A new party system in the making? The 2017 French presidential election
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The 2017 presidential election represents a turning point in French electoral politics. It was marked by the poor performance of the main governing parties’ candidates and the victory of political newcomer Emmanuel Macron. More surprisingly, four candidates with clearly distinct policy lines were neck and neck in the first round. This article sheds light on this outcome and assesses its consequences for the French party system. We sketch alternative scenarios regarding the format and content of the emerging party system. Using geometrical analyses on data from the French Election Study 2017 (Gougou and Sauger 2017), we show that the current political space is structured by two main conflict dimensions: the first and dominating dimension sets an anti-immigration/authoritarian pole against a pro-immigration/libertarian pole; the second pits an ecologist/interventionist pole against a productivist/neoliberal pole.
KeywordsFrench elections Presidential election Party system Tripolarity Cleavages
The election of Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old liberal candidate who was not supported by any of the traditional parties, was unexpected until only a few months before the election. His victory marks a major break with previous electoral patterns under the Fifth Republic and for two main reasons. First, almost all former Presidents had a long political career in one or other of the two traditional governing parties in France, the Socialist Party and the Republicans (formerly UMP, RPR and UDR). Second, although Macron won the second round with a 30-point margin over Marine Le Pen, the first-round result was extremely close, with four candidates winning between 19.6 and 24% of the vote.
This tight result was all the more significant because it represented four extremely distinct policy alternatives. Marine Le Pen defended the standard National Front manifesto, speaking out against immigration and economic globalization. Emmanuel Macron took a moderately liberal policy stance, in terms of cultural values (pro-immigration, pro-gay rights, etc.) as well as economic development (pro-austerity, pro-business). The Republican candidate, François Fillon, championed neoliberal reforms and social conservatism (on gay rights and French identity). Finally, the radical left contender, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, managed to merge proposals from the traditional left (regarding wealth redistribution and government intervention in the economy) and the green movement (against nuclear energy and in favor of alternative economic development). On April 23, 2017, the French political space seemed to be divided into four different blocks.
This paper assesses the consequences of the 2017 “electoral earthquake” (Martin 2017) for the French party system. Despite Emmanuel Macron’s clear victory, the closeness of the first-round result led many pundits and scholars to suggest that the new French party system was a four-party system (“quadripartition”). Our article examines this hypothesis along with three alternative ones: the standard tripolarity hypothesis, where there is one left-wing block, one moderate right-wing block and one extreme-right block; a new tripolarity, with one eco-socialist block on the left, one pro-globalization neoliberal block at the center and one anti-immigration conservative block on the right; and the rebirth of the “quadrille bipolaire” (Duverger 1985) organized around two poles each composed of two parties.
This article addresses the classical literature on party systems, by focusing on the connection between voters and candidates rather than other aspects of party systems, e.g., the number of effective parties or the inter-party relationships. Our goal is to assess how voters fit into the new political space in terms of issues and values. This means evaluating the connection between citizens’ preferences and values and their choice on 23 April. In other words, we will assess what issues differentiate one voter from one another and which value set leads to one candidate rather than another. In order to map the 2017 French political space, we rely on geometric data analysis (GDA) and use data from the French Election Study 2017 (Gougou and Sauger 2017).
The 2017 presidential election result
Results of the 2017 French presidential election.
Source: Constitutional Council. Results are percentages of the electorate for voters (turnout) and valid votes, and the percentage of the valid votes for each candidate
Marine Le Pen
Turnout was not equally distributed among social groups, though. According to the French Election Study, abstention was 13 percentage point higher among young voters (18–24 age group) than elderly people (over 65 s); 12 percentage point higher among workers than among the managerial and professional occupations; 10 percentage point higher among people with only a basic education than those with a university degree. Turnout rates were consistently higher in upper-class constituencies than in lower-class constituencies. Voter turnout reached 87% in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, a central district where the Sorbonne University is situated, but only 60.8% in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor suburb of Paris in Seine-Saint-Denis and 69% in Saint-Dizier, a former industrial town in Haute-Marne (Eastern France). Such patterns were said to disadvantage Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon compared to François Fillon and Emmanuel Macron.
Turnout in the second round fell to 74.8%. Historically, turnout tends to increase between the two rounds. Two key features explain why turnout actually decreased: the low competitiveness of the election and the absence of a left-wing competitor. This had already been the case in the 1969 presidential election when the runoff featured two right-wing candidates, Alain Poher and future President Georges Pompidou. As a matter of fact, a large fraction of left-wing voters declined to choose between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, leading to a record number of blank invalid ballots as well (8.6% of the registered electorate).
It was no surprise that the socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, did not reach the second round; he had been behind in the polls for a long time. However, his score was a catastrophe. Hamon lost most of the socialist core voters to Mélenchon and Macron. On the one hand, Mélenchon crushed him in both former socialist, lower-class, urban strongholds where Hollande had done much better at the previous election (La Courneuve: 10.3% against 44.4% for Mélenchon; Hollande 47% in 2012) and former rural strongholds (Ariège: 7.9% against 26.8% for Mélenchon; Hollande 34.4% in 2012). On the other hand, Macron beat Hamon in former socialist, upper-class, urban strongholds (the 3rd district of Paris: 10.6% against 45% for Macron; Hollande 40.1% in 2012). Political parties rarely die. But when they do, they lose their core voters first (Mack 2010). Here is one clue that the Socialist party might actually disappear, but further investigation is needed before drawing a definitive conclusion.
Marine Le Pen obtained the best ever result for an extreme-right candidate at a French presidential election (21.3%). It was the second time that the National Front reached the runoff. When Jean-Marie Le Pen pushed former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the race in 2002, the result was met with incredulity (Cole 2002; Kuhn 2002; Miguet 2002). This was not the case this time. The National Front made a big breakthrough at the 2014 European elections (24.9%), and this result was confirmed by both the 2015 departmental (25.2%) and regional elections (28%). For this reason, Marine Le Pen was expected to lead the polls. In this context, her score was in fact below forecasts.
The second round was not close: Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote to become the eighth President of the Fifth Republic. This was the second-largest margin of victory in a presidential election, just behind Jacques Chirac’s landslide win over Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. Many observers considered that Marine Le Pen’s poor performance in the last presidential debate four days before the runoff was crucial to explaining her disappointing result. This type of reasoning overestimates short-term factors, however. Marine Le Pen had already underperformed in the first round. Part of the explanation can be traced back to issue salience during the campaign. Immigration has never been a top priority and Le Pen herself chose to focus on economic issues, as other contenders did.1
Le Pen’s defeat was in line with recent second-order elections. Despite high-level support in the first round, the National Front still appears unable to break the “glass ceiling” at the second round (Labouret 2016). In the 2015 departmental elections, it was beaten in about 98% of runoffs (Shields 2015). In the 2015 regional elections, it failed to win a single region. When the stakes are high, the National Front continues to suffer from a “front républicain,” i.e., the willingness of French voters to keep the radical right out of power.
In this context, as long as Macron was ahead in the first round, he was the favorite to take office. This is what happened. According to the polls, he was the rare case of a Condorcet winner.
The structure of the French party system: new conflict dimensions and party blocks
This section assesses the structure, the nature and the format of the new French political space.
The political landscape after the 2017 presidential election looks quite different from the one before the election. The situation seems to point to a new pattern of party competition. Since the 1980s, French politics has experienced the parallel development of cleavages related to both globalization—especially the politicization of immigration—and the environmental crisis, which have cut across the traditional class and religious cleavages (Bornschier and Lachat 2009). This evolution has been common to most advanced industrial democracies: the politicization of new conflicts between libertarian and ethnocentric values, as well as between ecologists and productivists, has indeed transformed most West European polities (Inglehart 1984; Kitschelt 1994; Hooghe and Marks 2006; Kriesi et al. 2008, 2012). Yet, the way in which these cleavages have transformed party systems is different from one country to another, depending on the previous cleavage configuration.
In France, it led to the rise of an extreme-right party, and, to a lesser extent, to the development of a Green party. It also changed the nature and content of party competition: while the cultural dimension of competition was mostly composed of religious issues, it was now structured by immigration and law and order (Tiberj 2012). In terms of the economic dimension of competition, issues linked to globalization overtook issues like privatization or state intervention in the economy (Bornschier and Lachat 2009). The environmental issue cut across the two main dimensions and had a cyclical impact on political agendas (Dalton 2009; Persico 2015). Overall, between the 1980s and the mid-2010s, the French party system was structured around one left-wing block, one moderate right-wing block and one extreme-right block—what scholars called tripartition (Grunberg and Schweisguth 1997, 2003). Yet the difference between conservative and extreme-right voters seemed to fade away after the 2007 election, in relation to the radicalization of conservative voters regarding immigration and law and order (Gougou and Labouret 2013). In other Western countries, the development of a new tripolar party competition was witnessed as well (Deegan-Krause 2007; Bornschier 2010). Does the four-way battle in the first round of the French 2017 presidential election indicate that this standard tripartition is over?
In order to answer this question, we map the 2017 French political space. This means assessing the conflict dimensions that play a role in structuring the party system and the role they play. This also means evaluating the connection between citizens’ preferences and values regarding these conflict dimensions and their vote on April 23, 2017. In other words, we will assess what issues differentiate one voter from one another and which value set leads to one candidate rather than another. This first step allows us to evaluate the format and content of the new French party system.
What does Macron’s breakthrough mean? Are we witnessing the development of a new liberal centrist pole, independent from the old socialist and conservative parties, and which has never previously occurred under the Fifth Republic (Sauger 2004)? Alternatively, are we witnessing a reconfiguration of the socialist pole behind Macron, with the “modernizers” taking the lead over left-wing members? This generates our first two hypotheses.
Emmanuel Macron can be considered as leading a new liberal centrist pole, distinct from traditional parties.
Emmanuel Macron represents a new form of the traditional leftist pole.
What happens at the conservative end of the political spectrum? Has the division between the conservatives and the radical right remained untouched? Or is a new conservative-ethnocentric block being formed, rendering the historical difference between the moderate and extreme right obsolete? A supplementary set of hypotheses stems from the different answers to this second question.
François Fillon and Marine Le Pen still represent two distinct rightist poles.
François Fillon and Marine Le Pen now belong to the same rightist pole with only differences of degree between them.
Hypotheses regarding the structure and form of the new French party system
Fillon and Le Pen as distinct rightist poles
Fillon and Le Pen on the same rightist pole
Macron as a new distinct centrist pole
Macron as a traditional leftist pole
The second scenario—standard tripolarity—indicates stability vis-à-vis the former electoral order (Grunberg and Schweisguth 2003). Here, Macron represents the traditional leftist pole: he replaces the Socialist Party as the dominant left-wing party and shares this political space with Mélenchon and Hamon. The right remains divided between a moderate conservative pole represented by Fillon and an extreme-right pole represented by Le Pen. This configuration is in line with existing theories regarding party system change in Western Europe (Kriesi et al. 2012; Oesch and Rennwald 2017).
The third scenario—new tripolarity—indicates a clear departure from the previous political order, with Macron leading a new independent centrist pole—distinct from Melenchon and Hamon’s traditional left—while there is a fusion of the two rights with some of the more moderate right-wing leaders and voters joining Macron, as they have already started to do with the formation of the new government. Martin (2017) sketches this scenario with three poles: one democrat-eco-socialist; one liberal-globalizer and one conservative-identity pole.
Finally, the fourth scenario—quadrille bipolaire—means that the Fifth Republic’s political space reverts back to the situation prior to the 1980s with four parties of roughly equal strength, dividing the electorate into left and right coalitions (Duverger 1985). This means that the party system is now structured by a central conflict dimension, creating two blocks with an impassable frontier and varying relations of competition and cooperation between parties from the same block.
Data and methods
We use data from the French Election Study 2017, a cross-sectional post-electoral survey carried out after the second round of the presidential election (Gougou and Sauger 2017). Six main value dimensions were measured among respondents: authoritarianism (AUT), ecologism (ECO), ethnocentrism (ETH), economic globalization (GLO), economic liberalism (LIB) and social conservatism (MOR).
Value orientations in the 2017 French Election Study
School should: instill a sense of discipline/educate people for critical and open mindedness
Death penalty should be restored
In our society, one needs hierarchy and leaders
Immigrants’ presence in France is a source of cultural enrichment
French Muslims are French citizens like others
There are too many immigrants in France
Ordinal (4), recoded (3)
Homosexuality is an acceptable way to express one’s sexuality
It is appropriate that same-sex couples may adopt children
Ordinal (4), recoded (3)
It is appropriate that a woman may abort
Categorical (3), recoded (2)
Climate change is a phenomenon: caused by human activity/natural, as Planet earth has known in the past/of which the origin remains unknown
In order to really protect the environment for future generations, we will have to seriously reduce economic growth
Are you very much in favor, in favor, opposed, or strongly opposed to energy production by nuclear plants?
Custom barriers and economic protectionism should be restored in France
Ordinal (5), recoded (4)
Globalization clearly reduces national governments’ power over economic issues
Economic consequences of globalization are extremely negative for France
In order to face economic difficulties, government should: trust private businesses/control private businesses more closely
In the next year, priority must be given to: increase French economy’s competitiveness/better worker’s situation
In order to obtain social justice, one should take from the rich to give to the poor
In order to map the 2017 French political space, we rely on geometric data analysis (GDA). GDA is a technique to understand the nature of data under investigation. The analysis allows us to reduce underlying structures into a small number of meaningful dimensions—factors or axes (Le Roux and Rouanet 2010). In such a framework, the results are mainly descriptive: the technique detects relations between variables without making any assumption of causality. The primary aim is to “let data speak for themselves”: exploring relations between variables within a dataset is supposed to reveal patterns and structures of interest, whether expected or not.
As value orientations in the dataset are categorical variables, we use multiple correspondence analysis (MCA).3 MCA provides a geometric model of data, representing a set of individuals by a cloud of points. The statistical distance between two respondents to a survey is determined by their responses to the questions to which they gave different answers. The cloud of modalities is then derived from the cloud of individuals: it describes the distance between each answer to each question. Both clouds have exactly the same number of axes (dimensions) and the same eigenvalue (overall variance). The first axis is determined according to its eigenvalue and provides the best one-dimensional fit of the cloud, i.e., the maximal variance for one axis. Once the sequence of axes has been defined (with decreasing eigenvalues), the number of axes depends on the eigenvalues. Finally, the axes can be interpreted on the basis of the cloud of modalities and the statistical contribution of each category to the axis. Interpreting axes is the most challenging step in the analysis: following Benzécri (1992, p. 405), axes should express “with conciseness and precision, the contrast (or opposition) between two extremes.”
Some additional variables can be put into the analysis without contributing to the determination of axes. These are called supplementary variables: their categories are plotted in the cloud of modalities and may help us to understand the relations between “active” variables. The mean point of each supplementary variable category can also be plotted in the cloud of individuals, along with concentration ellipses (which contain about 86% of the points of the sub-cloud). We chose to introduce two supplementary variables in our analysis, i.e., the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, on the one hand, and issue saliency, on the other. This allows us to describe how the electorate fits into the current French political space.
The new French political space
The analysis is divided into three steps. First, we decide how many axes should be interpreted. Second, we visualize the cloud of categories and interpret the remaining axes. Third, we investigate the cloud of individuals and look at the concentration ellipses around the vote for each major candidate in the first round of the presidential election.
Multiple correspondence analysis: number of Axes to interpret
Inertia rate (%)
Cumulated rate (%)
Multiple correspondence analysis: interpretation of Axes 1 and 3
School: discipline and effort
Death penalty: strongly agree
Immigration as cultural benefit: strongly disagree
Too many immigrants in France: strongly agree
Adoption by homosexuals: strongly disagree
Protectionism: strongly agree
Death penalty: strongly disagree
Immigration as enrichment: strongly agree
French Muslims French as others: strongly agree
Too many immigrants in France: strongly disagree
Protectionism: strongly disagree
Slow down economic growth: strongly disagree
Nuclear energy: strongly in favor
Freedom and trust in firms
Economic priority: competitiveness
Take from the rich: strongly disagree
Globalization on national economies: very bad
Globalization on democracy: very bad
Control firms more closely
Economic priority: workers
Take from the rich: strongly agree
The political space at the 2017 presidential election is hence shaped by two cleavages. The most important conflict dimension, Axis 1, opposes anti-immigration authoritarian and socially conservative views to pro-immigration and culturally liberal opinions. Such a result fits perfectly the rise of a new cultural cleavage that has been observed in France (and other Western democracies) for decades. This cleavage is well described in the literature, even if there is no consensus as to how it should be labeled: integration/demarcation (Kriesi et al. 2006), open/closed society (Chiche et al. 2000), identity/cosmopolitism (Martin 2007), etc. While it forms the cultural dimension of party competition, this cleavage now represents the main (and largely so) division in French politics.
The second conflict dimension, Axis 3, features neoliberal, pro-globalization, productivist opinions on the one hand, and interventionist, anti-globalization, ecologist stands on the other. Although it relates to the economy, the content of this conflict dimension seems to have changed over time: it differs from the formerly dominant class cleavage (Bartolini 2007). However, this cleavage has not yet been extensively described in the literature, and there are no cross-national studies to compare its content. From our perspective, it captures the reshaping of the economic dimension of party competition since the beginning of the Great Recession of 2008 in two ways: first, the voter’s position vis-à-vis economic globalization plays a central role; second, ecologist values are now clearly aligned with and contribute to the economic dimension of competition; indeed, they are almost orthogonal to the cultural dimension. This result contradicts most work on the “New Politics,” which tends to argue that the environment is a component of the new cultural dimension (Hooghe and Marks 2006). Although it retains a weaker structuring power than the identity/cosmopolitism cleavage, this new economic dimension confronts pro-globalization, pro-business and anti-environmental citizens to citizens sharing eco-socialist values.
We now turn to the test of our hypotheses by locating our illustrative variables in this bi-dimensional political space. Hypothesis 1a is confirmed: Macron leads a new pole, which is distinct from traditional parties. His mean point stands in the top-right corner, at a distance from other candidates’ mean points. Macron has managed to define a new quadrant in French politics, combining both pro-globalization, neoliberal economics and cultural openness. His electorate is strongly opposed to Marine Le Pen’s electorate on the cultural dimension and is opposed to traditional left-wing electorates on the economic dimension as well. This is confirmed by analyzing issue saliency: Macron is close to public debt and far away from inequalities.
As far as hypothesis 2 is concerned, the conclusion is not as clear as it might at first appear. Given the mean point of their electorate, Marine Le Pen and François Fillon still represent distinct rightist poles in the 2017 French political space: hypothesis 2a thus seems to be confirmed. Marine Le Pen’s electorate is almost exclusively defined by the cultural axis of party competition, its mean point being close to immigration as the most salient issue in France today. By contrast, the economic axis of party competition is predominant for François Fillon’s electorate. Such results are consistent with one key aspect of the “standard tripolarity” configuration, i.e., the fact that both right-wing poles are conservative on different dimensions—cultural for the radical right, economic for the moderate right. However, it must be acknowledged that the moderate right—Fillon’s voters—seems to have moved right on the cultural axis. Even though Fillon’s voters are less conservative than Le Pen’s voters, they are still much more conservative than Macron’s, Hamon’s and Mélenchon’s voters. This has not always been the case: in 1997, there was no difference between center-right and socialist voters on the “open/closed” dimension (Chiche et al. 2000, p. 475).
Conclusion: the new French party system and the future of French electoral politics
The 2017 French presidential election resulted in a fragmented political space. It was structured by one main conflict dimension—immigration and authoritarianism—and one less important one—economy and environment—leading to what could be seen as a new four-party system. The results presented in this article must obviously be put in a broader context: the presidential election was the first step in a sequence ending up with the legislative elections. In that regard, the four-block political space described in the first round of the presidential election has been slightly altered in the legislative election with the rise of La République en marche!, the new President’s party, at the expense of the Republicans. Our main observations remain, however, unchanged.
The first conflict dimension pertains to the cleavage between proponents of libertarianism and cultural openness from authoritarian and anti-immigrant citizens. Although this conflict dimension has structured French politics since the 1980s, it is now stronger than ever. On this dimension, Marine Le Pen and her voters take an extremely conservative position, which differentiates them from everyone else, especially Macron, Hamon and Mélenchon. Both Le Pen and Macron would benefit from an increased salience of this dimension in the political agenda. In this case, Macron would represent the left in the eyes of most left-wing voters, while Fillon’s voters would continue leaning toward a conservative position.
The second conflict dimension relates to the economy but cannot be subsumed into the old class cleavage. On this dimension, Mélenchon and Hamon clearly stand out with left-wing positions, while Macron’s and Fillon’s voters share neoliberal, pro-business and anti-environmental positions. The change in the economic dimension of competition opens up the space for the left-wing block: it clarifies the left’s differences with Macron and makes pro-environmental positions—largely shared by the electorate—a clear component of the new economic divide. However, the organizational division between La France Insoumise, on the one hand, and the left-wing socialists and Greens, on the other hand, might be hard to overcome. In any case, Marine Le Pen would suffer from an increased visibility of this dimension, since her position is both unclear and controversial among her supporters.
A last series of questions concerns the social-structural basis of these new cleavages. Which citizens tend to favor one block more than another? This article shows that the new cleavages have distinct organizational (different candidates and parties) and ideological (different value sets) bases (Bartolini and Mair 1990). Yet, it remains to be assessed what social groups compose each of the four blocks. The changing structure of the economy following the Great Recession and the changes in the middle-class way of life might provide answers to this set of questions (Oesch 2006; Bornschier 2007), but this has to be tested empirically.
Recent work has demonstrated that French mainstream parties have been eager to take up issues associated with niche parties (Meguid 2008; Brouard et al. 2012; Persico 2015), which is what Sarkozy successfully did with immigration in 2007 (Sauger 2007; Spoon 2008). Yet, the 2017 election shows that mainstream parties will stop taking up those issues if niche parties no longer politicize them.
Let us not forget that the early days of the Fifth Republic proved how a new president with a new party could radically transform the political space.
We performed a specific multiple correspondence analysis (using Spad). This technique allows us to record non-responses as ‘passive modalities’: individuals with missing answers remain in the analysis, but missing values are ignored when determining distances between individuals (Le Roux and Rouanet 2004).
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