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French Politics - Background

One of the main effects of the Fifth Republic was sweeping change in France's traditional politics. General de Gaulle's aim was to reduce the influence of political parties through what he thought was their instrument for action: Parliament. Yet, other institutional and political innovations led to much greater changes in the party system. In the period from 1958 to 1974, the parties adapted to the new institutions and the supremacy of the presidency enshrined by the direct election of the President through universal suffrage.

The divisions between and within parties separated those that accepted the primacy of the presidency from those that did not. On the right wing of the political spectrum, some independents led by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing split off to support the presidential Republic, while the others faded into obscurity. The centrist parties represented by the Christian Democrats (MRP) and the secular Radical party, were also left on the sidelines after failing to engage in presidential politics, even when the situation was favourable for them, as it was when Alain Poher stood for the presidency in 1969.

On the left wing, François Mitterrand's rise to the top of the Socialist Party after eliminating a succession of rivals from the democratic left, including Pierre Mendès France, Guy Mollet and Gaston Defferre, was the direct consequence of a presidential strategy that was methodically built up and started with his first campaign against General de Gaulle in 1965. On the other hand, the occasional candidacies of Communist Party hopefuls for the presidency, despite the respectable results of Jacques Duclos in 1969, just made the party's electorate more unpredictable.

The constitutional architecture of the Fifth Republic led to a simplified political system, with the elimination of the old parliamentary parties and the emergence of new or completely overhauled parties that made winning the presidency the driving force of their strategies. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, Gaullists, Socialists and Independent Republicans - who would merge with the rump of the centre-right to form the UDF in 1978 - dominated the political scene, with only the Communists on the sidelines. The latter compensated for their strategic weaknesses by relying on the support of trade unions and their alliance with the Socialists. Then their influence declined as the Communist world collapsed.

These institutional influences were combined with those of the election system. The two-ballot majority poll led to a drastic reduction in the number of candidates. The system became more stringent in the 1978 general elections, when candidates were required to obtain 12.5% of registered voters' votes on the first ballot in order to stand on the second ballot. This meant that general elections and presidential polls pitted Gaullists and Giscardians on the right against Socialists and Communists on the left. Then, starting in the nineteen-eighties, Socialists ran against Gaullists.

The combined effects of the presidential election, which narrows the field down to two candidates on the decisive second ballot, making each candidate the leader of his camp, and the general elections, where second ballots feature two-way races in most constituencies, produced the result sought by Michel Debré, when he proposed that France adopted the British first-past-the-post system in order to narrow political competition. This unprecedented simplification of France's party system was incomplete because the electoral rules changed during the nineteen-eighties.

The system established in 1958 remained a majority voting system for all elections, but proportional representation was introduced gradually. In 1979, the French Members of the European Parliament were elected using proportional representation, which was extended to municipal elections under a mixed, but predominantly majority-voting system in 1983 and then to regional elections and general elections, where it was only used once, in 1986.

The increasing number of elections - even though the stakes are lower - take place under a system that promotes fragmentation of the vote and representation, fostering protest groups, such as the Front National, which, during the 1984 European elections, brought the extreme right back into the mainstream, ending its isolation that had lasted since the end of the Algerian war, and a new extreme left, which grew out of the remains of the Communist Party in the nineteen-eighties and often espouses Trotskyist ideals, along with 'anti-system' groups ranging from ecologists to hunters.

In this way it offsets the dominant trend towards simplification and changes the balance of power somewhat. The waning of the large parties, which nonetheless managed to renew their leadership, and the disinterest of a growing proportion of voters have precipitated a two-speed political scene. The large parties still monopolise the struggle for control of the State powers, while anti-system groups are winning a growing share of representation in elections with smaller stakes, such as regional and European polls. These groups sometimes make breakthroughs in 'major' elections, such as the 2002 presidential race, where Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National won a place on the runoff ballot, beating out the Socialist candidate because of the votes dispersed amongst other left wing candidates.

The Fifth Republic has undergone considerable change since its inception in response to changes in its international environment, in its territorial base and in the behavior of voters and politicians, parties and leaders. However, its main features have remained unchanged, including the system of representation and decision-making, the guarantee of citizens' rights and, most importantly, its great ability to adapt to all circumstances, enabling it to withstand political and social crises as well as changes in electoral majorities. The Fifth Republic was originally thought to be made to measure for an exceptional man, General de Gaulle. But it outlived him by adapting and by fostering a new political culture in France that is a successful synthesis of the many regimes that have followed the French Revolution.

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Page last modified: 15-08-2017 16:20:09 ZULU