French political life has long been ruled both by considerations of political theory and by the demands of political expediency. Traditional issues such as the separation of church and state help to distinguish between right and left, but otherwise the lines separating all but the extremist political parties are difficult to draw. One result of this has been the proliferation of political parties, another the assumption by political parties of labels that seldom indicate any clear-cut platform or policy.
Broadly, since the late 1950s, French politics has been dominated by four political groups: the Gaullists, an independent center-right coalition, the Socialists, and the Communists. After the parliamentary elections of 23 and 30 November 1958, the first to be held under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the largest single group in the Assembly was the Union for the New Republic (UNR), which stood for the policies of Gen. de Gaulle, elected president of the republic for a seven-year term in 1958. Independents of the right were the second-largest group, and the Christian Socialists (Mouvement Républicain Populaire) and several leftist groups followed. Only 16 members were elected by the center groups, and only 10 Communists.
In the November 1962 elections, the Gaullist UNR scored an unparalleled victory, polling 40.5% of the total votes cast. As a result of the elections, several old parliamentary groups disappeared, and new groups emerged: the Democratic Center (Centre Démocratique) with 55 seats; the Democratic Rally (Rassemblement Démocratique), 38 seats; and the Independent Republicans (Républicains Indépendants—RI), 33 seats. The UNR and the Democratic Workers Union (Union Démocratique du Travail—UDT), left-wing Gaullists, agreed to a full merger of their parties and together controlled 219 seats.
In the first presidential elections held by direct universal suffrage in December 1965, President de Gaulle was reelected on the second ballot with 55.2% of the total vote. In the March 1967 general elections, the UNR-UDT gained 246 seats against the Socialists' 116 and the Communists' 73. Following nationwide strikes and civil disturbances by workers and students in the spring of 1968, new parliamentary elections were held in June, in which de Gaulle's supporters won a sweeping victory.
The Union for the Defense of the Republic (Union pour la Défense de la République—UDR) emerged as the new official Gaullist organization. Political movements of the center joined to form the Progress and Modern Democracy group (Centre-PDM), while Socialists and the democratic left united under the Federation of the Left. Of the 487 Assembly seats, the UDR won 292 seats; RI, 61; Federation of the Left, 57; Communists, 34; Centre-PDM, 33; and independents, 10.
On 28 April 1969, following the defeat in a national referendum of a Gaullist plan to reorganize the Senate and regional government, President de Gaulle resigned. He was succeeded by former premier Georges Pompidou, a staunch Gaullist, who won 58% of the vote in elections held on 15 June 1969. During the Pompidou administration, Gaullist control was weakened by an alliance between the Communist and Socialist parties. In March 1973 elections, the Gaullist UDR lost 109 seats, falling to 183 of the 490 seats at stake. The Communists and Socialists increased their representation to 72 and 103, respectively. The remaining seats were won by the RI (55) and by centrists, reformists, and unaffiliated candidates (77).
On 2 April 1974, President Pompidou died. In elections held on 5 May, Gaullist candidate and former premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas was defeated, receiving only 15% of the votes cast. The leader of the leftist coalition, François Mitterrand, received over 11 million votes, and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the leader of the RI, over 8 million. However, as neither had won a majority, a runoff election was held on 19 May. Giscard, with the help of Gaullist votes, defeated Mitterrand by a margin of 50.7% to 49.3%. Jacques Chirac of the UDR was made premier, with a cabinet made up mainly of RI and UDR members.
A new Gaullist party, the Rally for the Republic (Rassemblement pour la République—RPR), founded by Chirac in 1976, received 26.1% of the vote in the second round of the 1978 legislative elections, winning 154 seats in the National Assembly. That year, the centrist parties had formed the Union for French Democracy (Union pour la Démocratie Française— UDF). The federation, which included the Republican Party (Parti Républicain), the successor to the RI, won 23.2% of the vote in the second round of balloting, giving the centrist coalition 124 seats in the National Assembly. The Socialists and Communists, who ran on a common platform as the Union of the Left, together won 199 seats (Socialists 113, Communists 86) and 46.9% of the vote. Independents, with the remaining 3.8%, controlled 14 seats, for a total of 491.
In the presidential elections of 26 April and 10 May 1981, Mitterrand received 25.8% of the vote on the first ballot (behind Giscard's 28.3%) and 51.8% on the second ballot, to become France's first Socialist president since the 1930s. Within weeks, Mitterrand called new legislative elections: that June, the Socialists and their allies won 49.2% of the vote and 285 seats, the RPR 22.4% and 88 seats, the UDF 18.6% and 63 seats, the Communists 7% and 44 seats; independents won the remaining 2.8% and 11 seats. In return for concessions on various political matters, four Communists received cabinet portfolios, none relating directly to foreign affairs or national security. The sweeping victory of the left was, however, eroded in March 1983 when Socialist and Communist officeholders lost their seats in about 30 cities in municipal balloting. Meanwhile, the Communists had become disaffected by government policies and did not seek appointments in the cabinet named when a new Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius, was appointed in July 1984.
The National Assembly elections held in March 1993 represented a major defeat for the Socialist Party and their allies. The RPR and UDF won 247 and 213 seats, respectively, while the Socialists were reduced to 67 seats. The Communists also suffered losses, securing only 24 seats. Minor parties and independents won 26 seats. In cantonal elections held in March 1985, the candidates of the left won less than 40% of the vote, while candidates on the right increased their share by 10–15%. The Socialists lost 155 of the 579 Socialist seats that were at stake. As a result, the Socialists introduced a new system of proportional voting aimed at reducing their losses in the forthcoming general election of 16 March 1986. The Socialists and their allies nevertheless won only 33% of the vote and 216 seats out of 577 in the expanded National Assembly. The RPR, the UDF, and their allies received 45% of the vote and 291 seats. The Communists, suffering a historic defeat, split the remaining 70 seats evenly with the far-right National Front, which won representation for the first time. The Socialists remained the largest single party, but the coalition led by the RPR and UDF had a majority; on that basis, Mitterrand appointed RPR leader Chirac as prime minister, heading a center-right government. Following his defeat by Mitterand in the May 1988 presidential election, Chirac resigned and a minority Socialist government was formed.
In 1995, Jacques Chirac was elected president, defeating Socialist Lionel Jospin. In 1997, one year before they were scheduled, Chirac called for new parliamentary elections, hoping to achieve a mandate to inaugurate his policy of fiscal austerity. Instead, the Gaullists suffered a stunning defeat by the Socialists and Communists, leading to the appointment of Jospin as prime minister. In those elections, held 25 May and 1 June 1997, the Gaullists saw their parliamentary presence decline from 464 seats to 249; the Socialists (and related splinter groups) went from 75 seats to 273; the Communists from 24 to 38; the Greens from no seats to 8; and the far-right National Front maintained its single seat.
Presidential elections were held in April and May 2002, with Jacques Chirac defeating National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round, taking 82.2% of the vote to Le Pen's 17.8%. Jospin had come in third behind Le Pen in the first round, a major defeat for the left. In the National Assembly elections held in June, Chirac's RPR united with the Liberal Democracy party (formerly the Republican Party) to form the Union for the Presidential Majority, and won an overwhelming majority of seats, taking 357 to the Socialists' 140. The National Front failed to win a single seat; the UDF held 29 seats and the Communists took 21. The Greens held only three seats.