberally. Proponents of the measure argued that French workforce laws, which put the burden of proof on the employer for dismissing employees, dissuaded employers from hiring new employees; according to them, this is one reason while the unemployment rate of those under 26 is 23% and that of youngsters from some lower classes neighbourhoods as high as 40%. However, the plan backfired, with criticism both on the way the law was passed (using an exceptional legislative procedure) and on the law itself, which was criticized both for weakening workers' rights in general, and for singling out the young disfavourably instead of attempting to cure more general issues. Following from mass street protests, the government had to retract the legislation. Following from these events, Villepin lost all hopes of winning the presidency, and his government no longer tried to enact socially controversial reforms.

2007 presidential campaign

In 2006-2007, an intense electoral campaign took place for the presidential election. While, inside the UMP which he led, Nicolas Sarkozy was largely uncontested (other possible candidates such as Michèle Alliot-Marie having no real hopes), a bitter campaign opposed three left-wing hopefuls: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Ségolène Royal and Laurent Fabius, each defending a different version of social-democracy. Strauss-Kahn defended social-liberal, "fiscally responsible" policies; Fabius ran on a platform opposed to economic liberalism, in line with his opposition to the European Constitution; Royal ran on a platform of reform, taking ideas from consultations with citizens through her web site. Finally, Royal was selected by the members of the Socialist Party. Royal's credibility was strongly attacked, both from the inside of her party and by the Right. The surprise came from conservative François Bayrou, inheritant of the Social Catholic tradition of the MRP and president of the Union for a French Democracy (UDF) since 1998, who harshly opposed Sarkozy's approach to politics and economics, criticizing for instance concentration of media ownership. Coming third at the first turn of the election, Baryou then formed the Democratic Movement (MoDem) to attempt a reorganization of the political center, while UDF deputies opposed to his attacks on Sarkozy formed the Nouveau Centre and allied themselves with the UMP. Although the UMP itself had been an attempt by Chirac to unite the conservatives in one, single party, it has not managed to integrate all members of the UDF and is generally considered as the direct successor of the RPR.


Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president. However, the following legislative elections did not yield the expected "blue wave" of conservatives; Sarkozy's UMP actually obtained fewer seats than in the previous Assembly.He had lost the municipals and cantonals election in march 2008, where the left gain 6 more départements and more city than right.

Unions and leaders

Workers' unions.

* "Confédération Générale du Travail" or "CGT", nearly 800,000 members (claimed), traditional ties with the French Communist Party, but the currently tending more towards social-democratic views; General secretary : Bernard Thibault ;
* "Force Ouvrière" ("FO"), 500,000 members (est.), moderate left-wing, General secretary : Jean-Claude Mailly ;
* "Confédération Générale des Cadres" or CFE-CGC (white-collar and executive workers), 180,000 members (claimed), very moderate union, centrist, President : Bernard Von Craeynest ;
* "Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail" or "CFDT", about 800,000 members (est.), considered to be close to the reformist (social-liberal) options of the French Socialist Party, General secretary : François Chérèque ;
* "Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens" or "CFTC", 140,000 members, very moderate, President : Jacques Voisin ;
* "Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques", or SUD, heir of the "Group of 10", a group of radical trade unions, 110,000 members ;
* "Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes", or UNSA, a group of moderate trade unions, 330,000 members, General secretary : Alain Olive ;
* "Confédération Nationale du Travail" (CNT, anarchist), 8,000 members

Employers' unions.

* Union of French Corporations ("Mouvement des Entreprises de France" or "MEDEF", formerly known as "CNPF"), sometimes referred to as "patronat"

Students' unions.

* "Confédération Nationale du Travail" (CNT, anarchist)
* "SUD-Edudiant" (SUD, radical left-wing)
* "Union nationale des étudiants de france" (UNEF, left-wing)
* "Confédération étudiante" (Cé, centrist (links with CFDT)
* "Union Nationale Inter-universitaire" (UNI, right-wing)
* "Groupe Union Défense" (GUD, far-right)

Farmers' and peasants' unions.

* "Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles" ( FNSEA : right-wing : 55,4%)
* "Centre National des Jeunes Agriculteurs" ( CNJA, allied with FNSEA)
* "Confédération Paysanne"( left-wing, altermondialism :19,57%)
* "Mouvement de défense des exploitants famillaux" ( MODEF:Communism, altermondialism : 2,9%)
* "Coordination Rurale" ( radical right-wing : 18,70%)

See also

* Balladur jurisprudence
*History of the French far right
*History of the Left in France
*History of anarchism in France
*Liberalism and Radicalism in France
*Anti-nuclear movement in France

External links

* [http://www.frenchculturenow.com "Frenchculturenow.com": French political news]
* [http://www.politique.com "Politique.com", portal on French politics] fr icon
* [http://francepolitique.free.fr "France Politique" portal on French politics] fr icon
* [http://www.agorapolitique.com France Politique] Expression and debates about French politics fr icon

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