What’s in a name for French political parties in transition? | View

A great deal and not much, says an expert in French politics from Sciences Po Lyon.

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What’s in a name for French political parties in transition? | View

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By Alistair Cole

The far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s recent proposal to rename her party places her among a growing list of French political leaders attempting to reinvent themselves amid a lack of voter confidence in politics. Less than a year ago, Emmanuel Macron, then president-elect, rebranded the centrist En Marche! as La Républic en Marche. And the centre-right party recast itself as Les Républicains merely two years before that.

What’s in a name? As an observer of French politics for over thirty years. I am inclined to answer: a great deal and not much.

There is a degree of asymmetry. The most structured parties are least likely to change their name (though the causal relationship is blurred). The most personalised parties are far more permeable to name changes. And the newest organisational forms contest their status as parties, but seek in important respects to replicate party forms (and use state funding of political parties to facilitate this).

We can draw some conceptual categories and distinctions. The oldest established parties, in fact, have not changed name very often. The French Communist Party – Parti communiste français or PCF – resisted attempts to merge into a broader democratic front or party, the fate of its sister party in Italy. Retaining the title PCF was a marker of organisational continuity within the specific context of the French left. The name was a badge of pride, identity and meaning; the PCF was created as the French wing of the international Communist movement. Likewise, the Socialist Party resisted attempts to change its name for a very long time and maintained the original founding title Section française de l’internationale ouvrière (SFIO) until the electoral humiliation of 1969, when its candidate polled only 5.1%. Renamed Parti socialiste (PS) in 1969, the PS has resisted attempts to change the name ever since for similar reasons of nominal purity; and this in spite of pressures from reformist-minded politicians such as Michel Rocard and Manuel Valls. Maybe this is part of the problem, as defence of the name frustrated ideological and political evolution.

The further away the framing of an organisation as a political party, the more likely it is to change its name frequently. The name change is certainly seen as a solution to a real problem in the case of the Front national (National Front or FN); the FN label being indelibly associated with founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right creator of the party in 1972. It remains to be seen whether Marine Le Pen will succeed in imposing the new name, Rassemblement national (National Rally), which is fraught with legal and political dangers (the new name is already patented and her movement itself is divided over the decision). The intention, however, is to use the name change to broaden political appeal and enter one day into a coalition government.

The most obvious case of nominal instability is the Gaullists – the original presidential-rally-style party, defined by loyalty to a leader. They have changed their name on six occasions, usually reflecting a shift in leadership (Rassemblement du peuple français, Union pour la nouvelle République, Unions des démocrates et des républicains, Rassemblement pour la République, Union pour une mouvement populaire, Les Républicains). The myriad of centrist parties are forever changing their names – without making much difference to their electoral fortunes; it would be pointless to name them all here. We should note, in passing, the verbal radicalism of French political culture bears little relationship to its practice. That the “Radical Party” became the archetype rural and small-town conservative party is a case in point.

New parties, breaking the mould or claiming to, are the furthest from the party label. Recent examples include En Marche!, la France insoumise, Generation.s – all of which claim to mobilise beyond party, in social movements, citizens’ committees or via social media. The choice of more flexible organisational forms is partly a reaction to the loss of trust in traditional party organisations; the three formations mentioned above all had some links with the PS, through politicians, party managers or electors. More flexible forms – with names that do not contain the word party, or even movement – play to the distrust in political parties that is regularly expressed in opinion surveys. But they are also more adapted to new forms of political mobilisation, as demonstrated during the 2017 campaign by the mastery of new means of political communication such as YouTube by candidates Melenchon and Macron. On the other hand, the capacity for such movements to capture town halls and local government seats is in the main untested.

The real questions lie beyond party name, but the frequency of re-branding exercises is a signifier of the underlying mistrust in political parties. Looking back at the 2017 presidential campaign, one of the most extraordinary features was the vying for the anti-system, anti-party space on behalf of each of the leading candidates. Recent developments in Italy or Spain suggests that this might be symptomatic of a deeper crisis of trust in political organisations which might have negative implications for democracy itself.

Alistair Cole is a Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po Lyon.

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