Some political issues (#2)
Presidential campaigns   A history of Extreme-Right movements in France: a few milestones

A few elements about the presidential campaigns in France :

  • The rules : to run, you must be be supported by 500 elected officials (mostly mayors) ; the election is in two rounds and only the two who get the most votes in the first one can run in the second one (so that a President is always elected with more than 50% of the votes) ;

  • It is indeed a big issue : the President has a lot of power in the French constitution (more than an US President!) and the outcome of the elections is important for the future. Compared to the USA, the abstention rate is generally low (15% to 25%) : it was only 15% in 2007 and 19% in 2012.

  • There are many candidates (12 in 2007, 10 in 2012, 11 in 2017) but only two of them can win, and only two or three others do influence the result : all the other candidates only want to publicize their ideas (if any...). See the most recent poll. Campaign expenses are reimbursed by the State (if the candidate gets more than 5% of the vote) and they are strictly controlled.
  • The two possible winners used to represent the two largest political parties with the largest number of members (100,000 to 200,000 each) : Nicolas Sarkozy for the UMP now LR (Right) in 2007 and 2012 and Ségolène Royal (2007) and François Hollande (2012) for the Socialist Party (Left) ; each one scored between 25% and 35% in the first round. The growing importance of the Extreme Right party (Front National, FN), is progressively changing the game between two parties into a game between three. This is a difference between France and other European countries : the two main political parties together represent barely half of the votes. However the choice between them is relatively clear : they have a different vision and both are able to govern the country. Their strategy is to gather their traditional voters around them for the first round to get the best possible score and to rally as much as they can in the second round along a Right/Left dividing line. In 2007, Sarkozy did a little better than he expected in the first round and was elected with more than 53% in the second round.

  • In 2012, Sarkozy's program included more law and order, better control of immigration, more incentive for entrepreneurship, improving relations with the USA, keeping taxes down in line with other European countries, etc ; Hollande's programs included more taxes on the wealthy (for the Socialist Party, being rich starts at 4,000 Euros a month....), « droit au logement » (everybody is entitled to a home provided by the State if he/she can't afford it), to name but a few.

  • What is new in 2017, it that the most "obvious" candidates did not make it to the election : the president Hollande was so impopular that he did run for a second term, for the Socialist Party, the winner of the primaries, Benoit Hamon, represents only the Left of the party, pushing many of Right of the party to support Emmanuel Macron an unknown former counsellor of Hollande who ran outside the classical scheme Left/Right. On the Right, the primaries gave a very unexpected result and the most popular candidate Alain Juppé was defeated by François Fillon whose campaign was soon demolished by a money scandal involving Fillon who was indicted (usually very understanding of money scandals, the French, this time, were scandalized...). Meanwhile, the Extreme Right FN was still progressing. Finally, Macron and Le Pen came out very close and ahead of Fiilion (Right) and Melenchon (Extreme Left) and Macron was (largely) elected.

  • Important candidates include Jean Marie Le Pen (2007), then his daughter Marine (2012 and 2017) for the Front National (extreme right) that represents, to make things simple, the unhappy, the weak and the scared people (who are many...) and could score anywhere between 12% and 25% : in fact he scored only 10% (2007). A surprise could have come from François Bayrou for the UDF (center right) who represents Christian Democracy, which is strong everywhere in Europe but weak in France ; however it is growing and with 18%, he did well in 2007 but only 9% in 2012. For the 2017 election, there was no doubt that the Front National, who gets growing results at each intermediary election, would trouble the traditional Right/Left game.

  • Other candidates included the greens (ecologists) with Dominique Voynet (2007) and Eva Joly (2012) for Les Verts, the Communist party (which still does not know it is dead) with Marie-Georges Buffet (2007) and its new form La Gauche with Jean-Luc Melenchon who ran a very successful campaign in 2012, Lutte Ouvrière (trotskyist) with Arlette Laguiller then Nathalie Artaud , the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire with Olivier Besancenot then Philippe Poutou (other trotskyists) ; in 2007 the party of hunters (yes : it exists) with Frédéric Nihous, the MPF with Philippe de Villiers (extreme right), and a few others including José Bové, and still another Trotskyist ; in 2012, two other unimportant candidates. Globally, all these candidates, who have no chance to win, usually represent 20% to 30% which are, literally, wasted but in the second round, a majority of their voters vote for the left and a strong minority abstains. Except for Besancenot in 2007 (4%), their scores were very disappointing (for them!) : 1 to 2% each. For each of them, the critical issue is to get more than 5% of the votes, the score over which campaigning expenses are reimbursed by the State, but in 2007 they all missed it and their respective parties were ruined.

  • In a previous elections (2002), quite unexpectedly, extreme rightist Jean Marie Le Pen got more votes than Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round and the second round took place between him and Jacques Chirac for the right, elected by 82%, more by a rejection of his opponent than by a choice for him.

  • After the victory of Sarkozy in 2007, its major opponent the Socialist Party (47% of the vote) has entered a very serious crisis : it had to change and abandon its old Marxist myths. It is a very difficult evolution and it could, most likely, take years. In 2012, the Socialist party was unchanged and its program and its campaign were still very archaic ("our main enemy is the international finance", "if elected we'll create a 75% tax for income over 1 million Euros", etc...) but it won the election!

  • More about "the audit of France in 2012" and the programs and the result for the 2017 presidential campaign.

Since the 19th century, the Extreme Right has taken on several aspects in France, with a different mix of its permanent elements (xenophobia, religious activism, anti-semitism, nationalism, royalism). A few milestones :

  • During the 19th century, the Conservative parties were ruling the country with a few violent revolutionary episodes (1830, 1848, 1871) ; the church was very powerful ; the political fight was to establish a Republic to succeed three kings and two emperors ; there was no Extreme-Right, in the modern sense.

  • After the Republic was established in 1870 against the Right which supported an heir of the kings, the Extreme Right identified itself with the opponents to the Republic and those who wanted a revenge on Germany which had annexed two French provinces (Alsace and Lorraine).

  • Anti-Semitism was a key-element of these movements and the two heroes were Edouard Drummont who wrote a (despicable) best-seller ("La France Juive" i.e. "Jewish France") and Paul Deroulede who led an activist movement ("Ligue des Patriotes"). Both were nstrumental in
    Paul Deroulede, caricatured as Don Quichotte
    the Affaire Dreyfus (1894-1906) when a French Jewish officer was unfairly sentenced to hard labor for espionage.
  • "L'Action Francaise", a Nationalist and Royalist movement founded in 1898, was inspired by writer Charles Maurras, was very powerful particularly in the 1930s and ended by collaborating with Germany during WW2 ; in the 1930s, there were several very active extremist movements ("les ligues" )counting among them millions of WW1 veterans, some of them organized like militias (like "Les Croix de Feu"),and some openly pro-fascist (like "la Cagoule").

  • During WW2, the Vichy Regime, closely linked to the Catholic church, collaborated with Germany and created a strong and dangerous militia,"la Milice", which was severely punished after the Liberation

  • After WW2, the Extreme-Right was totally discredited by its Collaborationist past and practically disappeared until the Algerian war when it came back to life to keep Algeria French (1961) ; a populist movement ("Poujadisme") scored unexpectedly well in the 1956 elections but in the various elections, the Extreme-Right never reached 5% in the 1960s.

  • In 1972, a handful of small activist movements (the most significant being "Ordre Nouveau") founded the Front National (FN) and chose Jean-Marie Le Pen as its flag-bearer because he was the most "presentable" among the ex-nazis, ex-royalists and ex-Christian-fanatics of the movement. In 40 years, he succeeded in bringing the FN from 5% to 30% of the vote and enlarging its voters from the few people who were nostalgic for fascism to a popular vote which includes most of the former voters of the Communist party, most of the small farmers, etc.

  • Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter, Marine Le Pen, succeeded him in 2011 andhas worked hard to try to make it "respectable", "non racist" and "competent". Quite a challenge!

  • Read the history of the Left in France and more about the Extreme Right.

A few examples of the specificities of French political life...

  • The "Yellow Vests" and the "Grand Débat" : at the end of 2018, a sort of revolution broke out in France, the "Yellow Vests" upheaval. It was very serious, with the blocade of roads and huge demonstrations with massive destruction in Paris and in many big cities in France. The government seemed helpless for a few weeks in front of this movement which had no leader and was spreading all over the country. To try to find an exit to this crisis, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, had an idea : organizing a giant debate all over the country to make people discuss and collect their complaints and propositions to try to solve the major problems of the country. Nothing less... For two months (mid-January-mid March 2019), 10,450 debates were organized all over the country with almost two million people participating, around 16,000 "cahiers de doléances" ("notebooks of grievance") were written and it is estimated that 200,000 ideas, proposals, and suggestions were discussed. This is a process that (to my knowledge) is unprecedented in a Western country. It refers to the period immediately before the French revolution when King Louis XVI (shorly before he had his head chopped off...) summoned the Etats-généraux and asked every parish of the country to write down everything they were unhappy about in a notebook supposed to be transmitted to the king. Interestingly enough, the Yellow Vests (and the Corsicans...) had refused to participate in the debate before it started... Conclusion : 1/ everything in France is deeply rooted in history, 2/ the French governments (kings or not) do not trust the parliament to handle dangerous political situations, 3/ the people do not either, and they think that only violence can force their government to listen to them, 4/ the French love to talk. As of today (beginning of April), nobody knows what will happen but at least, the political tension has decreased and most people are happy they could have their word and express themselves. More about French revolutions.

  • More to come...




DID YOU KNOW THAT.... The French Republic includes three kingdoms ! Read more about it.



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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001
  • "French Toast - Heureuse comme une Américaine en France", Ramsay, Paris 2005

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