France – The election of Emmanuel Macron and the French party system: a return to the éternel marais?

This is the summary of an article that has just been published in Modern and Contemporary France. There are 50 .pdf e-prints freely available. Just click on the above link.

In 1964, Maurice Duverger published an article in the Revue française de science politique entitled ‘L’éternel marais: Essai sur le centrisme français‘ [The eternal marshland: An essay on centrism in France]. He argued that for around 80% of the period from 1789 to 1958 France had been governed from the centre, which he disparagingly called the marais. For Duverger, the French post-Revolution party system was characterised by a bipolarisation of party competition between the left and the right. However, both the left and the right were split between an extreme version and a moderate version. With the extremes opposed to each other and with the moderates usually unwilling to work with their respective extremes, Duverger argued that rather than alternations in power between the left and the right, power had shifted between governments of the moderate left and the moderate right. These forces had governed either separately or sometimes together, but, crucially, almost always against the two extremes. This was the system that Duverger characterised as the éternel marais.

Writing in 1964, Duverger believed that the system might be about to change. In retrospect, he was right. For more than 50 years, marais governments all but disappeared in France. With very few exceptions, the right governed against the left as a whole, or vice versa. However, the election of President Macron in 2017 election may have marked a change, challenging the party system that has been in place since the mid-1960s and suggesting the potential for a return to a new-period of marais government. In the article, I provide evidence to suggest that the current Macron administration has the characteristics of a Duverger-style marais government. I then sketch two potential interpretations of the contemporary party system, both of which raise the prospect of a return to the éternel marais.

There is evidence that from Macron’s LREM parliamentary party, the parliament in general, and the cabinet to suggest that the current administration has the characteristics of a Duverger-style marais government.

The June 2017 legislative election returned 310 députés who were officially members of the LREM parliamentary group as of 24 July. Many of these députés were elected for the first time. However, many others were previously associated with party politics. In this regard, Le Monde (Sénécat and Damgé in Le Monde, June 27, 2017) reported that 68 had previously been associated with the moderate left Socialists, 20 with the centre-right Union des democrats et indépendants and 10 with the right-wing Les Républicains (LR), plus a small number who had been associated with other parties. Thus, there is evidence that LREM itself corresponds to Duverger’s portrait of a marais party, namely one that contains representatives of both the moderate left and the moderate right but not the extremes.

Since the Assemblée nationale began its work after the legislative election, LREM has also received support from other elements of the moderate left and the moderate right there and has been opposed by the extreme or anti-system right and leftFor example, when Prime Minister Philippe invoked Article 49-1 on 4 July, all members of the centrist MoDem parliamentary group voted for the government in the confidence vote. In addition, all members of Les Constructifs group either voted for the government or abstained. This group brought together moderate right deputies from LR party who had chosen to remain in LR but who were willing in principle to work with LREM. What is more, most members of the ex-Socialist party group also either voted for the government or abstained in the confidence vote. By contrast, the extreme right and the extreme left were opposed to the government. All eight FN deputies voted against the LREM government, as did Nicolas Dupont-Aignan who rallied to Marine Le Pen at the second round of the 2017 presidential election. Similarly, all the Communists voted against the government, as did all the members of the La France insoumise (LFI) group.

In addition, the Philippe government itself also included former representatives of ex-LR moderate right figures, such as Bruno Le Maire and Gérard Darmanin, ex-PS moderate left ministers, such as Gérard Collomb and Jean-Yves Le Drian, and centrists from MoDem. This is in addition to ministers who were founding members of the LREM party itself.

Thus, there is no question that Macron’s election has led to another period of marais government in Duverger’s terms. In itself, this is quite a change in the context of the party system of the Fifth French Republic since the early 1960s. However, to what extent has Macron’s election reshaped the party system such that there may be a return not just to a short-lived period of marais government, but to the éternel marais?

Building on Gougou and Persico’s recent article in French Politics, the new French party system might be interpreted in one of two ways.

The first interpretation is a tripolar system (or tripartition). Here, the first pole would be an anti-system left pole comprising LFI, the Communists and perhaps also a rump Socialist party that would be anchored on the left and would be willing to work with other groups on the anti-system left but not with LREM. These groups would share a common set of anti-austerity economic values and cultural/universalist values. In this tripartition interpretation, there would be a second pole on the extreme right comprising the FN and a set of parties that would be willing to work with it, including perhaps LR, especially if it were to be led by one of the leading candidates for the party leadership in the vote later this month, Laurent Wauquiez. In this scenario, LREM and allies would constitute the third pole. Here, LREM would remain a combination of moderate left and moderate right figures. This pole would also include other moderate right groups such as MoDem and the Constructifs and perhaps even a small, ex-PS moderate left party that was unwilling to cooperate with the anti-system left. The various elements of this third pole would be irreconcilably opposed to the anti-system left in terms of economic policy and to the extreme right on cultural/universalist values. With the extreme left and the extreme right unable to cooperate and with the various elements of the third pole sharing basic values whether or not LREM managed to remain a united party over time, there would be the potential for a return to ongoing marais governments.

The second interpretation is a four-pole system (or quadripartition). Here, LFI, the Communists and perhaps a rump PS would be on the extreme or anti- system left; LREM would operate as a de facto moderate left pole; LR and various allies would constitute a moderate right pole; and the FN would be on the extreme right. This interpretation assumes that LR would not cooperate with the FN because they would be opposed on economic policy and there would still be a gap between the two parties on cultural/universalist policies, even if the gap narrowed in 2017. Facing an electable moderate right in the form of LR, LREM would choose to compete with LR and its allies on economic issues by moving towards a more clear-cut centre-left position. (There is little evidence of such a move from the very early period of the Macron presidency.)

If the French party system were to take this form of quadripartition, then the prospects for ongoing marais governments would also be very high. Here, there would be considerable opportunity for an alternation in power, but it would be likely to take place only between the moderate left and the moderate right, both of which would always be governing against the extremes. This form of quadripartition would correspond most closely to the pre-1958 situation that Duverger outlined in his 1964 article. This was the period of the éternel marais.

Clearly, the Macron presidency is still in its infancy. President Macron will face many challenges in the years to come. His response to them—and that of his government— will help to shape the future contours of the French party system in no doubt unexpected ways. Nonetheless, the 2017 presidential and legislative elections did mark a change in French party politics. Duverger’s idea of the marais may be a useful way of thinking about the contours of the French party system in the immediate aftermath of these elections and the nature of the governance that flows from it.

One thought on “France – The election of Emmanuel Macron and the French party system: a return to the éternel marais?

  1. Jean-Louis Thiebault

    Robert Elgie’s article raises three particularly interesting questions about the issue of French centrism.
    1. Robert Elgie puts in the center of the debates one of the essential characteristics of French politics since the end of the 18th century: the domination of centrism and therefore of the centrist political forces. The issue was debated in the early 1960s and led to the confrontation of Maurice Duverger and François Goguel, with the interventions of René Rémond, Raymond Aron, Jean-Luc Parodi and Pierre Avril. Two models of explanation clashed over the interpretation of French politics. François Goguel defended a dualist model (François Goguel, La politique des partis sous la IIIe République. Paris : Ed du Seuil, 1946). According to him, the 3rd Republic was marked by the duality of the tendencies of the public opinion: the party of the order and the party of the movement. This duality is found at the level of voters by the game of electoral coalitions and withdrawals and at the parliamentary and governmental level by the game of coalition majorities and governments. Although the 3rd Republic has experienced several periods of government by the center, these formulas of concentration have never been effective in the electoral field. This duality and this permanence of public opinion appear specifically French. Maurice Duverger proposed another model (Maurice Duverger, « L’éternel marais. Essai sur le centrisme français », Revue Française de Science Politique, vol 14, no 1, février 1964, 33-51). He thinks that dualism does not provide an adequate picture of the evolution of France since the end of the Ancien Régime. The characteristic feature of French politics is centrism. French centrism unites in the same majority right-wing moderates and left-wing moderates, rejecting the extremes of each tendency in opposition. French politics since 1789 would be characterized by the conjunction of these two centers, center-right and center-left, to assume power. In more than a century and a half from 1789 to 1958, France had left-wing governments for about ten years and right-wing governments for about twenty years. The rest of the time, more than 80%, was submitted to centrist governments. On the other hand, since the beginning of the 5th Republic, a form of majority rule has been established in France, which implied, if not bipartism, at least the bipolarisation of political forces, and a bipolarisation valid both before the electorate and in parliament. This recent simplification of the French party system results for the most part from the presidential election by universal suffrage, voted in 1962.
    2. The use of the Duverger model to identify the moments of centrist governments since the beginning of the 5th Republic in 1958 is likely to be discussed. Robert Elgie proposes to consider as centrist the governments of Michel Debré (1959-1962), Michel Rocard and Edith Cresson (1988-1992), Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve (2014-2017). Taking into account the model of Duverger, he highlights the political composition of governments, while it is the political color of the President of the Republic that must prevail to determine the centrist nature or not of the executive power. The election of the president by universal suffrage is at the heart of French politics. It is impossible to avoid the impact of presidential rule. It is the only political system that gives legitimacy, authority and leadership to the president through the presidential election by direct universal suffrage (Jean Blondel, The presidential republic. London : Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). It is therefore necessary to take into account, not the political color of the government, but the political color of the presidency. France has no more a parliamentary system, but a semi-presidential system that even presents all the aspects of a « hyperpresidential system ». So there was no centrist government until the arrival of Emmanuel Macron in the presidency in 2017, but right-wing or left-wing governments appointed by the president and responsible for implementing his political program (the Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s presidency, 1974-1981, could possibly be regarded as centrist, but it presents mainly the features of a right-wing presidency). It is only during periods of cohabitation that it is possible to take into account the political color of the government.
    3. The centrist nature of the governments created by Emmanuel Macron is not in doubt. On the other hand, his election greatly upsets the nature of the party system. There is no more bipolarisation, « tripartition » or « quadripartition ». There is now a « five-block system »: the radical left or the left of the left, the moderate left, the moderate right, the extreme right and, finally, the center (Françoise Fressoz, “Les cinq blocs”, Le Monde, 24 février 2017). The victory of Emmanuel Macron is the result of the particular sequence of exceptional events and his ability to take advantage of opportunities and to exploit circumstances. But it is also the result of the explosion of the party system with voters who choose, in the first round of the presidential election, the extreme right rather the moderate right, as well as the radical left rather than the moderate left. This upheaval reflects the deep and antagonistic division of the right-wing and left-wing parties. It has created a vast central political space for candidate Emmanuel Macron, contributing to the birth of this « five-block system ». This vast central political space, which wants to be “and left and right”, has an absolute majority in the National Assembly and a government including ministers from the PS, the MoDem, the Constructifs and La République en Marche (LRM), under the direction of Edouard Philippe, who does not belong to any party. The maintenance of this « five-block system » depends on the ability of Emmanuel Macron to continue the art of « triangulation » and to present right-wing and left-wing policies to destabilize the moderate left and the moderate right. The next European elections of 2019 may represent a new stage in this destabilisation process, as they risk creating a deep divide between political forces favorable to an open society and therefore to European integration and others wishing to return to a closed society.


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