Will France be all right in the center?

After the French presidential election, a look at our vocabulary for describing political parties.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on May 21, 2017.

The country where the terms “left” and “right” were first applied to the political spectrum has opted overwhelmingly for the center. Emmanuel Macron has been elected the youngest president in the history of the Fifth Republic

And he’s done it without a real political party behind him – just a sort of pop-up centrist movement called En Marche!

It seems to take the idea of “political movement” quite literally. Its name has been variously rendered in English as “Onward,” “On the Move,” or “Let’s Move!” No, wait: “Let’s Move!” was Michelle Obama’s fitness initiative. Pardonnez-moi.

As Mr. Macron and his team scramble to field a full slate of candidates for June’s parliamentary elections, this is a moment to consider our terminology for mapping the political landscape.

The terms “left” and “right” were first applied to politics during the French Revolution of 1789. In the National Assembly, supporters of the king sat on the right of the president of the assembly; supporters of the revolution, on his left.

Do we need new terminology to map the political landscape? And do we need to locate politicians on more than one axis? Maybe so.

Conservatives prefer limited government to give free markets room to work and keep taxes down. Liberals accept a bigger role for government to provide services the free market doesn’t. We can measure a country’s relative “rightness” or “leftness” by the government share of its gross domestic product.

Figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show the United States spent 37.7 percent of its GDP on government in 2015. For Germany, the number was 44.0 percent. France spent 57.0 percent. Any country with such a big government sector must be under stress, some may say. Coincidentally, though, Finland, a country widely admired for its competitive economy, spent exactly the same proportion as France.

No wonder commentator David Brooks has called the “old size-of-government question ... increasingly archaic and obsolete.” He has argued, “In country after country the main battle lines of debate are evolving toward the open/closed framework.” He also makes the case for an “individual/social” axis, with a scale running between rugged individualism and deregulation on one side to a stronger social safety net on the other.

And isn’t there room for an authoritarian/libertarian axis, too? Where do we map the cultural issues that drive so many votes? We speak today of the White House and both chambers of Congress as being under Republican control. But whatever the current president’s failings, ideologically inflexible he is not.

When President Trump told visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, “You have better health care than we do,” was he admitting a secret preference for a single-payer system, aka “socialized medicine”? Some observers thought so. 

In France on May 7, the center did hold. But going forward, the simple right-left political scale may not.

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