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Is the Fifth Republic Unravelling?
It is of little surprise that the French political party system would be among the first to collapse. France is extraordinarily divided in ways that its political system cannot attenuate.
On Sunday, April 10, France conducted the first round of the 12th presidential election of the fifth republic. For the eleventh time (Charles de Gaulle’s initial selection by an electoral college in 1958 is the exception), the election will proceed to a second round between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen. This creates a rematch of the second round of the 2017 election, which Macron won handily. The 2022 edition has been a tighter fight with Macron leading the first round 27.64% to 23.15%. For the third straight election, no candidate reached 30% in the first round, and the two candidates moving on to the second round won barely half the vote combined, meaning half the electorate will enter the runoff in search of a new candidate.. (In 1974, by contrast, the two leading candidates, Valéry Giscard D’Estaing and François Mitterand, accounted for more than 75% of first-round votes.)
The more startling development is the continued meltdown of the Gaullists and the Socialists, the two blocks that have dominated French politics since the formation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. With the exception 2002, the two blocs always took both spots in the second round of presidential elections before 2017. This year, Gaullist Valérie Pécresse and Socialist Anne Hidalgo both suffered wipeouts, with neither receiving the 5% of the vote that would have entitled their parties to a €7 million subsidy from the state. Together, the two parties at the heart of the Fifth Republic earned only 6.5% of the vote, and the future of each party is now in serious question.
In the 1980s, political scientists such as Russell Dalton were already writing about realignment and dealignment affecting political parties in advanced democracies. They argued that voters were becoming more open to changing their party allegiances from one election to the next, and were moving to the point that they had little interest in political parties as a tool for guiding voting behavior. By the 2020s, this has become a trend across Western democracies, as new parties have emerged while former two-party systems, like Canada and the United Kingdom, have seen dominant parties lose large parts of their vote share. While the dominant parties retain their role leading governments in most democracies (for example, in last year’s German election, it was always clear that either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats would lead the incoming government), in France the two dominant parties are in the process of disappearing.
In addition to fragmentation among center-left and center-right parties, anti-system parties of the extreme left and especially the extreme right are winning growing shares of the vote and increasingly threaten to win control of governments, as is the case with Le Pen’s Rassemblement national. Anti-system candidates won the second, third, and fourth positions in Sunday’s election, and took 52% of the vote combined. In addition to the effect on the main parties, it is a stunning vote of non-confidence in the Fifth Republic altogether.
There is little surprise that the French political party system would be among the first to collapse. France is extraordinarily divided in ways that its political system cannot attenuate. The constitution of the Fifth Republic creates a heavily centralized government headed by a nearly monarchical presidency. Regional differences are not strongly felt in French politics, and the system creaks when it needs to deal with them. Macron is a creature of the Parisian financial sector with better connections to places like Wall Street than to the French countryside. The gilets jaunes protests against his government stemmed from the more profound effect that new environmental taxes had upon rural areas more dependent on private cars than upon urban areas. Macron’s proposals to raise the retirement age and reverse the shortening of the French workweek would also have been felt most strongly among the economically peripheral. His policies to deal with the SARS-CoV2 pandemic relied on lockdowns and vaccine mandates more accepted in Paris than elsewhere, and he notoriously said that the point of vaccine passports was to emmerder the unvaccinated.
Macron is nevertheless likely to win a second term in the runoff. While there may be an anti-system majority in France, it is deeply divided between left and right, and the hard left cannot abide by a Le Pen presidency. Third-place finisher Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in his concession speech, demanded that his voters give “not one single vote” to Le Pen in the runoff. Macron’s reelection will come from the same forces that make him the wrong leader for the moment, and one who cannot address France’s internal divisions effectively.
The two-bloc political system of the Fifth Republic has broken down, and is being replaced by a three-bloc system of left, center, and right. Both left and right are anti-system, and the center is distinguished by a Blairite neoliberalism that feeds the internal divisions that produce growth among the anti-system parties. While the hard right is likely to be locked out of power for another quinquennat, the problems plaguing the French political system will grow worse during Macron’s second term, and could well build pressure to dismantle the centralized political system and create a Sixth Republic.