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What’s the difference between the French and U.S. presidential elections? Political parties.

Consider a national election with the following four major candidates, from right to left:
– Populist far-right nativist
– Religious conservative
– Center-left technocrat
– Populist anti-corporate leftist

In the first round of the 2017 French presidential election, these four candidates received 21%, 20%, 24%, and 20%, respectively.

In the United States, these candidates were named Trump, Cruz, Clinton, and Sanders, and in a four-way race (with a bunch of minor candidates splitting the remaining 15% of the vote) they might well have garnered the very same proportions as above.

In the U.S. runoff, the populist nationalist and the center-left technocrat split the vote evenly, whereas in the French runoff, the center-left technocrat won two-thirds of the vote.

There are lots of differences between French and American politics, but I think the key factor here is party identification. The two major political parties in the United States are despised but they’re the only game in town, and once things got to the runoff, almost all the partisans voted for their party’s candidate. In France, though, one of the runoff candidates came from a fringe party and the other had no traditional party ties. Remember that, before being chosen as the Republican party nominee, Donald Trump had huge negatives among Republican voters, and he wasn’t so popular among Democrats either. In the U.S. general election of 2016, the Republican Party needed Donald Trump’s voters, but Trump needed the Republican Party. Together they managed to get the 49% they needed. In France there was no mainstream political party to do this job for Marine Le Pen.


  1. Phil says:

    Socialist Party candidate -> Minor candidate.


    On a more serious note: “In France there was no mainstream political party to do this job for Marine Le Pen.”

    The big difference is that unlike in the US political landscape, there is still quite a gulf between the moderate right-wing party (Les Republicains) and the far right-wing party (Front National).

  2. Hwold says:

    > The two major political parties in the United States are despised but they’re the only game in town

    Well, to be honest, that was also the case in France until those elections, where the only two “electable” parties were conservative right (RPR/UMP/Les Républicains) and the left (Parti Socialiste, which was populist left in a Sanders way in its communication (remember Hollande “I dislike rich people”), and technocratic in its practice).

    What happened here is that the populist left (Hamon) and the technocratic center-left (Macron) called for a divorce in the same way than the Front National and Les Républicains are kept separate. If I remember well, some Republicans have threatened such an independent candidacy should Trump win the primaries ; it is what happened here, and it worked because a sizable part of the Parti Socialiste defected and joined Macron (and also because Macron managed to get the support of center-right figures, like François Bayrou).

    • Ana says:

      Donald Trump’s threat to run as an independent should the GOP deny him, seems to be the matching moment between the two.

      The course of nativism is quite different in US & FR, the course of new politics changing two old parties into two new ones – less different, I feel. Call it a new cleavage – orthogonal to the old: if France may now have a new pair of parties, it should become aparent in the impending local electionls – the American twine seems to be changing in all but name.

      Just a thought

  3. Ecoute Sauvage says:

    The vote AGAINST is asymmetrical as well. Mme Le Pen’s party was disliked by many, but Mrs Clinton was detested personally, even by many who did vote for her, like Angus Deaton, who told the Financial Times “…Deaton is among those who sees Trump’s election — and the Brexit vote that shocked the UK earlier in the year — as a consequence of the arrogance of political elites. He is scathing about the Clintons, and Hillary Clinton in particular, for their links to a broken establishment.
    “One of the great benefits of the election to me is that I don’t have to pretend that I like her,” he tells me at one point, even as he confesses he reluctantly voted for her….”

  4. It’s not just about partisan voters. Fillon endorsed Macron. Cruz did not endorse Clinton. Seems like that’s a big difference too.

    • I mean your title is dead-on, its about the parties, but you focused on the voter side of the equation in the post itself. Is it because endorsements can be taken for granted, or is it because you think endorsements don’t matter?

    • Chris Wilson says:

      I think it’s implicit in what Andrew said about Trump needing the Party and the Party needing Trump. Endorsements are part of that equation.

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, when I wrote, “In the U.S. general election of 2016, the Republican Party needed Donald Trump’s voters, but Trump needed the Republican Party,” I was thinking that a big part of the story is that the Republican party stood by Trump. Not every endorsement matters but I think that, yes, in this campaign, the endorsement of the Republican party was necessary for Trump to have a chance.

      • I guess I was too focused on your phrase: “the key factor here is party identification.”

        It didn’t seem like the party’s nomination and the Republican label was sufficient for party identification to work its magic. Granted that’s one form of endorsement, but if prominent Republican Party leaders on this list sat on their hands and let the election run its course Trump as their nominee, my sense was that things would have turned out differently. Of course this is a silly scenario, because as you said “the Republican Party needed Donald Trump’s voters.” So, as I mentioned above, we can focus on the voter side of the equation, because we can take endorsements for granted. This is why the key factor is party identification.

        Anyway, Macron’s margin was so large, it’s difficult to imagine that Le Pen could have won with an endorsement from Fillon’s party.

  5. Ana says:

    ‘In France there was no mainstream political party to do this job for Marine Le Pen.’

    – or EM, unless you count the involuntary bleeding of the left.

    He drew votes from everywhere (below); if En Marche does the same in the impending locals, it will be a new first party of France.

  6. Edward Carney says:

    “The Economist” suggests Marine Le Pen might have done much better in the first round, if France had an electoral college:

    • Jonathan (another one) says:

      “if France had an electoral college” reminds me of the SNL skit “what if Napoleon had a B52 at Waterloo?” Since France was not formed as a federation of regions, I’m not sure what the point of this counterfactual is. Presumably, the candidates would have run very different campaigns.

  7. Vin says:

    Another big difference is that in the United States, the legislative and executive branches are elected together.

    IMO, if this was not true, Donald Trump would have lost by a big margin in the United States.

  8. Dan says:

    Also, these aren’t independent events! Trump was an anchor on Le Pen for good reason.

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