French politics seems more involved and more involving

Dr Tim Blakemore, a former senior law lecturer at the University of Northampton who now lives in France, looks at whether exciting French politics can be just a little too exciting

25 October 2017
By Dr Tim Blakemore

The last few months have seen a host of politicking in France, with associated protests and strikes, and I wonder what the UK residents in France think of French politics?

It all began in May with that thumping victory for Emmanuel Macron in the Presidential elections. Then in June the legislative elections to elect députés in the National Assembly also produced a landslide for Macron’s new party, which had now changed its title from La France En Marche to La République En Marche.

The party which had been expected to be the major contender for office, re-named Les Républicains by Nicolas Sarkozy, suffered in both the Presidential and legislative elections because of the revelation that its leader and Presidential candidate François Fillon had taken the idea of job creation a little too far.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise followed up his charismatic performance in the Presidential election, where he had only narrowly missed getting through to the second round, by gaining several seats at the expense of the suffering Parti Socialiste. On the other hand Marine Le Pen lost heavily in the second round of the Presidential election and her Front National party ended up with only a few députés.

UK residents in France might have followed all this with a degree of interest, but I suspect that the September elections for the Senate (roughly equivalent to the UK House of Lords) were not quite so enthralling. Nevertheless, these were also interesting as Les Républicains held on to their majority, largely because of the electoral college system whereby the voters are delegates from regional and local councils. As these had themselves been elected in 2014 before Les Républicains encountered their electoral difficulties, they tended to be more supportive.

As a result, for the first time M. Macron suffered a set-back by gaining only 21 seats instead of the 50 seats he had hoped for, which means that he will have to rely upon forming an alliance with all sorts if he is to achieve anything dramatic, such as revising the constitution. It is hardly surprising he was heard uttering a curse or two.

As UK nationals we are unable to vote in French national elections, but watching from the outside, French party politics look much more interesting than those in the UK. When has a new political party made such an impact as La République En Marche? In the 1980s the Social Democrat Party was launched with a great fanfare, had some initial success, then fizzled out. UKIP seems to be heading in the same direction.

There is also an astonishing range of political views which have a significant following in France. Both the radical left-wing La France Insoumise and the right-wing Front National have made legitimate claims to be the principal opposition to M. Macron and the government formed by La République En Marche. If the Socialist Workers Party and the National Front did the same in the UK it would meet with hilarity.

Certainly the extremes of Left and Right have much more impact in France than in the UK, with both Mélenchon and Le Pen gaining significant numbers of votes in both the Presidential and legislative elections. Which of those alternatives worries you the most will, of course, depend on your own political leanings. Even the Parti Communiste Français has a strong following, with 10 députés and its newspaper L’Humanité having a circulation of around 50,000. The chances of the UK Communist Party gaining an MP are less than those of the EU crowning Boris Johnson as European Citizen of the Year.

Then there are the names of the parties. Why cannot UK parties have titles like ‘the Republic on the move’, or ‘France unsubdued’? Those names at least suggest that the party concerned has dynamic intentions and even ‘The Republicans’ has a whiff of revolution about it. The best that the UK can offer is ‘the Liberals’, with the hint that they might just be persuaded to turn a blind eye to behaviour which is verging on the unacceptable.

The Monster Raving Loony Party and UKIP sound interesting but must be discounted, as one of them has very limited policies, puts up extremely strange candidates and has not been the same since the departure of its eccentric leader. And the other was only ever Screaming Lord Sutch’s idea of a bit of fun.

I look forward to the day when a new party is launched, such as ‘The UK Outraged’. Although, being British, it is more likely to be ‘The People Want Scones’ or ‘Time for Tea!’

Residents who are not French can get involved in the local municipal elections if their nationality is of another European Union state. This even allows someone to stand for election as a local councillor, and there are more than 600 UK nationals who are conseillers municipaux at present.

Local politics may not seem as exciting as the national version but are interesting in a different way, especially in the smaller communes where party politics have little direct impact. The municipal councils seem like Parish councils in their make-up of ordinary local people, but similar to County Councils in the size of their budgets, their powers and their responsibilities.

It may be different in other areas, but people appear to be much more engaged, so that the turn-out in our commune for the 2014 municipal elections was close to 90%, and the Mairie was packed for the vote counting during the evening.

Because it was a small commune the voters were allowed to choose candidates from any of the official lists, and did so with a vengeance. The result was a council made up of people from all walks of life, the only traditional ‘professional’ being a dentist and none having a background in politics. As a consequence there is none of the political point-scoring nonsense which is common in local government in the UK or in national politics in any country.

There is of course a down-side, such as the reports in Connexion concerning scandals over planning permissions for windfarms on land belonging to councillors or their friends. It may also be thought that some professional skills are necessary to administer such significant budgets.

But national politicians are not exempt from corruption scandals and it is unlikely that a conseiller municipal will be claiming expenses for cleaning out a moat or constructing a new duck-house.

National party politics does have an impact on occasions. The Corrèze is a stronghold of the Parti Socialiste and probably the only department where François Hollande would have had a chance of getting votes for his re-election, had he decided to stand for a second term. Mélenchon himself had a lot of support in the Presidential elections, and in the legislative elections La France Insoumise won the most votes in as many communes as La République En Marche.

The one exception in the whole of the Corrèze was a small commune adjoining ours, where the Front National candidate received the most votes. Although this had no effect on the overall election of the representatives from the relevant constituency, residents in the commune are now viewed with the same suspicion as a vegetarian at the local la chasse association barbecue.

As M. Mélenchon said, when commenting on the new labour laws, “this is France, not England”. He is not wrong, it is much more exciting here and people seem much more involved. As that involvement seems to result in days of action, marches and strikes, perhaps it is a little too exciting at times.

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