Imagine that the Republican and Democratic parties suddenly disappeared. That has nearly happened here in France. Unlike our system, French elections take place on Sundays and occur in two rounds. In the recent presidential elections, the Republicans, formerly the Union for a Popular Movement, only received 4.78% of the vote. The Socialist Party, France’s center-left equivalent to our Democratic Party, garnered 1.75% of votes cast.
The two-round voting system allows people to vote strategically and tends to pull people towards the middle. The dominant radical parties in France today are La France Insoumise, headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and le Rassemblement national, led by Marine Le Pen. Although the two leaders represent the extreme left and the extreme right, they share some of the same views. According to Jean Birnbaum, writing in Le Monde, Mélenchon’s “declarations are stamped with enthusiasm.” He has travelled to Moscow to support Vladimir Putin and declared that “it is the United States that is in an aggressive position, and not Russia.” He is gaga over the dictatorship in Venezuela.
Le Pen, who inherited her position from her father, also supports Vladimir Putin. She defended the annexation of Crimea and has called for a reconciliation between NATO and Russia. The Ukrainians banned her from the country in 2017 and President Zalensky demanded that she revise her Russian position immediately before the second round of April’s election. Le Rassemblement national has a long history of antisemitism. One can honestly say that it has a long history of anti-everybody who is not traditionally French. Le Pen and Mélenchon are the high kickers in the Cancan of dictator enthusiasts in France.
President Emmanuel Macron used the fear of extremism and the desire for effective leadership to create a new party, now called la République en marche. He claims that he started his party because of his fear of extremism and the “cynicism” of the traditional parties who believed that the threat posed by extremists provided them with a means to “more easily proceed to power.”
Macron is a centrist technocrat. The two-round system allows voters on the left to vote against the far right and for voters on the right to vote against extremists on the left. Apart from le Rassemblement national, there is no longstanding political party that people strongly identify with today. Populism in France is a response to the inability of leaders to relieve the suffering of the ordinary people. The French people jettisoned the traditional parties out of a desire for effective government not ruled by “cynicism” and the desire for “power.” That desire is not unique to France.
Last Sunday French voters went to the “urne” for the second round of legislative elections. This time, President Macron failed to achieve an absolute majority due to Mélenchon’s new coalition party. The French presidency is powerful, but without control of the legislature, Macron will have difficulty moving his agenda forward. The new coalition, les NUPES- Nouvelle Union Populaire ecologique es sociale- brings in the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, Europe Ecology, and the Greens.
Still, Macron has only just begun his second five-year term. We shall see if he can work with the Republicans to move forward with his centrist agenda. We can only hope.