President, parliament and party(ies)

The photograph I have used to illustrate this week’s opening blog entry comes from the François Borella’s Les partis politiques dans la France d’aujourd’hui, a book that was, back in the early 1990s when I started teaching the subject, pretty much the best general text to throw at undergraduates. The edition I used, published in 1990, was the fifth. It first appeared in 1973.

Then, as the cover suggests, we still talked about the quadrille bipolaire, the split of French politics into left and right, but subdivided between four parties. The Socialist PS and the Communist PCF were on the left. On the centre-right and right were the Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF) and the neo-Gaullist Rassemblement pour la République (RPR - whose symbol was the Cross of Lorraine superimposed on the Phrygian cap).  

Within these two groups, the 1980s had seen major shifts. On the left, the PCF had been the larger in terms of electorate, but in the 1978 general election they were overtaken by the PS (itself a party relaunched in the early 1970s from the ruins of the old Socialist SFIO), under the leadership of François Mitterrand. The latter then won the presidential election in 1981 and although he appointed Communist ministers to the government, the ‘party of a different type’ went into rapid decline nationally and, in some way more significantly, at the local level. By the 1990s, it had become peripheral beyond a handful of strongholds and was losing its electorate to the right and the far-right.

The RPR, founded in 1976 by Jacques Chirac, never used the term ‘right’: for two generations after the war, ‘right’ meant Vichy. But, generally, its politics and those of its UDF ally put it there anyway. While the RPR looked like a classic political party, the UDF was in fact an umbrella for myriad formations on what is sometimes referred to as ‘the non-Gaullist moderate right’ or NGMR, where the term ‘moderate’ implies conservative and republican. The umbrella covered Christian democrats, economic liberals, even some old radicals. We tend to think of it sitting between the centre and the RPR, but in fact, some figures within the UDF (yes Philippe de Villiers, I'm looking at you) were far from moderate and espoused views on religion and identity that were not very far from the emergent FN. What separated them from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party was their republicanism. Le Pen loathed the Fifth Republic. The UDF were committed to it while the RPR believed they were it.

The RPR and the UDF have now disappeared. They merged in 2002 into the Union pour une Majorité Présidentielle (UMP), designed to give the re-elected President Chirac a majority in the general election. This then became the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire. A rump of the UDF, around François Bayrou, kept the old title and struggled on before a further split saw most of its leading figures defect to Nicolas Sarkozy after his presidential victory in 2007, while Bayrou struck out alone by creating MoDem.

Following Sarkozy’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, there was a bitter and inconclusive struggle for control of the UMP between François Fillon and Jean-François Copé, which, in the end neither won, though many felt at the time that Copé was simply a straw man, intended to hold the party together until Sarkozy was ready to return.  With the result of the leadership ballot the subject of fierce dispute, instead the UMP was handed over to a small committee until Sarkozy took back control of the party in late 2014. A year later, the UMP morphed into Les Républicains.

When Borella’s fifth edition was published, the PS was a party in agony. Mitterrand had been re-elected in 1988 and promptly dissolved the right-wing National Assembly, but the PS failed to win a majority and had to govern with the support of a handful of centre-right deputies who broke from the main UDF. At its national congress at Rennes in March 1990, the PS tore itself apart and although the left limped on in government until 1993, by then the party had abandoned Mitterrand (and vice versa). It was obliterated in the 1993 general election, where the RPR and UDF alliance won more than 400 seats, while the PS managed fewer than 60. For the first time ever, the PS had more senators than deputies, a situation recreated again this year.

Still, the PS regrouped and, thanks largely to the ineptitude of the right, took power as the heart of a ‘rainbow’ coalition in 1997 before throwing it away again in 2002. The left then won every intermediate election between 2002 and 2007 (with the exception of the European constitution referendum, which split the party). Then, in 2006, party members chose the wrong candidate (Ségolène Royal), and an unloseable election was lost.

In 2012, this time using a system of primary that stretched beyond just the party membership, the PS chose Royal’s former partner, François Hollande. With his election to the Elysée, the PS held all the key institutions: the Presidency, the National Assembly, the Senate (for the first time ever), all but two regional assemblies, most of its big towns and a majority of its departmental councils. And Hollande threw it all away...

It remains a moot point as to whether the PS will continue under that title. The presidential election was a humiliation for the party and for its candidate, Benoît Hamon, who managed less than 7% of the vote, though at least he will get half his election expenses reimbursed by the state. The general election was even worse, with barely thirty PS deputies elected. This matters, because in France, political parties receive state funding on the basis of the number of deputies and senators, to the tune of €37,000 per annum.  This article from Le Monde underlines the impact of the party’s vertiginous decline from 284 seats in 2012.

This weekend (8-9 July 2017), as Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche finally held its founding congress (of which more below), the PS announced that, following the decision last month by Jean-Christophe Cambadélis to stand aside as general secretary, it would hand over control to a ‘collégial’ leadership committee of 20 (although one of those named later announced she wasn’t on the committee).

In the meantime, Hamon has announced that he has left the party to set up a new group, called the Mouvement du 1er Juillet, though a number of his close political associates have remained and may be simply sleepers preparing his return. Others have also announced their intentions to set up their own clubs or microparties. Anne Hidalgo is one, for example, whose position as mayor of Paris offers her considerable protection from the collapse of the PS and who might, in due course and if things go her way (Paris winning the Olympic bid, holding on to city hall come 2020), emerge as a présidentiable for a reconfigured left, come 2022.

The situation on the right is less desperate, perhaps, but no less fractured. I cannot underline enough the impact on the party of losing an election they were supposed to win and the challenges that Macron’s victory poses.  The party was already at war with itself before the election, over reactions to the Fillon/Penelopegate scandal and the victory of Macron has not made the situation clearer.

Already, on the very evening of 23 April, splits within the party emerged. Eliminated from the contest, Fillon called on his supporters to vote for Macron in the second round. But not everyone in the party was willing to express themselves in that way. Doing the rounds of the TV plateaux that evening, Laurent Wauquiez, secretary of the party, would not be drawn into a commitment to Macron versus Marine Le Pen. To the exasperation of many Républicains, he finessed the issue with the formula ‘not a single vote for Le Pen’…

It wasn’t Wauquiez who led the LR into the general election, but François Baroin, who was once upon a time thought of as a premier ministrable and might one day be again. It’s odd to think that, back in 2007, following Sarkozy’s crushing victory over Royal, we all thought Sarkozy would be in for 10 years and that what we should be looking at was the next generation of right-wing figures who would follow him in 2017. Baroin was one of half-a-dozen quadras (short for quadragénaires or forty-somethings)  whose names tripped off the pen, along with Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse, Bruno Le Maire and Wauquiez.

The leadership of the LR were in a difficult position, once Macron emerged as the winner of the presidential election. They chose to take a punt on right-wing voters who had abandoned Fillon turning out for the party, giving them a majority of seats, imposing cohabitation on Macron, with Baroin being appointed PM. Christian Estrosi, the forthright LR mayor of Nice described this as a rather pathetic bout of muscle flexing that was bound to end in disaster, and he was right. As a consequence, Baroin has pretty much been ruled out of taking over the LR when they elect a new leader in December this year.

For now, it looks as if Wauquiez, president of the Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne region and situated on the more identitarian right of the party, will be a shoo-in for that role. Initially, we had expected a challenge from the more moderate Xavier Bertrand (president of the northern Haut-de-France region) to stand, but last month he announced that he would not seek the position. It seemed at that point that Pécresse, president of the Ile-de-France would stand instead, but over this last weekend she too announced that she is not a candidate. Instead, Pécresse announced that she will set up her own movement within LR, possibly under the name ‘Libres’, ‘ni soumise à Macron, ni poreuse avec le FN.’

The issue of ‘porosité’ between LR and the FN is one that haunts moderates within the party – Estrosi used the same term. Wauquiez seems less worried about it, not necessarily because he wants to seek an alliance with the FN (though some are not shy about that), but because he thinks there is an electorate there to be ‘brought back to the Republic’ if LR can camp on the FN’s terrain by striking a line for ‘traditional values’ and ‘la politique indentitaire’. In some ways, this is what Fillon adopted, but failed to underline because attention became focused elsewhere.

But it is also a line that has failed in the past. In Parties de campagne (see my last blog), Gérard Courtois reminds us that, as a rule, the second round of French presidential elections is won in the centre. In 2012, however, Sarkozy decided to try and defeat Hollande by going after Marine Le Pen’s voters. This policy, known as droitisation, was the brainchild of a former FN sympathiser and Sarkozy adviser Patrick Buisson.

La ligne Buisson failed and served only to alienate centre-right politicians who had previously rallied to the UMP, such as Jean-Louis Borloo and Chantal Jouanno, who formed a new party, the Union des Démocrates et Indépendants (UDI). For moderates like Pécresse and Bertrand, the experiment should not be repeated.

And it remains a deeply divisive question within the LR. It was largely because of his ‘ni-ni’ strategy in the 2015 regional elections – that LR voters should support neither the Socialists nor the FN in the second round of those elections where the LR list had been eliminated – that Sarkozy lost the hitherto unquestioning support of Estrosi, then leader of the LR in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. For Estrosi, who has spent his entire political career fighting against a very strong FN presence in the south-east, there are certain lines you do not cross and it is always better to vote for the left than the far-right. Défense républicaine oblige.

It is worth returning, though, to the other part of the Pécresse formula – ‘ni soumise à Macron’. Not giving in to Macron either. Clearly, for Pécresse, the LR needs to resist both temptations. But not everyone in her party has. I have mentioned in previous entries that a fraction of LR deputies have joined with the UDI ones to form their own group in the National Assembly, known as the LR Constructifs-UDI and willing to support the government. As a consequence of their actions, the LR members of this group have been expelled from the party, which you would, to be honest, expect. (NB - the policy committee opf the LR, meeting on 11 July, rowed back from immediate expulsion and will decide the fate of the 'Constructifs and LR ministers later in the year. By then, though, it might be academic).

In response, the UDI leader, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, has suggested the foundation of yet another party, essentially a cadre party composed of élues and élus, to fill the gap between LRM and the LR. (If you gave me a pound for every centre-right party that has been set up during the Fifth Republic, I’d be able to treat myself to a fine dinner at La Tour d’Argent.)

All of which leads us to La République en Marche…

The presidential party held its founding congress on Saturday 8 March at Porte de La Villette in Paris. Up to a point, the congress simply put the seal on creating a party that existed de facto. Its predecessor, En Marche!, was established through creating local structures and recruiting members either from existing parties or, more often than not, who had no previous experience of politics on the ground. Despite scepticism about the movement’s ability to deliver, it clearly has: both a President and a majority in the National Assembly. It will be interesting to see how LRM performs in the Senate election in September, an election dominated by networks of established local notables. LRM has no local councillors and they make up the ballast of the electoral colleges.

But that is a problem to be overcome then. For the time being the party is in buoyant mood. And with more than 300 deputies, why wouldn’t it be? Its success at the polls means it has a starting budget of more than €20 million from that source alone. To that can be added €15 million in donations (which are strictly limited to a maximum of €7500 per person under French law). What is more, membership has, according to its own sources, exploded, today reaching 373,000, boosted by 100,000 new members since Macron’s election. If that’s a real figure, then it’s about the same as the old UMP, PS and FN altogether in 2014. Membership is free and organised through more than 3000 local committees, headed by what are known as référants.

The party will be led by a committee and there will be no party ‘leader’ as such. It is not intended that LRM will produce a figure to rival Macron. Much the same thing happened with the embryonic Gaullist party, the Union pour la Nouvelle République (UNR), when that was formed in 1958. De Gaulle had no intention of allowing the party to act as a platform for anyone else to challenge his legitimacy, and so the party created a general secratray, not a presidnet. And when the election to that post happened, de Gaulle made damn sure it was filled by one of his loyal godillots.

In fact, in 1958, de Gaulle had nothing to do with the creation of the party in any case and had assumed he would have to govern with the exiting parties, but the UNR proved a very useful machine for winning intermediate elections. Macron knows that he needs a machine to take on that task. He is lucky in so far as the next elections in France (apart from the sénatoriales) are not until May 2019, when the new round of European elections take place. Although that will be a test of his Europhile vision, it will be a less important test, domestically, then the municipal elections in March 2020, followed by the next Senate election that September, then departmental and regional elections in 2021. And we can assume that he is planning to stand again in 2022.

When it was set up in late 1958, the UNR claimed it was ‘un parti pas comme les autres’, a party unlike the others. There was an echo of that at the weekend, as the congress insisted that LRM will not be like other parties, that it will be a ‘citizens’ party, that it will be ‘open and egalitarian’. We’ve heard these things before and no-one has the first idea what they mean. But there is also a side that some readers may find rather sinister.

As well as a party, its founders want LRM to be ‘un média’, a means of transmitting the Macron message to the French and by-passing the established news media, using the internet and online social networks. Since his election, Macron has studiously avoided media interviews and his first real political foray was his address to Congress last week. The underlying message seems to be that the ‘conventional’ media are too much interested in ‘politics’ and not so much in what is being done.

Is anyone else getting a sense of the evangelical pastor, the trendy vicar? Of course, this sort of thing has been done before. In Belle Epoque France, when parties where weak to the point of non-existence, any politician who aspired to a national role had their own Parisian daily newspaper plus connections to the regional press. And back in the 1960s there was a very clearly defined Gaullist press (just as there was for other parties, with L’Humanité operating as the Communist mouthpiece, Le Populaire as that of the Socialists, while La Croix voiced moderate Catholic opinion). All the same, the idea of a party as media and the express desire to recruit writers and film-makers to help project the right image through LRM should strike a note of caution.

Ten days ago, before Macron’s address to Congress and after it had been announced that he will not be availing himself of the traditional presidential interview on 14 July, a source close to the head of state is supposed to have said that such a setting didn't lend itself well to his pensée complexe, Macron’s complex thought process and ideas. You can imagine the fun French humourists have had with that. But there is another side to this and it needs to be asked whether La République en Marche, this party unlike any other, is not just the vehicle for a presidential pensée unique.