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French Politics

The Fifth Republic

Charles de GaulleUNR / UDR1959-1965
Charles de GaulleUNR / UDR1965-1969
Georges PompidouUDR1969-1974
Valéry Giscard d'EstaingUDF1974-1981
François MitterrandSocialist1981-1988
François MitterrandSocialist1988-1995
Jacques ChiracRPR / UMP1995-2002
Nicolas SarkozyUMP2007-2012
Francois HollandeSocialist2012-2017
Emmanuel Macron En Marche! 2017-2027

In the April 22, 2007 first round of presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, placed first; Socialist candidate Segolene Royal placed second; centrist Francois Bayrou placed third; and extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen placed fourth out of a field of 12 candidates. Sarkozy prevailed in the May 6, 2007 second round, defeating Royal by a 53.06% to 46.94% margin. Royal's loss marked the third straight defeat for the Socialist candidate in presidential elections.

Nicolas Sarkozy assumed office on May 16, 2007 as France's sixth president under the Fifth Republic. Succeeding Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy appointed François Fillon as Prime Minister and an interim Council of Ministers. In electing Nicolas Sarkozy, French voters endorsed the wide-ranging program of reforms--including market-oriented social and economic reforms--that were the focal point of his campaign, implicitly giving him the green light to try and implement these reforms quickly, and allowing a way forward for overcoming France's 2005 rejection of the EU constitutional treaty. By embracing a figure long tagged as "pro-American," French voters also expressed their desire to renew trust in the U.S.-France relationship. During the campaign Sarkozy often ended his stump speeches--evoking Martin Luther King--by calling for a "French dream" of social equality, social mobility, and equal opportunity, and his first speech as President-elect assured his "American friends" that they could rely on France's friendship. After his inauguration, President Sarkozy focused his first months in office on improving the performance of France's economy through liberalization of labor markets, higher education, and taxes.

Legislative elections held on June 10 and 17, 2007 gave the UMP a large parliamentary majority, and a full Government under Prime Minister Fillon was appointed. The victory was the first occasion since 1978 that the incumbent party had been re-elected. The UMP party finished with 313 seats, which with aligned Deputées left the UMP parliamentary group with 319 seats compared to 204 for the Socialists group. Before the election the UDF (centrist party) had split into two: François Bayrou’s MoDem won just 3 seats while the Nouveau Centre (NC), which broadly supports the UMP, picked up 23. A NC Deputé later switched to MoDem.

Senate elections took place on 21 September 2008, where 114 out of 343 Senators were up for re-election. Although the UMP retained their overall majority, they lost 8 seats, bringing their total number down to 151. The Socialist party gained 21, raising their total to 116. Meanwhile, the third largest party, the UDF, lost one seat, reducing their total to 29.

The UMP reinforced its ascendance over the Socialists by winning the June 7, 2009 European Parliament election with 27.88% of the vote, an increase of more than 11 percentage points over 2004. The Socialists finished a distant second, in a virtual tie with Europe Ecology, the French Green party. In the March 2010 regional elections, however, the Socialist Party won a majority of seats in 21 of the 22 regions of mainland France, marking a definitive resurgence for the main opposition party.

On October 27, 2010 France’s National Assembly voted 336 to 233 in favor of President Sarkozy’s controversial pension reform bill. Before it came to a vote, there were widespread strikes and protests in September and October over the bill's proposals. The provision drawing the most ire increases the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 for a partial pension and from 65 to 67 for a full pension.

In the fourth government reshuffle in a year, President Sarkozy announced a significant shift in three ministries on February 27, 2011. Alain Juppe, Defense Minister since November 2010, took over the Foreign Ministry from Michele Alliot-Marie; Conservative Senator Gerard Longuet took over the Defense Ministry from Juppe; and Claude Gueant was named Minister of the Interior, replacing Brice Hortefeux.

On March 20 and 27, 2011 France held “cantonal” (local) elections to elect members of departmental councils. Amid record low turnout of 44%, President Sarkozy’s center-right UMP fared poorly in the first round of elections. With 99% of the votes counted, the Socialist Party placed first with 25% of the first-round vote nationwide, the UMP was second with 17%, and the National Front (FN) was third with 15%, according to Ministry of Interior figures. Taken together, center-left parties won about 48% of the first-round vote while the center-right (without the FN) garnered about 32%. The center-left also won in the second round, forming a Socialist-Greens-Front de Gauche coalition and winning 61 of 101 departmental councils.

The Socialist Party (PS) and its allies won a slight majority in the French Senate in September 2011. The election marked the first time the left had achieved a majority in France’s upper chamber of Parliament in the history of the Fifth Republic. Socialist leader Francois Hollande hailed a left-wing senatorial victory as a “historic moment.... If France’s next president is from the left-wing, the [new Senate] will be a major asset to him”. But the Socialist Party did not enjoy an outright majority in the chamber and sometimes found it impossible to persuade traditional allies in the Green and Communist party to vote through its bills.

In terms of governance, the French Senate has the power to slow new legislation, but ultimately the National Assembly can pass a bill without the Senate’s approval. On the other hand, the Senate has the power to reject changes to the constitution. Political observers note, for instance, that President Sarkozy’s so-called Golden Rule amendment--which would require a balanced budget--has little chance of passage given the new left majority in the Senate.

In France, as with the UK, the liberal left constitutes 37% of voters. Unlike in Britain, however, the entirety of the rest of the voting population – 63% of voters – hold authoritarian populist [AP] views. With a presidential election in early 2017, a lot rested on how these voters behaved in the first round of voting. Should the AP vote skew more towards the far right National Front party’s candidate Marine Le Pen, this could mean France’s centre-right party, The Republicans, fail to get enough votes to make the second-round, giving Le Pen a real chance of winning the presidency.

The first-round humbling of conservative candidate François Fillon and Socialist nominee Benoît Hamon marked the first time in over half a century that the traditional ruling parties of left and right both stumbled at the first hurdle. In carrying political novice Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the second round of the presidential election, on 23 April 2017 French voters inflicted a crushing defeat on the two parties that had alternated in power in recent decades.

Both camps had just over a month to pull themselves together in time for the June 2017 parliamentary elections. While the Socialists were battling to stay alive, the Les Républicains still fancied their chances of clinching a majority of seats and forcing the future president to share power. The second round of France’s presidential election had yet to take place, and already the parliamentary polls were looking like a last-chance “third round” for the country’s humbled political mainstream.

In many countries, where people live tends to be an accurate predictor of what or whom they are voting for. This was most evident in the maps of the electoral geography of voting for “Leave” and “Remain” in the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership. A similar pattern can be found in the distribution of votes in the 2012 US presidential election or in French support for Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the 2015 regional elections. It was found in the United States’ 2016 presidential election. Many citizens live in places where a large share of their neighbors vote the same way they do.

This voting geography is indicative of a deep economic, social, and educational divide. Affluent cities, where university graduates concentrate, tend to vote for internationally-minded, often center-left candidates, while lower middle-class and working-class districts tend to vote for trade-adverse candidates, often from the nationalist right. It is no accident that mayors from the center-left govern New York, London, Paris, and Berlin, whereas smaller, struggling cities tend to prefer hard-right politicians.

Regional or local voting patterns are as old as democracy. What is new is a growing correlation of spatial, social, and political polarization that is turning fellow citizens into near-strangers. University graduates account for half of the total population in the most affluent US metropolitan areas, but are four times less numerous in worse-off areas.

Economic shocks tend to exacerbate this political divide. Those who happen to live and work in traditional manufacturing districts caught in the turmoil of globalization are multiple losers: their job, their housing wealth, and the fortunes of their children and relatives are all highly correlated.

The French are no strangers to taking to the streets - Aux barricades! There is a stronger culture of taking to the streets to protest in France than in many other countries. In 1968, students at Sorbonne University erected barricades in a challenge to the status quo. The violence that authorities used to suppress the protesters brought French workers onto the streets, and the swelling 1968 movement that eventually numbered 9 million people brought France to its knees. The uprising led to a 35 percent rise in the minimum wage and salary increases of 10 percent. But it undermined the legitimacy of president Charles de Gaulle, who stood down the following year. Mass demonstrations also forced the French government to ditch plans to reform the university selection process in 1986, the reform of public transport workers’ pensions in 1995 and the introduction of a lower wage scale for recent university graduates in 2006.

The memory of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions (which led to the creation of France's Second Republic) as well as other, smaller uprisings are indelibly printed on the French psyche. The tumult following the 1830 revolution was immortalised in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” a classic of French literature and one of the most famous musicals of all time, which culminates in a confrontation on the barricades during the 1832 Paris Uprising. In later decades, fearing such protests could threaten his grip on power, Napoleon III enlisted the help of Baron Haussmann to re-plan the notoriously narrow streets of Paris into wide, easily accessibly boulevards starting in 1853 – giving birth to the wide avenues of the modern French capital. It was thought this would stop the building of barricades that hindered soldiers from restoring order.

In April 2021, a French news magazine published a letter signed by over 1,200 military personnel, among them 20 prominent retired generals, warning that radical ideologies and religious extremism could cause a civil war and the disintegration of France. The letter suggested that the country was at risk of a “racial war” and claimed there were elements in French society who “despise our country, its traditions, its culture, and want to see it dissolve by tearing away at its past and its history.” It went on to warn that “Islamism and the suburban hordes” had caused parts of France to effectively detach from French jurisdiction and to be subjected “to dogmas that are contrary to our constitution.” The appeal threatened that if nothing was done, the military would intervene “to protect our civilisational values and safeguard our compatriots.”

In a new letter 09 May 2021, servicemen again warned that a “civil war” was “brewing in France” and that the authorities were aware of it. Harris Interactive-LCI opinion polling found that 58 percent of Frenchmen and women expressed support for the letter, with 86 percent agreeing that some cities had areas where French law does not apply, and 73 percent agreeing that French society was disintegrating. However, the French military's top brass rejected the “brewing civil war” claims, while Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin scoffed at the growing number of signatories to the second military letter, calling the appeal “not serious.” French Army Chief of Staff Gen. Francois Lecointre hinted this week that those active duty soldiers who signed the new appeal should resign.

On 15 May 2021 a group of retired French police officers issued a new open letter to President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Jean Castex, and the French Senate demanding safety for law enforcement and security for the citizens of France in general. The petition, published on MesOpinions.com, a French petitions and surveys portal, was penned by 93 retired police officers, and solemnly asks the government “to do everything possible to put an end to the extremely serious situation that France is going through in matters of security and public tranquility.” Signed by over 36,000 people, the petition suggests that the authority of the French state is being “undermined by violent minorities,” and that there are “lost territories” in France in which the laws of the Republic no longer apply.

France's President Emmanuel Macron appointed Labor Minister Elisabeth Borne as the country's new prime minister, the first woman to hold the position in three decades, after Prime Minister Jean Castex submitted his resignation 16 May 2022, setting the stage for a cabinet reshuffle as Macron embarked on his second term. Borne, 61, will be the first woman named as prime minister since Edith Cresson briefly occupied the office during the presidency of Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand in the early 1990s. Macron, who needed to send a signal he has heard the frustrations of voters expressed in low turnout and big support for the radical far-right and far-left in April's presidential election, had said he was looking for someone with green and social policy credentials to act as next prime minister.

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Page last modified: 03-06-2022 18:14:47 ZULU