By William Debost. Originally published on 2012/11/10
A new French political party was born on Sunday, October 21st. The Union for Democrats and Independents (UDI) is a coalition of centrist parties that will be presided by Jean-Louis Borloo, a former minister under both Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidencies. Speaking to a large crowd in Paris, Mr. Borloo reaffirmed his ambition for the UDI: to become the next ruling party.
French centrism has had its share of success and failures in the past sixty years. It had a strong presence in the politics of postwar France. The MRP, founded in 1944, included Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of European integration. Centrist parties, which were multiple, suffered from the creation of the Fifth Republic and its two-ballot majority system, which encouraged bipolarity. In 1974, however, Valérie Giscard d’Estaing, a member of the center-right, was elected President. Four years later the Union for French Democracy (UDF) was created and won the legislative elections in coalition with the gaullist RPR. The UDF brought together republicans, liberals and social-democrats. Following Giscard d’Estaing’s defeat in 1981, the fragile UDF gradually fragmented. In the 2000s, many centrists joined the right-wing UMP of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Remaining optimists either stayed in second-rank centrist parties or supported François Bayrou, leader of a reformed UDF. Mr Bayrou came third in the 2007 presidential election, but he failed to capitalize on his success and committed political suicide by declaring that he would vote for François Hollande in the second round of the 2012 election.
Historically, therefore, French centrism has suffered from disunity and has lacked strong leadership. Its independence has been undermined by a consistent association with the right. Centrists have dragged on the image of “moderates relative to others” rather than shaped an identity of their own.
The time is ripe, however, for the emergence of a new centrist party. Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in this year’s election left his UMP party somewhat shell-shocked. As expected, it is now divided between a republican centre-right stream and a more socially conservative “popular right”. Meanwhile, President Hollande and his government’s approval rates are tumbling. Again, as expected, the socialist government has by no means reassured skeptics about the state of the French economy; the French are realizing that having a “normal” president isn’t that great after all, especially in the current state of economic stagnation and social tension. Finally, Bayrou’s demise, as mentioned above, has left a void in the centre.
The creation of the UDI will fill this void, but Mr Borloo, who was previously Minister of Economy and then for Sustainable Development, would do well to learn from the centre’s past failures. Firstly, the UDI is still by definition a Union, a mix of various centrist parties. History tells us that this is a shaky idea. It is already difficult for the French electorate to grasp the purpose of centrist politics. A coalition of parties makes it even more complicated. Mr Borloo should centralize the party, drop “union” for the concept of “unity”, and draft a program that all members agree on. Centrists should recognize that this is in their own political interest. Secondly, centrists need to start thinking about a leader who will carry their ideas into the 2017 election. Mr Borloo is the natural choice, as he is the most experienced and charismatic leader. He has made a couple of brilliant speeches in parliament since Hollande’s election, offering to cooperate with the socialists while cautioning them about the wrong direction they are taking. Still, competition should be open in order to perhaps find a more youthful candidate. Thirdly, the UDI must establish its independence. Borloo has clearly stated that the party will stand in the centre-right. Yet the party must aggressively distinguish itself from the right. For example, by confidently standing for European federalism and socially liberal policies. Meanwhile, it should maintain its attacks on the left regarding economic policy and the burdensome size of government. It should voice its preference for a business-friendly environment turned toward innovation and a sustainable economy.
In his speech, Borloo claimed that the birth of the UDI was “good news for those who want France to be open to Europe, to the world, for liberty and humanism”. These are grand ideas, but they are at risk of being quickly threatened in the current state of European affairs. The new centrist party has the potential to appeal to millions of French liberals and youth who believe in greater European integration and the need for self-criticism and reform. But it could just as easily honor the tradition of French centrism and fall apart.