The new French prime minister Dominique de Villepin has won approval
for his government with a vote of confidence in the National Assembly (here)
– not surprising, since his party, the Gaullist Union for a Popular
Movement (UMP), has a large majority in its own right. Also not
surprising was the fact that he promised to do something about France’s
chronic unemployment, or the fact that the opposition socialists and communists ridiculed his promises.

The surprising thing was the position of the other main party, the
Union for French Democracy (UDF), which absented itself from the vote.
Founded in 1978 by then-president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the UDF
aimed to displace the Gaullists as an umbrella group for the
centre-right, but it has usually been just a junior partner to the UMP.
This is the latest and most dramatic move by the UDF to move away from
that position and reinvent itself as a genuine centrist party.

Like Australia, but unlike most of its European neighbours, France has
lacked a strong liberal or centre party – the Radicals, who
traditionally played that role, dwindled to irrelevance after the
second world war. Voters who opposed socialism but were not
conservatives have been left without a natural home. But liberal
parties worldwide seem to be having a minor resurgence – witness the
Liberal Democrats’ strong showing last month in the UK – and the UDF
is hoping to cash in on the trend. Since last year, its representatives
in the European parliament have sat with the liberal group, not the

Australia seems to be the one country going the other way, with the
disappearance of the Democrats, and the Liberal Party making no attempt to live up to its name.