What can America learn from France’s midterms?

Alexander Bowen

August 2, 2021

For a century, America and France stood alone, striding the transatlantic as a new colossus. They formed the bedrock of our transatlantic ‘republic of letters,’ exchanging between them the precursors to western values; holding a democratic torch guiding the rest of the world into their liberal harbour.

From the beginning, they held a seminal role in each other’s freedom, cooperating on their great civic texts. That tradition of shared liberty would long continue through to Betty Friedan and Beauvoir.

This long-standing tradition of being critical friends has allowed for warning shots with Trump and Bernie heralding the surge of France’s Le Pen and Melenchon. There is now another warning that America can learn from: France’s ‘midterms’.

America’s no stranger to democratic degradation but one thing’s clear: follow France’s midterms and American democracy will only get weaker (though perhaps rather greener). 

The French have never been more unhappy with the status quo (barring, of course, the revolutionary years, ‘68, and the world-wars). Every incumbent has received strong support. The reason? Unhappiness expressed through abstentionism, branded by left-wing paper l’Humanite as a civic strike.

That means only those most contented showed up to vote, and what group is most content? It’s the elderly, who disproportionately vote for the conservative Les Republicains, who received 27 per cent nationally in the first round, though this figure is just 9 per cent once turnout is considered. It was the lowest election turnout France has had since 1798; just one-third voted.

There’s a warning in this for the United States: apathy. If Trump was good at one thing, it was getting Democrats out to vote, not least in 2018. With Trump gone, it seems fairly certain that Democratic turnout will fade with him. If the turnout drops at anything near the rate it did in France, then the outcome for the House is clear — a large 2010-style Republican takeover. 

This 2010 effect can similarly be seen in France where the incumbent Republicans were severely beaten by the insurgent left (winning all but one of the regions). In that year, who did well really mattered (serving as a bellwether for France’s presidential and in America maiming Obama).

2010’s elections were important but this year there’s an added importance. Polls for the next presidential election in 2022 show a clear tier list — two top candidates, Macron and Le Pen, with 25 per cent of the projected vote followed by four generic party candidates each with 10 per cent.

Yet these polls show something else. Depending on who leads Les Republicains, that tier list could potentially be flipped on its head. For two candidates in particular, the election was a clear test run. In France’s rustbelt region of Hauts-de-France, incumbent Xavier Bertrand was substantially bolstered having pulled in a 17 point lead over the far-right in the first round setting him up for a clear run for the presidency in 2022 with one post-election poll showing him on 20 per cent for the presidential election. Similarly, in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, former and failed leader of Les Républicains (Laurent Wauquiez) opened up a 29 point lead over the Greens. While in Ile-de-France (Greater Paris), liberal-conservative Valerie Pécresse took a 23 point lead over both the rising star of the Greens and the rising star of the far-right. Incumbents did well, but the right did even better. 

Returning across l’Atlantique, these trends suggest that if turnout in the American midterms is low, we can expect incumbent Governors & Senators to return while the right makes surprising gains. Much like the upcoming presidential primaries for Les Republicains, successful performance in the American midterms for Republicans like Rubio and Scott could determine 2024.

France’s elections may have been a victory for incumbents, but France’s primary green party still obtained a significant breakthrough. Building on its strong third-place in 2019’s European Parliament election, and recent breakthroughs in local elections, and picking up solid second-place finishes in several regions, the green party successfully consolidated the left-wing vote.

American voters that feared the climate agenda would go away, and Republican politicians who hoped it would, need to be well aware of the fact that (much like climate change itself) the issue didn’t end with Covid-19. Woe betide Macron should he put climate on the back burner long-term as it appears he has. Similarly, a Biden administration that neglects the climate may be similarly punished — no doubt by his party’s own left flank in the form of more of Markey’s position papers. 

While not as significant as it once was, the Republican Front (the agreement amongst nearly all parties to unite to stop the far-right National Rally from winning) does still remain strong. That much is clear from the election results in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA), the only region where the far-right topped the poll (helped by its candidate being a former and relatively popular parliamentarian and cabinet minister aligned in a previous life with Les Republicains), the front was demonstrated superbly. While the Green candidate (endorsed by nearly the whole of the left) was initially hesitant to drop out before the second-round (a conservative vs far-right runoff), the threat of the withdrawal of support for the candidate from Green, Socialist, and Communist leaders convinced him to.

A front under which parties from hard-left to moderate-right unite to block extreme nationalism is the most admirable aspect of France’s political sphere. America’s own feeble attempt at a ‘Republican Front’ (or more accurately in this case, Democratic Front) in the 2020 election, with moderate Republicans like John Kasich endorsing Biden, fell flat on its face from cowardice as the likes of Senator Susan Collins declined to comment on their voting intention.

If there’s one thing that I’d like America to take away from France’s election it’s this, it’s the Republican Front. Take it away and apply it. Georgia’s 14th looks like an excellent starting point. America’s democracy needs it.

Author

  • Alexander Bowen is Director of Communications for the London Neoliberals and Founder of Tories for Climate Action. He is also a Politics & Government student at SciencesPo Paris.

Written by Alexander Bowen

Alexander Bowen is Director of Communications for the London Neoliberals and Founder of Tories for Climate Action. He is also a Politics & Government student at SciencesPo Paris.

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