They ruled for nearly four decades, spawning presidents like Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy. But today, France’s traditional left and center-right political parties are struggling for relevance, their already shaky fates potentially sealed with the 2022 presidential vote.
In the first of two-round elections on Sunday, contenders from France’s Socialist and Les Republicains parties both received historically low vote tallies of less than 5%, thus failing to qualify for a runoff set to take place on April 24.
The big wins instead went to the far-left and right — and to France’s centrist incumbent, President Emmanuel Macron, set to face off with his far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, in less than two weeks.
“An announced death,” “a historic failure,” read some French media headlines of the Socialists and Republicains, which are now strategizing a future — if one remains.
“He blew up the traditional left and right, but honestly, they worked on it pretty hard themselves,” historian Nicole Bacharan said of Macron, who catapulted to power in 2017 and whose La République en Marche Party has ducked partisan labels.
“The left is so split, taken up by such competition and battles, they are irrelevant,” Bacharan said. “As for the traditional right, many people don’t see a difference between them and Macron.”
Big bills, big questions
An immediate challenge for both parties will be paying for their multimillion-dollar presidential runs. The French state reimburses only a small fraction of campaign expenses for candidates earning less than 5% of the vote.
Both Valerie Pecresse of Les Republicains, who placed fifth on Sunday with 4.8% of the vote, and Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, ranked 10th with less than 2%, are running funding appeals.
Both of their parties insisted on their solvency. “We’re not bankrupt, as many might have hoped,” Socialist Party secretary Olivier Faure testily told French media.
Still, both have sold their headquarters in recent years to help pay expenses. The Socialists — mocked by some as the “caviar left”— moved in 2020 from an elegant Left Bank mansion to a nondescript former factory. The Republicains now rent their old seat, in Paris’s 15th arrondissement.
The hefty bills for the presidential elections, analysts note, will leave less money for the two parties to spend on June legislative elections.
Still, they face bigger, existential problems.
“The Socialist Party is clearly in ashes,” Jean-Luc Gleyze, a local Socialist leader in southwestern France, told France Bleu radio. “The question is whether we relight the embers or sweep out the ashes and restart from scratch.”
The party of former presidents Mitterrand and Francois Hollande has been fractured for years by rifts between moderates and hard-left stalwarts. Hugely unpopular by the end of his term in 2017, Hollande did not run for reelection. His substitute, Benoit Hammond, placed fifth in that vote — while 39-year-old Macron, Hollande’s former economy minister and his ostensibly nonpartisan “movement” swept to power after defeating far-right challenger Le Pen.
Similar divisions have splintered the left in 2022, with a raft of political factions failing to unite behind a single candidate — who may well have won Sunday’s first round.
Instead, the Socialists’ Hidalgo trailed far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came third in the lineup. Even her Socialist predecessor and boss, former Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, backed Macron — as he did five years ago.
France’s traditional center-right — which has gone through several name changes and is now known as Les Republicains — also faces big identity questions, especially since many see Macron, during his rightward tilt as president, incarnating or stealing many Republicains’ themes.
Just over five years ago, the party’s candidate, Francois Fillon, seemed poised to win the presidency. Instead, he placed an underwhelming third, felled by a fake jobs scandal.
In another humiliation Wednesday, former Republicains President Nicolas Sarkozy endorsed Macron for the runoff, after failing to back his own party’s presidential candidate, Pecresse, for the first round.
Like the Socialists, the Republicains are divided between their moderate and more extreme wings. As with the left, observers warn that the party’s very existence is in danger.
“Electoral collapse, financial crisis, ideological and strategic splits and prospects of splitting,” Florence Haegel, professor of political science at Sciences Po, said in Le Monde newspaper, describing today’s Republicains as the party marks its 20th anniversary.
Not over yet
With the April 24 presidential runoff looming, the Republicains and Socialists are also divided over endorsing Macron in his face-off against Le Pen.
Complicating matters, Macron said after the first round that he was open to “all those who want to work for France.”
Key party members from the center-right and left — including failed candidates Hidalgo and Pecresse — say they will vote for Macron as a barrier against a far-right victory. Others, including Republicains party chief Christian Jacob, have simply warned against voting for Le Pen, but remained silent on backing Macron.
Analysts suggest some Republicains supporters will follow their own counsel anyway, and back Le Pen in the runoff, as will some who previously voted for Melenchon.
Still, France’s traditional party heavyweights aren’t completely dead. The Republicains and Socialists retain considerable clout in parliament and in local and regional governments.
And while Macron’s young La République en Marche Party today dominates the National Assembly, accounting for nearly half the members of France’s lower house, analysts predict it could lose its majority after June’s legislative vote. That would likely force the party into alliances with its mainstream rivals.
“Macron’s party hasn’t become a real party, hasn’t gained traction in local elections,” Bacharan said. “And I don’t think that gap can be filled in a few weeks.”