Last Sunday, a western European nation of approximately 68 million people re-elected an internationalist and centrist – unattached to an established party of the left or the right – as its leader. Two weeks earlier, in the first round of voting, the two traditionally dominant parties obtained just 6.5 per cent of the vote. The likelihood is that the forthcoming parliamentary elections will see the centrists form the largest party and possibly maintain a majority.
The contrast between France, with Emmanuel Macron safely installed as president for another five years, and the UK is extraordinary. The Socialists and the Republicans, the party or successor party of every president of the Fifth Republic prior to Emmanuel Macron except for Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, have been consigned to the fringes, whereas, at the last general election, the two traditionally dominant parties in the UK won 76 per cent of the vote.
Trying to map French politics onto our system has become much more difficult. In England and Wales, we have a simple two-party system. In France, there are now three sizable blocs of voters – the far left, the nationalist right and the centrists, with the last constituting by far the largest segment. We do not even have a distinct centrist bloc to speak of. Is this the consequence of a different political outlook or different political structures?
It is generally assumed that there are a number of areas where the French and British political instincts are at variance. We are Atlanticists; they want an EU that is a bulwark against US dominance. They are sceptical about the benefits of the market; we are sceptical about the efficacy of state intervention. We favour free trade; they tend towards protectionism. One can challenge the accuracy of each of these generalisations (it is not the French who have imposed significant new trade barriers on themselves in recent years) but we are not identical in our attitudes.
We are not, however, that different. Yes, it is extraordinary that the parties of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande essentially did not feature in this year’s presidential election but it is also the case that the parties of David Cameron and Tony Blair did not feature in the 2019 general election. We had Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left Labour (comparable to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s offering) and a Conservative Party that had moved firmly in the direction of populism. As I pointed out last week, Boris Johnson is not Marine Le Pen, but he appealed in 2019 to the very same type of voters who, in France, vote for Le Pen. One of the many polling statistics that should concern decent Conservative MPs is that more of their supporters would have voted for Le Pen than for Macron.
There is a very good case for arguing that the three political tribes in France – the far left, centrists and populists – also constitute the three tribes of British electorate but that the UK electoral system means the Conservatives and Labour can maintain their dominance, albeit uncomfortably. The voters have to fit in to our party system rather than our parties reflecting the voters. The Conservatives have captured the populist vote but retain some support from centrists; post-Corbyn Labour tries to find a position that appeals to both the left and centrists, while trying to win back some of the populists (this may explain the lack of boldness and clarity in Labour’s messages).
The French presidential system enabled Macron to emerge as an independent figure offering voters a choice. His triumph five years ago gave him the momentum for En Marche to win a majority in the two-round parliamentary elections shortly afterwards.
The UK system makes a similar breakthrough much harder. My experience of running as an independent in the 2019 general election was that the approach of many voters was to assess which of the leaders of the two established parties they least wanted to be prime minister and then vote for the candidate representing the other party. This approach is not entirely irrational but it makes it very difficult for a new force to establish itself, even when both main parties are led by people manifestly unsuited to high office.
This is not an argument for adopting the French system of presidential elections and a two-stage parliamentary election. I will leave electoral reform for another day. In any event, it is a concern that the only thing stopping extremists winning the presidency appears to be one individual who, due to France’s constitutional limit of two consecutive terms, is prevented from running in 2027.
The conclusion that we can draw, however, is that in a country not that different from ours, a candidate representing liberal and internationalist values obtained the most votes in the first round and won the second round comfortably enough. Some of us find that encouraging. Perhaps there really is a sizable part of our electorate looking for something similar in the UK.
The less-encouraging conclusion is that the demand may be there but it is unclear who can meet it. Our political geography means that the median voter in the median constituency would, if they lived in France, have voted for Le Pen. The Conservatives won that voter’s support in 2019; Labour wants that voter’s support in 2024. Neither party is inclined to turn its attention to those who would have voted for Macron. It is a situation which is to the UK’s disadvantage.