Everything has an end. Political parties are born, grow, sometimes reproduce, experience successes and disappointments, and die. One day they control everything: the Executive and the Legislative, and their men and women held the reins of the country, and they are feared and adulated. The next day, there is nothing left.
The collapse in France of The Republicans (LR), the great party of the moderate right in France, and the Socialist Party (PS), is the story of how two hegemonic parties for almost 40 years have ended, in the presidential elections of this April, with support more typical of an extra-parliamentary group. It is the end of an era, in which brothers French members of the PP and the PSOE took turns in power and agreed on the basics: Europeanism, the market economy regulated by the State and the will to keep the extreme right away from power.
All this is over. A week ago, on April 10, the LR candidate, Valérie Pécresse, obtained 4.7% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. The socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, was voted for by 1.7% of the electorate. In Paris, the city of which Hidalgo is mayor, it reached 2.2%.
To get an idea of the disaster, it is enough to compare what both parties added in the elections of the last 15 years. In 2007, the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialist Ségolène Royal together captured 56.9% of the electorate. In 2012, Sarkozy and François Hollande, 55.7%. The fall begins in 2017, when 26.3% of the votes go to François Fillon and Benoît Hamon. It was the year of Emmanuel Macron’s victory. And the prologue to the current catastrophe.
Everything was likely to get worse and everything got worse. In 2022, Pécresse and Hidalgo have added 6.4%. Neither one reaches the threshold of 5%, which would have allowed them to recover half of the campaign expenses: the disaster is not only electoral. It is also financial.
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“Neither the PS nor the LR have recovered from the 2017 presidential election,” summarizes historian Michel Winock. “In recent years, the right has failed to assert its identity with President Macron. As has happened to the left of the government, it has been deeply divided between two temptations: support for the identity current of the extreme right, and adherence to the reforms of Emmanuel Macron. And with one point in common with the socialists: the absence of a charismatic boss, of an authentic leader”.
Manuel Valls, who was Socialist Prime Minister between 2014 and 2016 and later left his lifelong party to approach Macron’s movement, says: “There are similar trends in all Western countries and in advanced democracies.” Valls cites, to explain the crisis of the old parties, three historical moments.
The first moment, according to the Franco-Spanish politician, was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which left social democracy without an adversary, Soviet communism, which allowed it to establish itself as the progressive defender of democracy against totalitarianism. The second is the Islamist attacks of 2001 and the fear of identity in the new century of a world without borders and plagued by threats. The third is the financial crisis of 2008 that hit the middle classes. “In this context”, observes Valls, “the right or Christian democracy, and social democracy are hit by these phenomena”.
In France, even before the decline of these parties, there was a breeding ground that distinguished it from other countries. Some consensuses were more apparent than real. The French narrowly approved the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in 1992: 51% in favor and 49% against. And in 2005 it rejected the EU Constitutional Treaty with 54.7% of votes against against 45.3% in favour. The system was fragile.
The PS never resolved the dilemma between its reformist and revolutionary souls. LR, like its predecessors, the UMP and the RPR, also had several souls, the famous three right-wings that historian René Rémond theorized about: the Bonapartist (Caesarist and economically interventionist), the Orléanist (liberal), and the Legitimist (monarchist). and anti-revolutionary).
Valls places the beginning of the end in 2012, when the socialist Hollande becomes president with Valls himself as a strong man in the Government. “The contradictions erupted due to not having understood the social or identity phenomena that I mentioned before, added to the exercise of power, the internal opposition in the PS and the crisis of Hollande’s leadership,” says the former prime minister and former councilor in Barcelona.
The result of that five-year period, marked by disputes between the reformist wing and the rebel wing, was that Hollande, with his popularity in free fall, gave up running. “He left a vacuum in social democracy,” says Valls, who ran for president in the primaries and lost to the leftist Hamon.
The fall of LR was more progressive. In 2017, his candidate, Fillon, was the favorite for the presidency. Until a scandal over his family’s bogus jobs buried his campaign. The scandal laid bare a party eaten away by ego battles and corruption cases. And it allowed Macron to pick up the remains of him during his five-year term: his two prime ministers, Édouard Philippe and Jean Castex, come from the right.
The historian Alain Bergounioux summarizes: “The weakening of the social democratic left and the liberal right in 2022 responds to wear and tear due to the policies they made in the government, and to the reality of a new political offer that shook a field in which the parties were already fragile. A lot of people still identify as right-wing or left-wing, but the political divide is no longer classic left and classic right.”
What remains is a tripartite scenario: the broad center of Macron, the extreme right of Marine Le Pen and the populist left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. We will have to wait for the legislative elections, which take place a few weeks after the second round between Macron and Le Pen on April 24, to find out if the PS and LR survive, are refounded or are extinguished forever.
Divorce between the local and the national
“Let’s not exaggerate,” interjects Bergounioux when the hypothesis of the death of these parties is raised. And she observes: “There is a divorce between the local and the national.” She is right: the PS and LR still dominate municipal power and hold — in the case of the socialists, together with the ecologists — the main cities of France. LR controls the Senate. And both rule the regions. “The question”, continues Bergouniox, “is whether the local will be able to survive if the LR and the PS are weak at the national level”.
The other question is whether the crisis of the parties of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958 by General De Gaulle when adopting the current Constitution, is equivalent to a crisis of this regime. Winock doubts it, although he warns that the shock that Le Pen’s victory would represent makes any rigorous prediction impossible. And he concludes: “I don’t see the Fifth Republic sinking so fast. But, to last, it must be more democratic in practice, because the powers of the president, who is not even accountable to Parliament, are excessive”.
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