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Are policies shaped by parties, or vice-versa? Issue visibility, political trade-offs and party transformations in France – PARTIPOL

Are policies shaped by parties, or vice-versa?

Issue visibility, political trade-offs and party transformations in France

A mixed-methods project exploring partisanship in French policymaking

The definition of policy alternatives for elections and an their effective implementation by the political agents entering office are core to the legitimation of liberal democracies. In a context of growing constraints, what is the room available for the formulation and the implementation of policy alternatives? The PARTIPOL project has searched for empirical responses to this question, based on a study of the French context. <br />The project was first about analysing the level of congruence between electoral promises and effective government policies. We were interested both in the aspects of agenda setting (were the problems on the government and parliamentary agendas the ones emphasized during electoral campaigns?), and in the substance of promises and decisions (do effective policies correspond to what was promised?). We also sought to identify factors of variations – said differently, conditions fostering or hindering the fulfilment of electoral pledges. Our third objectives was to overcome macro-level analyses so as to better identify the actual mechanisms linking party manifestos and public policy and account for causal sequences – as electoral promises may well be, themselves, affected by the party’s involvement in policymaking when in power. We were particularly interested in mechanisms linked with negotiations within governmental coalitions. A transversal objective was, eventually, to contribute to the emergence, at the French and at the international level, of a dense network of experts analysing the links between electoral programmes and public policy. <br />This comprehensive study, anchored in the growing, but under-explored research agenda at the juncture between studies of elections and policies, ambitioned to question the common diagnosis of a democratic crisis through an empirical assessment of the weight of elections in national-level policy decisions.

Our research design was adjusted to a largely exploratory context in which few clear findings were available and few theories could be considered as firmly established. We tried to forge and refine our hypotheses by sequencing large-N and small-N analyses. The first ones allowed us, at a very aggregated level, to first explore party-policy links through a large number of cases: analysis of the thematic profile of all electoral programmes (legislative and presidential) of successful parties and candidates since 1981 and of all laws adopted during their mandate; and a subsequent analysis of the fulfilment of all promises formulated in the president’s (or prime minister’s during cohabitation) programme since 1995.
These statistical analyses, associated to considerable theoretical and conceptual work, allowed to produce a set of hypotheses on the conditions likely to condition elections’ influence of government policies. These hypotheses represented an important milestone, but could be tested only roughly, without being able to account for causal mechanisms, and they required refinement. They have been exploited to target particularly fertile cases of electoral promises that were analysed qualitatively based on complementary sources (semi-directive elite interviews, archive sources) and methods (triangulation, process-tracing). This working package, more favourable to theoretical induction, did not only allow us to refine the hypotheses which emerged in statistical analyses, but also to formulate new ones.
Over the last months of the project, we returned to the macro-level of analysis and updated and extended out data basis on electoral promises to test the hypotheses which had emerged in the qualitative fieldwork.

The project generated multiple findings. Contrary to widespread perceptions, electoral promises seem to be treated seriously by elected officials. Parties and their candidates invest considerable and growing resources into their production. Electoral programmes have become more operational and more precise. They are much better fulfilled than one may think. In France, we observe a fulfilment rate of over 60% since 1995.
Our analysis of the agenda-setting role of electoral programmes (1981-2012) and of the realisation of N. Sarkozy’s programme to the 2007 election suggests that the fate of an electoral pledge depends both on officials’ capacity (technical, institutional, political) but also on their motivations (ideological, electoral and political) to use these resources to keep their word.
With respect to coalition governments, we observe a strong predominance of the electoral pledges formulated by the majority faction of the main government party.
Qualitative case studies (Special issue of the Revue française de science politique, 2018) have identified several conditions and mechanisms which were invisible at the aggregated (statistical) level. First, the non-realisation of pledges often result from obstacles which were not anticipated (or consciously ignored) when drafting the electoral programme. Our findings suggest nonetheless that the role of capacity, at least as a deterministic factor, should not be overestimated. The elected president can, among others, convert resources gained from his “democratic mandate” or from a strong popularity into political or budgetary margins for manoeuver. This latitude for underlines the importance of the motivations of the executive to keep its word. These motivations are also likely to evolve once the election is passed. Our case studies drew our attention to a central factor that has been neglected so far in the literature: the characteristics of the groups targeted (positively or negatively) by electoral promises.

The PARTIPOL project has allowed major advances in an understudied domain at the juncture between political sociology, electoral studies and public policy analyses. We have collected and exploited a vast set of varied and complementary data, with multiple results – the main one being probably the observation that an important number of electoral pledges is actually fulfilled. Our qualitative investigation has allowed to put these results into perspective and to reveal the mechanisms of influence, and actors’ perceptions and considerations. Analyzing pledges has allowed us to investigate the core of party governments and circles that are closely associated to executive power, which generated fascinating observations that have not all been already fully exploited in our publications. The PARTIPOL project will therefore continue, for many years to come, to nourish the research of the project team, but more broadly of the community that is currently emerging around the study of electoral pledges.

- Guinaudeau I. (2014) Toward a Conditional Model of Partisanship in Policymaking. French Politics, 12(3) : 265-281.
- Persico S. (2016) Déclarer qu’on va protéger la planète, ça ne coûte rien. Les droites françaises et l’écologie (1971-2015). Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques, 44, p. 157-186.
- Bouillaud C., Guinaudeau I., Persico S. (2017) Parole tenue ? Une étude de la trajectoire des promesses du président Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012). Gouvernement et action publique, 2017/3, p. 85-113.
- Direction (par I. Guinaudeau et S. Persico) du dossier d'avril 2018 de la Revue française de science politique consacré à la réalisation des promesses électorales, avec les contributions suivantes :
• Guinaudeau I., Persico S.: Introduction
• Cos R.: Dénoncer le programme. Les logiques du désengagement électoral au révélateur des privatisations du gouvernement Jospin.
• Deront E., Evrard A., Persico S.: Tenir une promesse électorale sans la mettre en œuvre. Le cas de la fermeture de Fessenheim.
• Guinaudeau I., Costa O.: Quelle est la cible? Les conditions de réalisation des promesses électorales distributives à la lumière de la hausse du minimum vieillesse de 2008.
• Guinaudeau I., Saurugger S.: Entrepreneurs politiques et engagement électoral. La loi LRU et le rôle de la Conférence des présidents d’université.
• Abrial S., Persico S.: Les coûts cachés d’une promesse incontournable. L’ouverture du mariage et de l’adoption aux couples de même sexe.
- Brouard S., Grossman E., Guinaudeau I., Persico S., Froio C. (2018) Do party manifestos matter in policymaking ? Capacities, incentives and outcomes of electoral programmes in France. Political Studies
- Guinaudeau I., Persico S. (à paraître) Coalition Politics in France : Presidential Leadership Beyond Parties. Dans : Bergman T., Bäck H. and Hellström J. (dirs.) Coalition Governance in Western Europe. Oxford University Press, 2019.

The links between parties and policies are key to democracy. Yet, since decades, representatives seem and claim to be increasingly constrained by other actors, international competition, European integration, aging populations, limited energy resources, and path dependence. How much room is there left for policy representation? Are policies (increasingly) made beyond politics? Are political jousts only about “acting out” antagonisms? PARTIPOL will scrutinize this apparent gap between normative theories and discourses of the legitimation of democracy, and practices of representation, in the case of France. The question of parties’ imprint on public policy is an old one, but, despite numerous publications, it continues to be difficult to answer empirically. The project departs from the observation that the long- and short-term political context in France, marked by regular and recent political alternations, offers an intriguing case of study to overcome the mitigated conclusions of the Anglo-Saxon “Do Parties Matter” debate. For this sake, we will draw on four innovative strategies:
1) A consideration of representatives’ and party elites’ conception of parties in democracy – against the background of their conception of the role of citizens, experts or interest groups – in order to put their practices into a normative perspective.
2) A refinement of the research question, with a focus on the conditions under which the partisan composition of government and parliament matters.
3) The adoption of a “soft” conception of causality, which implies devoting considerable attention both to the process of interest aggregation in party organizations, and to how parties’ involvement in office possibly feeds back on this process. Do policies matter?
4) The implementation of a fine-grained operationalization of both party preferences and public policies.

This enrichment and refinement of the “Do Parties Matter” research requires an ambitious empirical study. In order to account for how parties’ imprint on policies varies depending on the issue, we will focus on distributive, regulatory and redistributive issues with differing degrees of media visibility (nuclear energy; illegal immigration; generalized social contribution; wealth taxation; industrial patents; genetically modified organisms). For the sake of feasibility, the policymaking and the generated policies will be approached through the lens of the process of legislation. The four strategies listed above have guided the definition of a comparative, mixed-methods design, combining an analysis, issue by issue, of partisan discourses, adopted laws and of the media coverage, and interviews with members of parliaments and parties regarding the process of legislation, the role of parties, party preferences and identities, as well as how the involvement of party elites in the legislation process feeds back into parties.

This comprehensive study, anchored in the growing but under-explored research agenda at the juncture between studies of parties and policies, should provide valuable input into the current structuration of legislative studies in France. PARTIPOL seeks to shed light on ideal representations and practices of policy representation, “constraints” as a parameter and as a resource in the legislative process, parties’ and policymakers’ use of the media. We will also question the common diagnosis of a crisis of political representation with respect to low electoral turnout, the rise of anti-system parties and the fading trust in political elites, much of which is attributed to a lack of responsiveness on the part of government parties.

Project coordinator

Madame Isabelle GUINAUDEAU (Laboratoire Politiques Publiques, Action Politique, Territoires) – isabelle.guinaudeau@sciencespo-grenoble.fr

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


PACTE Laboratoire Politiques Publiques, Action Politique, Territoires

Help of the ANR 139,995 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: February 2014 - 42 Months

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