Politics of France

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This article discusses political groups and tendencies in France; for information on the political and administrative structures of France, see Government of France.

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This article is part of the series:
Politics of France,
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French politics under the Fifth Republic

After Charles de Gaulle had the constitution of the French Fifth Republic adopted in 1958, France was ruled by successive right-wing administrations until 1981. Throughout the 1960s, left-wing parties fared rather badly in national elections. The successive governments generally applied the Gaullist program of national independence, and modernization in a dirigiste fashion. The Gaullist government, however, was criticized for its heavy-handedness: while elections were free, the state had a monopoly on radio and TV broadcasting and sought to have its point of view on events imposed (this monopoly was not absolute, however, since there were radio stations transmitting from nearby countries specifically for the benefit of the French). De Gaulle's social policies were decidedly conservative.

In May 1968, series of worker strikes and student riots rocked France. These did not, however, result in an immediate change of government, with a right-wing administration being triumphantly reelected in the snap election of June 1968. The French electorate turned down a 1969 referendum on the reform of the French Senate, in a move widely considered to be mostly motivated by weariness with de Gaulle.

In 1981, François Mitterrand, a Socialist, was elected president, on a program of far-reaching reforms. After securing a majority in parliament through a snap election, his government ran a program of social and economic reforms:

  • social reforms:
    • abolition of the death penalty;
    • removal of legislation criminalizing certain homosexual behaviors: lowering of the age of consent for homosexual sex to that for heterosexual sex (since the French Revolution, France had never criminalized homosexuality between adults in private, but since the 1960s until this time, homosexuality was officially considered an illness to be cured);
  • economic reforms:
    • the government embarked on a wave of nationalizations;
    • the duration of the legal workweek was set to 39 h, instead of the previous 40 h.

However, in 1983, high inflation and economies woes forced a dramatic turnaround with respect to economic policies, known as rigueur (rigor) – the Socialist-Communist government then embarked on policies of fiscal and spending restraint. Though the nationalizations were subsequently reverted by both subsequent left-wing and right-wing governments, the social reforms undertaken have stood still.

Since then, the government alternated between a left-wing coalition (composed of the French Socialist Party, the French Communist Party and more recently Les Verts, the Greens) and a right-wing coalition (composed of Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic, later replaced by the Union for a Popular Movement, and the Union for French Democracy). Those two coalitions are fairly stable; there have been none of the mid-term coalition reorganizations and governments overthrown that were commonplace under the Fourth Republic.

The 1980s and 1990s saw also the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, a party which blames immigration, more particularly immigration from North African countries such as Algeria, for increased unemployment and crime. Since the 1980s, unemployment has remained permanently high, at about 10% of the population, regardless of the policies applied to fight it. Furthermore, criminality has changed within this period, with a dramatic increase in petty and juvenile delinquency, though how much of this increase is due to perception is a matter of controversy. Problems in the banlieues – an euphemism for poor suburban housing projects, with a high proportion of the population of North African descent – still have to be successfully tackled. Jean-Marie Le Pen's relative success at the French Presidential election, 2002 has been attributed, for some significant part, to concerns about seemingly intense juvenile criminality.

Recent French politics

During his first 2 years in office, President Jacques Chirac's prime minister was Alain Juppé, who served contemporaneously as leader of Chirac's neo-Gaullist (RPR) Party. Chirac and Juppé benefited from a very large, if rather unruly, majority in the National Assembly (470 out of 577 seats). However, the administration was increasingly embroiled in corruption scandals regarding the past of the RPR (see Corruption scandals in the Paris region); furthermore, some reforms were highly unpopular and caused a series of strikes. Mindful that the government might have to take politically costly decisions in advance of the legislative elections planned for spring 1998 in order to ensure that France met the Maastricht criteria for the single European currency, Chirac decided in April to call early elections.

The Left, led by Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin, whom Chirac had defeated in the 1995 presidential race-unexpectedly won a solid National Assembly majority (319 seats, with 289 required for an absolute majority). President Chirac named Jospin prime minister on June 2, and Jospin went on to form a government composed primarily of Socialist ministers, along with some ministers from allied parties of the Left, such as the Communist Party and the Greens. Jospin stated his support for continued European integration and his intention to keep France on the path toward Economic and Monetary Union, albeit with greater attention to social concerns.

The tradition in periods of "cohabitation" (a President of one party, prime minister of another) is for the President to exercise the primary role in foreign and security policy, with the dominant role in domestic policy falling to the prime minister and his government. Jospin stated, however, that he would not a priori leave any domain exclusively to the President.

Chirac and Jospin worked together, for the most part, in the foreign affairs field with representatives of the presidency and the government pursuing a single, agreed French policy. Their "cohabitation" arrangement was the longest-lasting in the history of the Fifth Republic. However, it ended following the National Assembly elections that followed Chirac's decisive defeat of Jospin (who failed even to make it through to the second round of voting) in the 2002 presidential election. This lead to President Chirac's appointment of Jean-Pierre Raffarin as the new prime minister. On May 29, 2005, French voters in the referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe turned down the proposed charter by a wide margin. This was generally regarded as a rebuke to Chirac and his government. Two days later, Raffarin resigned and Chirac appointed Dominique de Villepin, formerly Foreign Minister as Prime Minister of France.

A enduring issue is Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front party, whose anti-immigration, isolationist policies have him accused of racism and xenophobia. It managed to face Chirac's UMP in the 2002 presidential election second ballot, which many had thought only Chirac and Jospin would reach.

One of the great questions of current French politics is that of libéralisme — that is, economic liberalism, as opposed to government intervention in the economy. Broadly speaking, supporters of libéralisme want to let the forces of the free market operate. As an example, they want little workforce regulation, since they think that relationships between employees and employers are better settled by direct agreement than by governmental law. Critics on libéralisme, with respect to that example, argue that individual employees are weak compared to market forces and employers, and thus that governmental intervention is necessary to their welfare; they point out that great gains in workers' rights were historically achieved by government intervention (as during the Popular Front). Similarly, proponents of libéralisme favor free markets and the free movement of goods, which critics contend favor the wealthy business classes at the expense of the ordinary worker. While traditionally the "right" is more libérale than the "left", divisions are present in the French Socialist Party as well as the Union for French Democracy and the Union for a Popular Movement. Since the late 1990s, the phrase ultra-libéral has been coined by left-wingers opposed to libéralisme in order to portray their opponents as extremists.

Some, such as Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, favor radical change in the relationship between the government and the economy. They argue that for the last 30 years, under both left-wing and right-wing governments, the French have been misled into believing that things could go on without real reforms. One may say that they favor a Thatcherite approach to change. Others on the right (Dominique de Villepin) as well as some on the left argue for gradual reforms. In comparison, the refusal of the French electorate to vote for the proposed European Constitution was interpreted by some as a popular refusal of libéralisme, which the European Union is perceived to embody. Some such as Laurent Fabius have argued that the Socialist Party should thus have a more "left-wing" line.

Political groups in France

Political parties

See the List of political parties in France.

Political pressure groups and leaders

Workers' unions.

Employers' unions.

Peasants' unions.

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