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POLITICS

EXPLAINED: Who are France’s political parties and what can we expect from them now?

In the post-war period, France largely followed a similar political model to the UK and the US - a centre-left and a centre-right party which periodically swapped power at election time. In 2017 that model exploded - and in the second half of 2022 things are set to get even more complicated.

EXPLAINED: Who are France's political parties and what can we expect from them now?
The French parliament has no absolute majority. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

After a summer break, government business resumes in France in September (la rentrée) and the lack of an absolute majority in parliament for Emmanuel Macron means that things could get messy.

In order to have a hope of following what’s going on, you’re going to need to know who the various political parties are, what they stand for and who their friends (or at least political allies) are.

Macron was re-elected president in April and his second and final term lasts until 2027. But, in the parliamentary elections that followed in June, his party lost its absolute majority. Attempts to build a formal coalition failed and now Macron and his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne must try to push through their ambitious legislative programme by building informal alliances on a vote-by-vote basis.

They succeeded in passing a few bills – such as the €65-billion package of financial aid to deal with the cost of living crisis – before parliament broke for summer, but the next items on the agenda are likely to prove a lot more controversial and divisive.

Here are the major players that you need to know about – and we’ve included the initials that they are generally known by in French media to help you make sense of headlines like the below alphabet soup.

La République en Marche – LREM 

This is Macron’s party, he created it from scratch in 2016 and in 2017 won the presidential election, before also winning a majority in the parliamentary elections  – a pretty much unprecedented achievement in French politics.

The party is centrist, described as “neither of the right or the left”, although critics say it moved further to the right during Macron’s first term. Many of the senior politicians in LREM are former members of the two traditional centre-right and centre-left parties of France. Macron himself served as a minister under the socialist president François Hollande, although he was never a Parti Socialiste member.

The party does not have an absolute majority in parliament but is still the largest party with 166 seats. It’s also part of an alliance – known as Ensemble – with two other centrist parties, which is the biggest group in parliament with 245 seats.  

La France Insoumise – LFI

The ‘France unbowed’ party is another relatively new creation, formed in 2016 by the political veteran and former Parti Socialiste member Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The party is usually described as ‘hard left’ – situated somewhere between Parti Socialiste and the Communists – and in both the 2017 and the 2022 presidential elections, Mélenchon came third (behind Macron and Marine Le Pen).

In 2022, however, he managed to better capitalise on his vote by forming the ‘left alliance’ known as Nupes (Nouvelle Union Populaire, Ecologique et Socialiste) and securing the second highest number of seats in the parliament.

LFI is the largest party within the Nupes grouping, and in total Nupes have 131 MPs, making them the second largest group in parliament.

However the alliance – comprising LFI, Parti Socialiste, Communists and Greens – is fragile with major disagreements on issues including the EU and nuclear power. Technically Nupes was only an electoral pact, not a formal parliamentary alliance.

Rassemblement National – RN

The far-right Rassemblement National was founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen and was then known as Front National.

Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine took over the party leadership in 2011 and changed its name to Rassemblement National (national rally) in 2018 as part of her long-term project to ‘detoxify’ the party. She also officially expelled her father, an outspoken anti-Semite and Holocaust denier who had repeated brushes with the law over his hate-speech.

She has broadened the party’s appeal and pitched herself as the voice of the ‘left-behind’ France abandoned by the elites, but in spite of her focus on issues like the cost of living, the party’s core policies remain far-right and anti-immigrant.

Marine came second to Macron in both the 2017 and the 2022 presidential elections, and recorded the party’s best ever result in the 2022 parliamentary elections with 88 seats. RN is the second largest single party in parliament, but it is not part of an alliance so it the third largest block.

The RN MPs have abstained in several key votes which has allowed Macron’s party to push through legislation, and leaked internal memos revealed that Le Pen was heavily focused on ‘respectable’ behaviour in parliament from her new MPs.

Les Républicains – LR 

This is the traditional centre-right party and along with the centre-left Parti Socialiste it dominated post-war politics in France. It’s sometimes compared to the Conservative party in the UK and Republicans in the US, as much for its sense of permanence as its politics.

It has changed its name a few times, but it is in essence the party of Charles de Gaulle and numbers presidents including Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkoy.

The party suffered a disastrous 2017 election after a major financial scandal involving its candidate François Fillon and since then has struggled to regroup and attract voters back. Its 2022 presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse scored a humiliating 4.78 percent of the vote.

It did slightly better in parliamentary elections and now has 59 MPs. However damaging splits have emerged between the right-wing of the party and the more moderate MPs.

Parti Socialiste – PS

The second half of the traditional post-war duo is the centre-left party Parti Socialiste, sometimes compared to the Labour Party in the UK and Democrats in the US for its established dominance (prior to 2017) – presidents François Hollande and François Mitterand were PS members.

Like LR, Parti Socialise was virtually destroyed in the 2017 election and has struggled to recover – its 2022 election campaign was disastrous and the candidate – Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo – scored less than two percent of the vote.

The party has 29 MPs in parliament, but is currently punching slightly above its weight through membership of the Nupes alliance.  

Europe Ecologie Les Verts – EELV 

France’s green party is becoming more and more influential at a local level, with cities including Bordeaux, Lyon and Grenoble now controlled by Greens, but it has struggled to translate this into success on a national level.

There are now 23 MPs for EELV or Les Verts – as the party is known interchangeably by French media – in parliament.

The party joined the Nupes leftist alliance, but has had to make some major compromises, since the staunchly pro-European party is now in a group with the anti-EU LFI and the pro-nuclear Communists. 

Parti Communiste français – PCF

The French communist party’s political heyday was in the late 1940s and 50s, but although its influence has declined since then there are still around 60 communes in France that are run by Communist mayors.

Many of the party’s former voters in the ‘rust-belt’ former industrial areas of north-east France have turned to the far right in recent years.

However its fortunes improved in 2022 when it joined to Nupes alliance. There are currently 22 MPs in parliament who are part of the Communist group (comprising PCF members plus members of communist parties in France’s overseas territories).

MoDem

Officially called Le Mouvement démocrate but almost always known as MoDem, the centrist party was founded in 2007 by current leader François Bayrou. It was in partnership with Macron’s party during the 2017-2022 parliamentary term and remained on board, joining the 2022 Ensemble alliance.

It has 49 MPs, including several independent but allied MPs.

Horizons

The newest party in parliament is Horizons, formed in 2021 by former prime minister – and current mayor of Le Havre – Edouard Philippe. 

The exact purpose of the party was a little unclear when it was founded and it’s widely believed to be a vehicle for Philippe’s expected 2027 presidential bid, but for now it’s part of the Ensemble coalition with Macron’s party and MoDem.

It’s generally regarded as centre-right – Philippe himself was a member of Les Républicains before becoming Macron’s prime minister in 2017. 

The party has 28 MPs. 

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POLITICS

How one beheading 50 years ago led France to end the death penalty

On a biting cold morning on November 28, 1972, a Frenchman was guillotined for a murder he did not commit, in a case that so traumatised his lawyer he would spend the rest of his life campaigning to end the death penalty.

How one beheading 50 years ago led France to end the death penalty

Roger Bontems, 36, was beheaded for being an accessory to the brutal murder of a nurse and a guard during a break-out attempt at a prison in eastern France.

Seven minutes after he was decapitated in the courtyard of La Sante prison in Paris, his co-conspirator Claude Buffet – a 39-year-old man convicted of a double murder that had sent shockwaves through France – met a similar end.

Among the witnesses of the executions was Robert Badinter, a crusading young lawyer who was haunted by his failure to save the life of his client Bontems.

In a 2002 interview, Badinter, who, as justice minister, famously defied a hostile French public to abolish capital punishment in 1981, revealed that for a long time after Bontems’s death, “on waking around dawn, I would obsessively mull over why we had failed”.

“They had accepted that he had not killed anyone. Why, then, did they sentence him to death?”

Knives made from spoons

In September 1971, Buffet, a hardened criminal who is serving a life sentence for murder at Clairvaux prison, convinces fellow inmate Roger Bontems, who is serving a 20-year term for assault and aggravated theft, to join him in a high-stakes escape attempt.

The pair fake illness and are taken to the infirmary where, armed with knives carved out of spoons, they take a nurse and a guard hostage.

They threaten to execute their captives unless they are freed and given weapons.

This precipitates a standoff with the authorities that keeps the French glued to their TV screens until police storm the prison at dawn and find both hostages dead, their throats slit.

Calls for heads to roll

The grisly murder of the nurse, a mother of two, and the prison warden, father of a one-year-old girl, sparks an impassioned debate about the death penalty, which has not been implemented since President Georges Pompidou, a pragmatic Gaullist, came to power two years earlier.

Hundreds of people baying for the mens’ heads pack the streets outside the courthouse when they go on trial in Aube in 1972. The nurse’s husband and warden’s family are among those attending.

Buffet, who is portrayed in the media as a heartless monster, admits to killing the guard and stabbing the nurse, and defies the court to sentence him to death.

Bontems is found guilty of merely being an accessory. But he is also given the death penalty, amid intense pressure from prison wardens’ groups seeking revenge for their colleague’s death.

Badinter appeals to the highest court in the land not to apply the law of “an eye for an eye”, and then to Pompidou, who has pardoned six other death-row prisoners.

His pleas fall on deaf ears in the face of a poll showing 63 percent of the French favour capital punishment.

An activist is born

On November 28, 1971, Bontems and Buffet are beheaded in the courtyard of La Sante prison, under a giant black canopy erected to prevent the media snapping pictures from a helicopter.

Badinter, whose Jewish father died in a Nazi death camp, would later say the case changed his stance on the death penalty “from an intellectual conviction to an activist passion”.

“I swore to myself on leaving the courtyard of la Sante prison that morning at dawn, that I would spend the rest of my life combatting the death penalty,” Badinter told AFP in 2021.

Five years later he helped convince a jury not to execute a man who kidnapped and murdered a seven-year-old boy, in a case that he turned into a trial of the death penalty itself.

Badinter called in experts to describe in grisly detail the workings of the guillotine, which had been used to decapitate prisoners since the French Revolution of 1789.

In all, he saved six men from execution, eliciting death threats in the process.

“We entered the court by the front door and once the verdict had been read and the accused’s head was safe, we often had to leave by a hidden stairway,” the man dubbed “the murderers’ lawyer” by his detractors, recalled.

When he was appointed justice minister in President Francois Mitterrand’s first Socialist government in June 1981, he made ending the death penalty an immediate priority.

Its abolition was finally adopted by parliament on September 30, 1981, after a landmark address by Badinter to MPs.

Decrying a “killer” justice system, he said: “Tomorrow, thanks to you, there will no longer be the stealthy executions at dawn, under a black canopy, that shame us all.”

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