Understanding the French Political Spectrum: La Gauche and La Droite

On Wednesday, we heard from French political specialist Vincent Martigny, who explained to us the history of and differences between the two ends of the French political spectrum:  la droite (the right) and la gauche (the left).

The idea of a two-sided spectrum (consisting of la gauche and la droite) was  first born in August of 1789, during the beginning of the French Revolution.  While establishing the groundwork for the French constitution, a key issue came about:  should the king have the right to a veto?  Opinions about this issue were split in two clearly opposing groups:  those who supported granting the king this power and thus defenders of French monarchy, and those who did not support the idea and therefore believe that the church should not have significant political power.

Five republics and over 220 years later, the issues and opinions have evolved over the years,  but the division between these two poles of French politics has remained more or less intact.  Each side embraces the famous motto of liberté, egalité, fraternitié with its own flavor and emphasis, and examining the key issues and opinions of both la gauche and la droite can give insight into the current state of affairs leading to the upcoming election of a new French president.

Francois Hollande, Left Political Candidate for the Partie Socialiste

La gauche, or the left, have a long history of being enthusiasts of progress, and have historically taken on social issues in France with a radical, revolutionary mindset that emphasizes egalité.  Generally, the left doesn’t support the influence of the church in government issues, and doesn’t support most of the ideals of capitalism.  Equality for all citizens is the highest priority (for many supporters, this is often achieved via some sort of redistribution of wealth), and supporters believe all these ideals should extend not just to native French people, but also to all immigrants.

Striving to defend justice, the French left isn’t afraid to embark on significant social advances (in fields such as health and education) and has a history of nationalism and colonization.  The core of the left is the social-democratic parti socialiste, but the existence and emerging popularity of le parti communiste (which has been supported by up to 25% of left voters) and les verts (which, created in the 1970s, now enjoys 10-15% of total votes) only fortify the revolutionary nature of la gauche as a whole.

On the other hand, la droite, currently in power under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, takes more of a traditional, conservative stance on French political issues with particular emphasis on the liberté part of the famous French motto.  For the right, cultural identity, patriotism, and family values culminate in a strong sense of national pride.  The ideals of capitalism are embraced more by the right than the left.  Economic and social liberty seem to be high on the priority list—as such, redistribution of wealth is done more sparingly.

Nicolas Sarkozy, current French president representing the UMP (La Droite), and candidate for 2012 Re-election

The right has been described as counter-revolutionary, and has been cited as more of a “default” party that may be more suited for the “silent majority” of French people rather than those in vehement pursuit of political change.  For this reason, some critics even find that the “center” of French politics is actually oriented slightly towards the right.  Social stability and cultural identity help lay the framework for many ideals of the UMP (Union For a Popular Movement)—the largest sub-party of the French right.  The Union for French Democracy (UDF) supports European federalism and adopt a wide range of policies.  The Nouveau Centre (NC), a right-center oriented sub-party, strives to strike a compromise between socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, with such movements as reduction of payroll taxes and reduction of government debt.

As we approach the next French presidential election, people everywhere are asking themselves if Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial leadership of the UMP will persist, or if it’s time for la droite once again, perhaps under Francois Hollande.  We’ll find out next April.

Justin Colt