An expat’s guide to the crazy world of French politics by Alec Fullerton

An expat s guide to the crazy world of French politicsBack in March, I ventured up from our humble province to the bright lights and packed terrasses of Paris to visit a friend. Over the course of the weekend, I managed to spot the graffiti, Fillon en Prison (Fillon in Prison), a staggering five times, rebelliously daubed in marker pen on the advertising posters lining the Metro platforms.


If you hadn’t been following the presidential campaigns thus far you might have been a bit confused. Who is this Fillon chap? Why do they want to throw him in the slammer? And haven’t they heard of Twitter? It’s a rather more 21st century means of expressing annoyance.


If Brexit and Trumpageddon have taught us anything, it’s that politics can be confusing, unpredictable and, as I’m sure many readers will concur, frustrating. And that was all happening in English, so how on earth are us expats supposed to make head or tail of France’s 2017 presidential elections?


Here at L&P Sun, we decided that the best way to tackle the election would be to provide a guide to the French political system aimed at expats, comparing it with those in the UK and the USA, and teaching you all a bit of vocab along the way. Either you’re reading this article as the election approaches in an attempt to put the latest scandal in context (inevitable when dealing with such a thoroughly duplicitous bunch as politicians). Or, the final curtain has already fallen on the election and you’re trying to decipher my ramblings.


Thanks to a handy little machine called the Guillotine and a confusing series of peasant revolts, military coups and short-lived periods of peace, the French no longer have a monarchy. France is a republic and the country is governed in accordance with its constitution, currently that of the Fifth Republic.


Like the Yanks, the French have a President as head of state, who is elected for five-year terms. However, the French also have a Prime Minister who is chosen by the President. Similar to Britain’s PM, their main role is forming a government and a cabinet of ministers. In comparison to other European presidencies, the French president has a great deal of power, and whilst the PM focuses on the day to day running of the country, the President is responsible for major national security and foreign policy decision-making.


Just like the American Congress and Britain’s parliament, the French parliament is made up of two different chambers; the Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat. The Assemblée Nationale is very similar to the UK’s House of Commons and is made up of 577 députés who are elected to represent individual constituencies in a general election. Whereas the Sénat, the French equivalent of the House of Lords or, unsurprisingly, the American Senate, consists of 300 senators elected by other locally elected representatives.


The race for the top job and the cushy pad at Le Palais de l’Élysée began late last year as the major parties, such as Les Républicains, have primaries where the party members vote for the one candidate who will represent them in the election. After months of no doubt tedious appearances at local agricultural festivals, kissing babies and a juicy scandal or two (thank you, Mr Fillon). The first round of voting is on April 23rd. Then the second round is on May 7th, unless of course one candidate wins more than 50% of the first round votes, although this has never happened. Once a candidate has emerged victorious from the fray, the parliamentary elections will take place in June, where the president will try and win a majority.


Like in the USA, the people vote for a president as opposed to the UK system where a general election elects MPs and then the leader of the winning party is asked to form a government by The Queen. However, whilst in America they use the controversial electoral college voting system — the system that crowned Trump president despite losing out on the popular vote to Hilary — in France the winner is simply thecandidate who collects the highest number of votes.


France’s two round voting system is also worthy of mention as narrowing down the huge number of candidates (of which only 5 couldreally be considered competitive in 2017) to a tête à tête makes it a lot harder for an extreme candidate to win. For example, back in 2002 Jacques Chirac, representing a now defunct centre-right party, came face to face with holocaust- denying and all round piece of work, Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round. Le Pen was defeated thanks to the Front Républicain — a term literally referring to the tactical cooperation of centre right and centre left parties to vote against the Front National in such a situation. However, given the political unpredictability wewitnessed in 2016, who knows what could happen come May?


So now we know how it works, but who’s got a chance of winning? In terms of political parties, France generally has more than in the UK (certainly than the US with their two party system), yet it appears most French parties have a limited life span and a tendency for mutation. We can get a sense of the major political parties by looking at their candidates for the 2017 presidential race.


First up we have the traditional not- so-centre-right, Margaret Thatcher- loving, François Fillon, representing Les Républicains (formerly UMP). This party most resembles the Conservatives in Britain and, you guessed it, the Republicans in the US. On the extreme right we have the notorious Marine Le Pen and her Front National. After taking over leadership from and subsequently booting out her father, Marine has sought to detoxify the FN’s xenophobic image. With their primary goals being a clampdown on immigration and getting France out of the EU, the FN can be likened to Nigel Farage’s UKIP, although the distinctly thuggish reputation of its supporters is more reminiscent of the BNP (British National Party).


With his newly formed centrist party, En Marche, we have Emmanuel Macron, ex economy minister, who has never been an MP or run for an election. However, at time of writing he is consistently coming second to Le Pen in the polls (not necessarily an indicator she will win due to the second round system.) With his traditionally liberal economic policies and left-wing social plans, Macron is considered by many as ‘Mr Perfect’ and potentially the most likely candidate to get between Le Pen and the presidency.


On the left there are two serious contenders: Benoît Hamon of the Parti Socialiste and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Parti de Gauche. Hamon has been called «the French Bernie Sanders» and is often compared to Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader in the UK. His most interesting policy by far is the proposed idea of introducing a universal monthly income for all French people of €750, as well as legalising cannabis and taxing wealth-creating robots. Meanwhile, Far-left Mélenchon tore away from the PS back in 2008 to launch his Parti de Gauche. He received the backing of the French communist party in February.


So there we have it — the French political system, how it works and the main contenders. Now for those of us vote-deprived expats, there’s nothing left to do but kick back, dig in and wait for it all to blow over.