France: the decline of traditional parties and the rise of internet-based movements

The results of the French elections are yet another historical event in a very short time interval: for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the two major political parties have been voted out of the race in the first round, something inconceivable until recently in a “politically conservative” country like France.

More broadly, the  French elections seem to be confirming a trend that we’re seeing elsewhere, ie. the (quick) decline of traditional political parties and, arguably, of the influence of career politicians.

Just a few months ago, we’ve witnessed an identical situation in Austria, where the final round took place between an independent and a far-right candidate, while the traditional centrist parties were left out. Italy, Spain, Greece and other European countries have been experiencing similar movements for some years, while on the other side of the Atlantic the US Presidency has been gained by a complete outsider to the political scene, adding to the “unprecedented” series of events we’re seeing lately. Why is this happening?

The analysts provide many explanations (some of which can be valid at the same time), but for efficiency reasons in this analysis we’re focusing on only one of them: the increased usage of internet and the social networks is continuously fragmenting the political power, as these channels provide unprecedented access to information and speaking platforms to alternative political movements. This trend can only continue and accelerate in the following years, which will make the political scene much more volatile and harder to grasp. It is therefore crucial to understand how to manage this dramatic distortion of the political sphere.

Over the past decades, France has come across as a country with a rather stable political system, with only two parties alternating to power and with very little need to form a broader governing coalition, as the electoral system allows the party that arrives at the top to easily control a parliamentary majority. The party apparatus of the conservatives and the socialists have been strong machineries that did most of the work for the candidates, mobilising the voters and acting as their main communication channels.

However, having the support of a party has actually proved to be more of handicap this time around. Macron has won the first round without the backing of a political party, building a political movement from (almost) scratch in just over a year, while the other two candidates with high or unexpected scores, Le Pen and Mélenchon, often criticised the traditional political parties. Macron, the liberal and pro-EU candidate, would not have been able to create his movement twenty years ago, when the internet was not around.

Mélenchon, for his part, created his own movement, La France Insoumise, in a bid to be more independent from other leftist parties. His movement was organised horizontally, and everybody could participate actively in the campaign through on-line platforms, such as Discord insoumis.

These anti-party platforms are clearly not limited to French politics. Last year, the election of the “newcomer” in politics Donald Trump was possible even against the strong opposition of some of the key figures in the Republican Party, proving that in the US too the party structures are not as influential as in the past. Similarly, in Spain, the left-wing political party Podemos (“We can”) and Ciudadanos (Citizens) are now playing a major role after decades in which politics has been “captured” by two traditional parties, conservatives and socialists. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is a party created largely via the internet which is now threatening to become the largest political force in the peninsula. 5SM aims to stay outside of the party system, campaigning against career politics with measures such as limiting the maximum number of parliamentary mandates to only two. Some of its elected officials also donate their salaries to support public works, which helps them capitalise further popular backing.

More generally, the role of the political parties has utterly changed since their establishment at the end of the 19th century. Parties are no longer a favoured source of information for individuals, nor the unique center of political socialisation. Nowadays, the range of sources of information has increased dramatically, undermining the traditional opinion shapers.

The outcomes are mixed: some voters take for granted whatever they are being “served in their (social media) plate” by all sorts of obscure sources, while others do have the patience to do their own research and check what the politicians have actually done, not being satisfied with listening to politicians’ cleverly-crafted (seemingly ambiguous) statements. What both these categories have in common, however, is that they trust and rely much less on the career politicians than their parents and grandparents were used to. As a result, the power is becoming more and more fragmented and volatile, moving back and forth between those who are able to make themselves better heard, especially via the internet.

That is not to say that the classical left-right and nationalism-globalism cleavages cease to exist. These cleavages do not change and the subjects debated stay the same, it is only the arena of the debate and the actors performing it that change. Politics is being “democratised”, as the internet and the social networks provide instant and broader access to information and allow political movements to be created quickly from very little. However, that does not mean that politics will automatically be better. It all depends on the accuracy and the quality of information that the citizens have access to. It is therefore crucial that the citizens have access to sources of information which present first-hand information that allows fact-checking.

To this purpose, at VoteWatch Europe we provide the public with the information they need in order to check how each of the 751 Members of the European Parliament and each of the 28 governments of the EU member states have actually voted on the key decisions that affect all of us. We also explain how these decisions are made, the trade-offs that needed to be done as well as who builds the political majorities that pass the decisions. In some cases our findings are surprising, as they contradict the messages that have been cleverly conveyed by some politicians or other sources.

Feel free to contact us to find out more about how your representatives are defending your interest in the EU institutions at [email protected].

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