France Already Has a Two-Party System

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

November 16, 2002

Is the emergence of the Right?s UMP a precursor to a two-party political system in France similar to that in the United States?

If the Left also manages to reorganize, you could see the emergence of two dominant parties in France. But I wouldn?t exaggerate the importance of this change. French politics has been divided into the Left and the Right for decades. Each presidential election already requires the two sides to rally around one leader. And in the legislative elections, deals among the parties to defer to each others? candidates also tends to reinforce the Left/Right split. Even if two major parties—subdivided into factions—emerge, the system would not be very different from what exists today.

Wouldn?t the voter lose the variety of choice he now has in France?

The ideological spectrum in the United States has until now been narrower than in France—it was easier for two parties to cover the same political ground. But in France there has been a narrowing of this spectrum for the past twenty years. This is due to the disappearance of major ideological issues that divided the electorate and justified the existence of a variety of parties: religion, communism, colonialism, and the Cold War for example. Thus the French political system is becoming more like the American one not only in the way that it is structured but in an ideological sense as well. At the same time, this natural rapprochement of the Left and the Right has worked to the favor of the extreme parties, who contest the emergence of a pensée unique, or conventional wisdom.

Why does this not happen in the United States?

The American electoral system, more than that of France, favors moderate parties. In the French two-round system, a candidate on one of the extremes can have the satisfaction of being the runner-up in the second round of elections and, thereby, having some influence. In the United States, on the other hand, such a candidate has more of a chance of being influential if he remains within one of the two major parties than by running on his own.

But would bipolarization be a good way for France to rid itself of these extremes?

Not necessarily. Certainly it will lessen the chances of smaller parties winning local elections, municipal or legislative. But the tradition of extremes in France is strong enough that the radical parties would survive.

Without a UMP primary like they have on the Left, wouldn?t a two-party system in France be less democratic than in the United States?

Primaries appear very democratic because there is a vote. But the candidate who has the best chance of winning the elections is not necessarily the one who is chosen in the primary. In fact, the primaries often favor the candidates most able to rally the party base and not necessarily the most representative candidates of public opinion. In this sense, primaries can be less democratic than another means of selection. There is no such thing as a perfectly democratic system.

Returning to the issue of the Left in France, is it not obliged to reorganize?

It is definitely in the interest of the Left to organize itself into one party. But it is unclear whether it will be capable of doing so. You could make a parallel between the French Left and the American Democratic party. Both have just lost an election, lack an undisputed leader (unlike in the opposing party in each case), and their internal debate is similar: ?Should we go more to the Left or more to the Right?? The challenges are comparable. But since in the American case only one party exists, the Democrats will be obliged to resolve their own problems and to choose a leader for the next elections. Because this organizational incentive does not exist in France, the French Left risks going into the next elections divided.