La Course Au Centre: Policy Convergence and Partisanship in France, 1981-2002

Article excerpt

Policy convergence between the political parties and the perception among voters that there is little to choose between left and right may be factors in the declining levels of partisanship observed in many advanced industrial democracies, including France, where these conditions emerged in the 1980s. Drawing on both quantitative and qualitative data, this article analyzes changes in the actual and perceived level of convergence between the mainstream parties in France from 1981 to 2002. It finds evidence of increasing policy convergence over the period as a result of a combination of endogenous and exogenous factors. It concludes that left-right ideological labels are still important to voters, even though they too have moved to the center, and that many of them want to see a clear dividing-line between the parties. The blurring of the boundaries between left and right and the "reversibility" of the mainstream parties bas also enhanced the appeal of alternative and extremist parties.

Keywords: policy convergence, voters, political parties, left-right ideology, France


The erosion of partisan ties observed since the 1960s in many advanced industrial democracies has been attributed to a cluster of factors associated with societal modernization which accelerated in the postwar period. * Among these factors, the convergence or homogenization of social conditions and lifestyles has presented the established political parties with a number of challenges. In the first place, they can no longer rely on the solid support bases provided by socially-cohesive electorates, but instead have to broaden their appeal to attract voters from beyond the clearly-defined confines of their 'natural' class-based constituencies. Downsian theories of policy convergence and divergence in a bipolar party system predict that, in order to maximize votes, vote-seeking parties will converge on the position of the median voter who lies at the center of the voter distribution. (1) However, by gravitating toward this median ideological position, and possibly thereby renouncing a position of principle with which it has previously been strongly associated, a party exposes itself to the risk of alienating those of its voters who are furthest away from the median voter or most strongly attached to its previous ideological position. Left-wing parties in particular face an electoral trade-off between different groups of voters. With the decline of the working class, they have had to target the 'middle majority,' but by so doing they risk losing the support of their former core constituencies, who interpret the move to the center ground as a betrayal of the parties' ideological roots. (2) As a result of this course au centre, the dominant parties may end up offering very similar programs, thereby losing their previous ideological distinctiveness.

The perception among the electorate that there is little difference between the established parties, and hence a lack of choice, is likely to have an impact on the voter-party relationship for, as Hermann Schmitt and Soren Holmberg observe, "Partisanship grows best on ground well fertilised with ideological conflict." Schmitt and Holmberg further note that "when ideological conflicts between parties diminish, people's need of parties abates and partisanship becomes less intense". Similarly, declining levels of issue conflict undercut the relevance of the parties and might also be expected to lead to a loosening of partisan ties among the electorate. In the case of France, Schmitt and Holmberg found that by the 1980s political polarization was indeed declining and issue conflicts were low. (3) Between 1958 and 1983, by contrast, French political life was highly polarized. In the early years of the Fifth Republic, the growth of Gaullism led to rapid partisan alignment along a single "Gaullism/anti-Gaullism" dimension, and at the beginning of Mitterrand's first septennat the policies pursued by the traditional Left were radically different from those of the Right. …