The French Elections

For some time now I have contemplated posting here on Troppo on the French elections. More than anything else, I have resisted the temptation with diligent application of laziness. Second only to laziness has been the suspicion that very few people care about the French elections. Actual interaction with people (I should try that more) suggests that in fact a lot of people are interested in the French election just enough to appreciate finding out about it but not enough to actually bother ‘following’ it as (eg) I do. So, about 100 days out, I have decided to taste the waters with an introductory post, to be followed by approximately fortnightly updates should Troppodillians express interest. I rush to add that I am no expert, just an informed lay observer. I would appreciate any corrections, clarifications or criticism.

Part I – background
A the French electoral system
I should quickly note that I am concerned here with the Presidential elections above all. This is not unreasonable reading the French papers you might wonder if there was to be a parliamentary election or not. The French president in the Fifth Republic is elected by two stages. The first stage (le premier tour) involves anyone who can gather 500 (of nearly 36,000) mayors’ signatures, and in the second (le deuxieme tour) vote two weeks later the two candidates with the most votes in the first stage run-off against each other.
Obviously that system produces many more candidates than we are used to – in the last elections there were 16.

B the parties
I have included this section because I have found it awkward to use the familiar terms of our political debate when referring to the French parties. The Economist considers there to be four main forces: neo-Gaullists, their allies in the non-Gaullist right or centre-right, the Socialists and the Communists. They dismiss Jean-Marie Le Pen as ‘ occasionally managing to get attention‘. I think that is a massive understatement he has arguably more (indirect) influence on the present election than almost anyone else. The Communists, on the other hand, are almost a faded force their three candidates in the last election only mustered 10% of the vote between them, and their decision not to go with Segolene Royal will hurt them if she wins.

Neo-Gaullists: Conservative, pro-big government, pro-agriculture, pro-‘Strong France’
The big losers thanks to Chirac’s massive unpopularity and his acolyte Prime Minister De Villepin’s striking achievement of antagonising the unions and left (making him a hero to the right) but then backing down, disappointing the right without repairing any lefty perceptions.
Centre-Right: Traditionally water-bearers for the Gaullists, the centre-right under Nicholas Sarkozy have now surplanted them most notably, he now leads the UMP, the party Chirac created to wield (Gaullist) power in parliament. They are the most reformist bloc and the least wedded to France’s twin devils: agriculture and dirigisme.
Socialists: In many ways the mainstay of French politics in the Fifth Republic since 1968, they struggled with the fall of the Soviet Union. Late in the nineties they recovered enough to gain control of parliament, the main legacy of which is the 35 hour working week. In theory they should have won the last election, but lost because they fielded too many candidates. In practice, they lost because a) the candidates they did field were mainly recycled hacks, and b) a lot of rural socialist voters, fans of big government in principle, found the idea of big government for the French and not the Arabs even better: they voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Since Royal’s emergence as the candidate it has become very hard to say what the Socialists stand for, especially since she creates a strong impression of basically hiding a lot of her actual opinions, but this will be gone into in more detail later.
Far-Right: Le Pen has been around for a long time so long that his reasonably telegenic and much more ‘cultured’ daughter, Marie, now does most of the actual running of the party. A seeming fixture in France’s political landscape, he catapulted into the spotlight in 2002 by making it to le deuxieme tour – forcing France’s sheltered elites to wonder, all too briefly, if they knew the country they lived in. In recent years he has pulled his policies slightly towards the centre he is now not so far from a anti-immigration hybrid of the worst of the Gaullists and the socialists, advocating an independent (of Europe and the US), agricultural France with lots of welfare for French people (by birth and by blood) and no immigration.
Far-Left: Whereas it is apparently revolting that Le Pen was once a Nazi, it is apparently fine that the far left are still Trotskyites and Communists. Happily, their only relevance now is making life difficult for centre-left candidates. Even more happily, Royal seems to have realised this (triggering the Parti Communiste Francais, appropriately, a collective of parties, to nominate their own ‘unity antiliberal candidate’: Marie-George Buffet). These people still spend time trying to work out what brought down the USSR, and are members of the various communist internationals and global worker conferences. The part of the far left that remains relevant is the Greens, whose candidate last time won over 5% of the vote.

Next time, I might present very brief bios on Sarkozy and Royal, and why I think each could be a good, or bad, leader of France.

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Sacha Blumen
17 years ago

Patrick, you’re right that Le Pen is a force to be reckoned with, especially as the top two candidates in the first round get through to the second. It seems as if Le Pen garners a lot of concentrated support from far-right voters, while those on the left split amongst the socialist, ecologist, trotskyite and communist candidates.

I stayed for a few days in Nime in the south of France in mid 2002 with an Australian who had been working in Nime for a few years. He said that local people voted communist in local elections and for the far-right in national (presumeably presidential) elections. I tried to make sense of this and sort-of did!

17 years ago

Sacha — I think you are wrong about Le Pens supporters — I don’t think all of Le Pens supporters are far-right — in fact probably quite a minority, which is why he was able to increase votes so quickly when he got to the second round last elections. Its not likely his “new” supporters suddenly moved to the far-right.

You can see the support base by looking at the voting patterns — The strongest support for Le Pen comes from the neighborhoods that are closest to the poor “immigrant” banlieus (think Lakemba multiplied by 10), which suggests that a lot of the people voting for him are just people fed up with what they see as crime and and an invasian of their culture that none of the other parties have any real solution for (it isn’t a tractable problem, so no-one actually has a solution that could possibly work), and there is nothing they can do individually (especially if they are too poor to move). Those that live next to the banlieu’s get more fed up than others presumably because they have the greatest exposure to it (quite the opposite of Hanson & co. in Australia incidentally — where the I hate non-whites line is generally most effective where non-whites never go).

This has nothing to do with being far-right per se — its just people get annoyed with the constant crime, bother, and agression that they get from these groups on a day to day basis. This is line is also pushed by “law & order” Sarkozy. The view that the French are subsidizing the Arabs to be unemployed, have too many children, and say how much they hate France is also common. I don’t think this is a far-right view, its more a social in-group/out-group phenomena (perhaps just out-group). In case you happen to be a third group (say Vietnamese, of which there are a fair few floating about), most of these Le Pen voter are not going to be bothered by you at all.

17 years ago

Hmm, some more statistics might be fun:

This is a (low-res) map of France’s cantons showing ‘won’ in each – in all, Chirac 2065, Le Pen 1301, Jospin 729 (but remember he had almost as many votes as Le Pen).
This one is more interesting (and clearer, if too small) showing the vote for each candidate.

It is reasonable enough to say that Le Pen’s support is concentrated in the periphery of large towns, however I am not sure what increase Conrad is referring to – the increase from 1995, which was substantial and was due to what French political types call ‘banalisation‘, or the increase from the first to the second round, which was from 16.9% to 17.8%.

Banalisation‘ is the spread of Le Pen’s vote from his traditional strongholds to practically everywhere – I am not sure why this is a banalisation of voting for him rather than a radicalisation of the electorate.

Also, Conrad, the ‘law and order’ thing is also pushed by Royal, which is mainly what I am alluding to in the last paragraph – but hopefully more to come on that!

17 years ago

I was thinking that Le Pen acts as a lightning rod for far right and disaffected voters and thus he benefits from the non-preferential nature of the first round of the French Presidential elections.

The other candidates/parties need to understand this (which they no doubt do since the first round of the last Presidential election) and act accordingly (which they might not do).

17 years ago

I didn’t know that the Socialists didn’t want to run Royal – why is that?

Having a “first-two-past-the-post” system in the first round benefits political groupings that are less split between many candidates than groupings that are split amongst many candidates (eg the left). That’s all I meant. In some ways it’s not a very good as the actual candidates in the final round may not at all reflect the two “generall-most-supported” candidates (ok this is my own invention), which a preferential system would moreso lead to, and could be quite unstable against small perturbations (eg many candidates all with 10-20% of the vote), ie, incredibly different results could result from very small differences in how people voted.

17 years ago


I haven’t been working in France since Royal appeared so I’m not sure what is going on now, but it seems likely to me that people’s attitudes are not changing much vs. who they are voting for, hence my guess is that people are simply voting for him for other reasons (like the lack of any ideas from the major parties, infighting with the socialists etc. — I’ll gues that the major parties will take some votes back if they start touting law and order solutions). Also, FNs support has been slowly growing from when it started in the 70s — and it is not just reflected in voting — I think they and their ideas are now much more acceptable to the general public and would be even more so if they could stop fighting with each other. Again I don’t think that this is because of a change in people’s attitudes per se — I think people are just responding with similar attitudes to what is touted and presumably believe as a worsening situation. Similar situations in terms of influence can be found with, say, many of the Green parties around, where I think they are far more acceptable to the average person than they were a decade or more ago, even if this is not strongly reflected in voting patterns (although I think this is somewhat a change of attitude).

Also, you need to look at a map of the individual seats won rather than the country overall to get a better idea of the voting patterns. I can’t find one now, but if you look at a map of a city like Marseille then I seem to remember that you will find that he collects the highest number of votes in the neighborhoods next to the poor neighborhoods. It is also the case he gets a fair chunk of votes in the big cities like Marseille — again suggesting a difference versus the the Australian anti-everything parties like One Nation who get almost no votes in Australia in places like Melbourne & Sydney.

17 years ago

Actually, one of the interesting things about all of the law and order stuff is that whilst its appeal gets greater and greater in many places (like France and Australia), the actual level of crime has been decreasing for quite a number of years now (also like Australia and France). So there’s clearly a big dissociation between reality and people’s perception of crime, which is no doubt pushed for political advantage. I tend to think the the same is true of the Banlieu’s and actually how bad they are. I’m sure people’s perceptions of how much crimes is committed is astronomically higher than the amount that actually is.