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French Elections For Members

17 essential French phrases to understand France's snap elections

James Harrington
James Harrington - [email protected]
17 essential French phrases to understand France's snap elections
France's President Emmanuel Macron casting his ballot in the 2024 European Parliament election. (Photo by Hannah McKay / POOL / AFP)

Here are some of the words and phrases that you may find helpful in following all the latest twists and turns in France's snap elections.

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France is in the grip of election fever as the most consequential - yet also unpredictable - elections in decades take place.

You can find all the latest in English HERE, but if you're either following French media or talking talking with your French friends, colleagues or neighbours then here are a few handy phrases to understand.

Législatives - these elections are parliamentary elections, where the voters are picking their local representative in the Assemblée nationale and therefore determining the make-up of the French parliament. They are known in French as les élections législatives or more commonly simply les législatives (pronounced roughly as lej-is-la-teev).

They are distinct from un élection présidentielle, which elects the president.

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Scrutin - Scrutin, pronounced scroo-tan, is a word used to describe the vote. Le jour du scrutin = the day of the vote. 

Sondage - Sondage, pronounced son-darjh, is an opinion poll. 

As is always the case, they should be taken with a pinch of salt - and pollsters say this election is a particularly hard one to call.

Aux urnes - Classical history rears its head every time there’s an election in France, with this snappy, headline-friendly term that dates back to antiquity.

Aux urnes - pronounced ohz urns – is the act of voting itself, and references the ancient Greek manner of voting, in which light or dark-coloured pebbles were placed into an urn to indicate a voter’s intentions. It basically means 'to the ballot box', but because its phrasing echoes the French national anthem's famous line of Aux armes citoyens it's used as a rallying call for people to vote.

Taux de participation - Taux de participation, pronounced toe de parti sipass-ion, literally means ‘rate of participation’. 

In an electoral context, this is used to describe the voter turnout – the percentage of the voting age population who cast their vote during an election. 

The opposite of a taux de participation is a taux d'abstention - toe dab-stenss-ion – abstention rate. 

Premier tour/ deuxieme tour - As in presidential elections in French parliamentary elections, there are two rounds of voting. These rounds are referred to as tours, pronounced tore

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In the first round (June 30th) the electorate can cast their vote for any of the official candidates, the highest scorers then go through to a second round of voting, which is held on July 7th.

READ ALSO How France's two-round voting system works

Dissolution - Britons in France, cast your mind back to history lessons in school, and Henry VIII’s ‘dissolution of the monasteries’, and you’ll be on the right sort of lines. In 21st-century French political terms ‘dissolution’ – pronounced diss-o-loose-eon – means winding up, or termination of the current parliament to prepare for the election.

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Front republicain - The concept of a 'Front republicain' – pronounced front re-publee-cahn – is far from new. It’s the idea that, when necessary, France’s mainstream parties put aside their differences in order to combat extremists, particularly those among the far-right movement.

It has been seen in the second round of the presidential elections of 2017 and 2022, when the final candidates were far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron – and in that context plenty of people who detest Macron and all that he stands for cast their vote for him because they considered the alternative, a far-right president of France, was much worse. This time, it is a bit more complicated than that.

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Pari fou - This is not a standard election phrase, admittedly. Pari fou - pronounced, pretty much as it’s written, parry foo – means crazy bet. 

It has been used to describe Macron’s decision to go to the polls – and it has the advantage of being short and snappy, so newspaper subs love it because it makes for a punchy headline.

Barrage - Another non-standard French electioneering term. A barrage – pronounced bah-rarjh – is a dam.

In today’s politics, it is being used to describe efforts to block the electoral path to power for the far-right parties. As in the headline: Emmanuel Macron appelle les électeurs à se rendre aux urnes pour faire barrage à l'extrême droiteEmmanuel Macron calls on voters to go to the polls to block the far right.

Triangulaire - technically translates as ‘a triangle’ or ‘in the form of a triangle’, but it has a very specific meaning in French politics and notably the 2024 parliamentary elections. It refers to a situation where there is a three person face-off for a district, after multiple candidates made it into the second round of the election.

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During the 2024 parliamentary elections, a large number of triangulaires occurred due to high voter turnout, whereas in previous years they have been rarer. There have even been a few quadrangulaire (four-person face offs).

Duel - More often, there are only two choices, or two candidates going head-to-head, for voters during the second round.

Désister - Translates as 'to desist' or 'to renounce', roughly pronounced deh-sis-tay. In the world of French elections, it refers to the moment where a candidate drops out of the race. This usually occurs if there is an alliance between the left, centre and centre-right, in an effort to avoid allowing a far right candidate into office by splitting the vote in a situation of a triangulaire or quadrangulaire

READ MORE: French elections: Will parties withdraw candidates to block the far right?

Cohabitation - technically translates to ‘cohabitation’ in English, and it can be used in many of the same ways as its anglophone counterpart, but in French it is more aptly defined as coexistence. The most common use of this term is political. When the president of the Republic is from one party, but the parliamentary majority is made up of the opposing party, then the French government enters a state of cohabitation - essentially a forced co-operation between two different parties. 

READ MORE: Coalition, resignation or shared rule? The possible outcomes of France's snap elections

Majorité absolue - A political party or group has an absolute majority in the National Assembly when it has more than half of the seats in the chamber, or 289 deputies out of 577 in total. This means that the party or group in question would not need to build alliances with minority parties, as they would be able to put through legislation using only their majority. 

Majorité relative - If no party manages to obtain at least 289 seats, then the group or party with the largest bloc in parliament holds the 'relative' majority. They would then need to build alliances or coalitions with other parties to pass legislation.

Vote blanc - This basically refers to turning in a blank ballot paper. As voting is not compulsory in France, come election time voters have the choice to simply stay away from the polls if they don't feel enthused about any of the candidates on offer. They can also cast a vote blanc, which involves going to the polling station, taking the ballot paper, ticking none of the candidates on offer and then sealing the paper in its envelope and posting it into the ballot box. It is a way to make it clear that you disagree with all candidates presented.

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Who's who in this election?

Renaissance - Emmanuel Macron's party, previously named En Marche. For the sake of convenience, they're often referred to simply as Macronistes.

Ensemble ! - The centrist parties that are involved with the Presidential majority (Renaissance, Horizons, Modem) fall under the banner 'Ensemble pour la République', or simply 'Ensemble !'

Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) - the newly created alliance of leftist parties, within the alliance are four parties;

La France Insoumise (LFI) - translating as 'France unbowed' this is the far-left party founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Parti Socialiste (PS) - the centre-left party. One of two that dominated French politics in the post-war period, producing presidents François Mitterand and François Hollande, these days it is much reduced. Current leader - Olivier Faure.

Les écologistes - the green party. Previously Europe Ecologie Les Verts, sometimes still referred to as (EELV) or Les Verts. 

Parti Communiste français (PCF) - the communist party. Greatly diminished from its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the party remains a force at a local level and has 22 MPs in the outgoing parliament. Lead by Fabien Roussel.

Rassemblement National (RN) - the far-right party. Founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen under the name Front National, the party changed its name to Rassemblement National (national rally) after le Pen's daughter Marine took over. She remains the party's presidential candidate but the party leader - and RN prime minister if the party wins a majority - is Jordan Bardella.

Les républicains (LR) - the second of the two parties that dominated post war politics (party of Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac and political heirs of Charles de Gaulle) this party too is greatly diminished. Originally centre right, it has moved sharply to the right in recent years under leader Eric Ciotti. Ciotti created an electoral alliance with the far-right RN which horrified many party members - it has resulted in a split with around 60 LR candidates standing as part of the alliance and 400 candidates standing against the far-right.

The above are the biggest parties and alliances, but there are others standing.

Reconquête - the 'reconquest' party is extreme right, founded in 2022 by TV presenter Eric Zemmour who regarded Le Pen as no longer being far enough to the right. Has many of the same immigration policies as RN but tends to lean more heavily into 'culture war' topics such as trans rights and left bias in schools.

Modem - the original centrist party headed by François Bayrou, now part of an alliance with Macron's party

Horizons - new centrists founded by Macron's former prime minister Edouard Philippe, who is strongly tipped to be the centrist candidate in the 2027 presidential elections when Macron himself cannot stand again

Lutte ouvrière - the 'workers struggle' party is far to the left, headed up by high school teacher Nathalie Arthaud

Union des démocrates et indépendants (UDI) - while it sounds like something you might have inserted by a gynaecologist, UDI is in fact a centre-right group founded in 2012. They've become more prominent at this election through allying with some of the Les Républicains candidates who are not part of the far-right alliance (essentially trying to regain some space on the centre right which has been squeezed by the Macronists).

Divers gauche/ divers droite - these are the candidates of the left/ right who are not aligned with any of the above groups (for either personal or political reasons)

Sans etiquette - a candidate standing as an independent is known as 'sans etiquette' (literally 'no label').

 

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