Rebranding Political Parties in France

Kyra Sanchez Clapper's picture

In this post Kyra Sanchez Clapper, University of Memphis, discusses political shifts in France and its departments during the 2022 French presidential election.

On April 24, 2022, incumbent president Emmanuel Macron defeated the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, securing his second term. However, with the results being 58.55% and 41.45%, it would be incorrect to say that the Renaissance (formerly known as En Marche!) won by a landslide. In fact, the gap between the two parties is rapidly closing in.

How did far-right Le Pen manage to close in on her centrist rival? Her predecessor and father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the party in 1972. According to Daniel Stockemer, Marine Le Pen revitalized her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party in four ways – (1) the party’s ideology; (2) leadership styles, including the composition of the party elites and the leaders’ and party’s relationship with the media; (3) the members of the party; and (4) the voters of the party.[1]

Le Pen père is notorious for his Holocaust denial and Islamophobia, which contributed to the decline of the National Rally in the 2000s. Le Pen fille then decided to improve the party’s image by removing her father from the party in 2015 and distancing the party from extreme ideologies to attract more voters. The party was then renamed the National Front in 2018.

Unlike the United States, where there are primaries to elect the representative for the Democrat and Republican parties as well as electoral votes, France has two rounds of elections in the span of two weeks. The first round allows citizens to vote for a candidate from one of the qualifying political parties. After two candidates from different parties are chosen for the second round, citizens are to vote for which candidate should be elected as president by popular vote.

While the past two elections were quite polarizing, with candidates ranging from the far-left to the far-right, it was quite different in the early 2010s. If we were to compare the previous two elections to 2012, there were only three major political parties (National Front, Union for a Popular Movement, and Socialist Party) running in the first round. Marine Le Pen ran in the first round, only gaining 17.9% of the vote while Nicolas Sarkozy gained 27.18% and François Hollande 28.63%.  If we were to compare the 2017 election results to 2022, we see that the National Front gained significant traction within five years. Despite going against three other parties, Le Pen made it to the second round against Macron with 21.3% and 24.01% of the vote respectively.

French citizens in both continental Europe and overseas departments have also shown political shifts after Macron’s first term. Réunion, a French department in the Indian Ocean, voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, representing France Unbowed, a left-wing populist party, in the 2017 first round and Macron in the second. Fast forward to 2022 and we see that the same department voted for Marine Le Pen in the second round. Other territories, such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guinea, also followed the same trend.

There are numerous reasons to why party polarization comes into fruition. Was it due to absentee votes? Identity politics? Geographic sorting? Political sorting? What can we learn from these political shifts? How does historical context come into play?

As for my fellow Americans – what could American politicians learn from the everchanging political landscape of France? Would it be beneficial to abandon the two-party system and switch to multi-party?

[1] Stockemer, Daniel. The Front National in France: Continuity and Change Under Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen. Germany: Springer International Publishing, 2017: 1.

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Keywords: Politics, France