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Superficially bi-polar, but essentially multiparty. Assess this view of the French party system.





1.      Definition of terms and different party system possibilities

2.      History - Strong presidency from de Gaulle. Design of fifth republic

3.      First past the post system

4.      Public choice party models

5.      Classical divides in UK, multiparty in Germany


1.      Description of parties – 3 presidential and a few smaller

2.      Division of votes in the elections + descriptions - IN MARCH 1998

3.      · Socialist party: 242 members and 9 deputies who are asociated,

4.      · RPR: 133 members and 6 deputies who are asociated,

5.      · UDF:107 members and 6 deputies who are asociated,

6.      · Communist party: 34 membres and 2 deputies who are asociated,

7.      · Radical, Citoyen et Vert : 33 members,

8.      · Deputies who are not members of any party : 4.

9.      Jacques CHIRAC 52.64%, Lionel JOSPIN 47.36%

10.  Trends in the government – UDF looses out, parties move to the centre.


1.      Accross political spectrum. Ecologists and RRP. Centre UDF trying to deiversify.

2.      New Labour

3.      European Union


1.      Designed to be weak and fragmented.

2.      Politically popular to have bi-polar and all parties classify either right/left center

3.      Recently moving towards centre, with three party system not quite sufficient to call it a true multiparty system, but it is definitely not polarised anymore. More like a pragmatic centre coalition.

Superficially bi-polar, but essentially multiparty. Assess this view of the French party system.

With this essay, I will try to explain the French party system from two aspects – its design with the start of the Fifth republic and its optimal outcome, derived from the public choice theory. I will do so by first briefly describing the history of French party system, and then look at the possible voting models and public choice theory of vote maximization techniques and how they have affected the parties in Europe. Moving on to practice, I will describe the three presidential parties and how they position themselves on the left-right axes. Furthermore, it becomes evident that parties have moved more to the center, almost eliminating the left-right divide from politics. This is even more visible after the emergence of “New Labour” type of politics in France and the European Union. Still, I conclude that the 2 main parties are too powerful to ever allow a classical multiparty system to emerge, as a result, the party system in France, in my mind, is more like bi-similar and will continue to develop in this direction in the near future.


Democracies in Western Europe have traditionally aligned themselves on the left-right axes. The main difference between the polars is the amount of government involvement they advocate. Left, normally socialist, advocates more government involvement to overcome the market failures and provide social service. Right, normally liberal or Christian Democrat, advocates more free market oriented politics of free enterprise.

There are at least two parties in every government, and normally one of them is markedly more leftish than the other, however, the position on the absolute scale can be skewed towards left (as it was after the WWII) or right, as it has been for the past decade.

However, in France, Germany and in many other European countries there are more than two reasonably strong parties. They can polarise to two ends of the scale, group in the middle, spread themselves evenly or maybe even group in the left, right and centre. What is normally perceived as a bipolar system means that there are either two parties, or two groups of parties, one at left and one at right, and no strong centre. In multiparty system, no two parties are dominant enough to skew the distribution towards one end or make it bimodal. Thus the parties are either spread evenly across the axes, or concentrated in the middle.


There are three strong parties that can run for presidency in France. However, the power of the parties is weak and the one of president is strong. This gives chance to smaller parties, because the public is not hesitant to give protest votes to extremists, knowing that they cannot do much. The weakness of the parties was designed by de Gaulle with the creation of the fifth republic to bring about consensus.

The voting system affects the likely number of parties as well. With first past the post system smaller parties will have less seats in the government than the number of votes they got. With proportional representation, all parties will have seats according to the number of votes they got as a percentage of total. France lately introduced more proportional representation to its election system, making it easier for smaller parties to enter. Pure proportional representation is never used, because then due to the large number of small parties, the voting would be complicated, and the small parties will have too much influence in coalitions.

UK has first past the post system and the leader of the party is the head of state, with parliament having strong powers. Thus, Britain is essentially a bi-polar two party system. Germany, on the other hand, uses proportional representation, and has a strong independent Chancellor, giving rise to a multiparty system. Because of the similarities between French and German voting systems, it is not surprising then that there are many parties in the French parliament.

However, are these parties polarised and how important are the smaller parties? A possible answer to this question lies with the public choice theory. It assumes that parties are essentially selfish institutions whose whole aim is to maximise votes. Now, if the votes are normally distributed between left and right and people always vote for the party that is closest to their preference, then it is clearly best for the parties to move to the centre.



However, in reality the divide is not that simple. Firstly, the distribution of the electorate is likely going to be bimodal, meaning that there are people on the left and on the right> However, not many people prefer compromises. Furthermore, people will have the right to not vote, which they will probably exercise if the party is too far from their preferences (i.e. if there are not left-wing parties then socialists will abstain from the elections). Furthermore, if there are three or more parties, then the strategic positioning can be rather complicated.

For example:

So in order to determine the exact nature of French party system one has to resort to empirical findings, although it is already likely from the theory that there is not likely a strong polarisation.


There are three major parties in France and a few smaller ones. In March 1998, Socialist party(PS) won 242 seats, the neo-Gaullist RPR won 133 seats, the Union of French Democracy won 107 seats, Communist party won 34 and radicals 33. However, at presidential elections a few years ago it was Jacques Chirac(RPR) who won with 52.64%, ahead of Lionel Jospin (47.36%) (PS).

PS is essentially the left-wing party in France. Its recent popularity clearly indicates the general popularity of New Left during the past few years. However, the New-Left’s ideology is now much more oriented towards free markets and capitalism. So they can be looked as a centre party, who in their election propaganda tries to win as many leftish voters as possible.

RPR is the right-wing party in France. They now have the presidents seat, but lost on the last elections, due to the popularity of the New-Left. They have not changed their position over the past decades much.

UDF is the centre party. It is actually a party composed of Republican party, and Social Democratic Centre. It is basically a centre-rightwing party. Did the radical party separate from them? It has been loosing its electoral support over the past years.

Finally, there are smaller parties: Communists, National Front and ecological parties. Communists and ecological parties are at the extreme left and National Front is at the extreme right, however, none of them has significant support.

So the trends in the government, UDF loosing out and parties move to the centre with extremists having little influence, indicates a standard normal distribution of voters. Indeed, most election campaigns have been directed at aiming for the “no change” conservational policies. So in this view, even if the French had been polarised and was essentially a three party system over the past century, it is now not polarised. However, due to the popularity of socialists, they do not need to form coalitions that characterise typical multiparty systems, so the French is not a typical multiparty system either. Furthermore, as the president have been the main leader of the country, the political parties do not really need much ideology. This has diminished the polarisation even further.


However, there have been a number of new trends recently that could either polarise the politics again, or eliminate the divisions forever. Firstly, the emergence of New Labour, could force RPR to become more right-wing. On the other hand, there is some evidence that the “New” bit in labour was just a political slogan. So that we could observe a polarisation in politics again in the near future. Similarly, presidents have been ina a weaker over the past decade with Chirac and Jospin both from their prime ministerial positions affecting the direction of the country. This could mean more support from the public, who at present gives many of its votes as just protest ones for alternative movements.

On the other hand, there have been attempts to form coalitions across political spectrum. (Ecologists and RPR in 1991). If these go through, then the consolidation to the centre in actual executive politics seems more likely and a traditional multiparty system could emerge. Similarly, the influence of European Union could mean that the member states will loose much of their sovereignty, the politics of EU, due to its nature of being uniform for all member states, is likely going to mean the elimination of classical left and right. This has not happened, however, and in Europe, actually Green parties and other radical movements are flourishing. This could be due to the public not understanding the significance of the EU as of yet, and thus does not turn up to the EU elections (les than 40% participation normally). Thus the radical movements might actually have a better chance.


Party politics in France was designed to be weak and fragmented. It is likely that the parties will have to be bi-polar to a certain degree in order to win more votes. However, the actual politics has been moving towards centre recently, with all three main parties having similar objectives, and the socialists now being in a majority. This three party system is not quite like a true multiparty system, but it is definitely not polarised anymore.


Tiersky: France in the New Europe

Internet: CIA world factbook

D. Urwin A Political History of Western Europe

Meny, Governments and Politics in Western Europe.

Wright Government and Politics of France


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