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French Political Vocabulary for the US Elections

Is it election season again? Then you’ll want to learn French political vocabulary! Here’s the ultimate guide… but with a twist: we’re going to focus on the US political arena and the French terms used to describe it. Gerrymandering, swing state, Situation Room, Speaker of the House… it’s all here!

 

La Politique aux États-Unis… en version française

 

Tout d’abord, je m’explique. In this article, I’m focusing on US political affairs and how American political jargon is expressed in French. But why this unconventional approach, why not France, and why the US?

 

Widening Our Scope

 

First, it’s an issue of applicability. The truth is, if you don’t follow French political affairs or even live in France, you’re more likely to have conversations in French about the politics in YOUR country (or one you know well). This means we must widen our scope and see beyond just l’Hexagone.

 

Motivation Makes a Difference

 

Second, there’s a motivational and strategic reason. Over the years, I’ve learned that taking a non-French interest or hobby (in this case: the US elections) and re-learning it through a French lens can be very motivating. It’s new, yet familiar and fascinating, which makes this strategy very effective for learning languages. It’ll also increase the relevance of French to YOUR life and YOUR interests, wherever you are. In other words, it eliminates the “But I’m not in France or a French-speaking country” excuse!

 

An American Twist

 

As for the US, I selected American politics because 1) much of the terminology has applications elsewhere, including France; 2) it gets the most news coverage globally, so it’s less mysterious and an easier entry point; and 3) the French and other francophones often have a lot to say about it. That said, this is still just a jumping-off point because there’s a whole world of politics to learn about!

 

So, as unconventional as it is, my goal here is to contribute something new, different, and useful—but still entirely complementary to the traditional, francocentric approach to vocabulary. I hope this lesson will inspire you to expand your scope and consider how francophones cover politics everywhere. (Si vous êtes francophone, j’espère que vous pourrez, vous aussi, se servir de ce guide.)

 

Le vocabulaire

 

Key: Masculine / Feminine

Find a section:

Ideas | GovernmentPlacesPolitical Parties & Convictions | Congress | The Elections | The Vote | Voters | Candidates | Other Players | Electoral College | Election Campaigns | Election Debates | Election Day | Counting of Votes | Victory & Defeat | The Transition | InaugurationOther Expressions | More Resources

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• • •

Les Idées – The Ideas

 

le citoyen / la citoyenne – citizen
le gouvernement – government
la politique – politics
la démocratie – democracy
la république – republic

 

la Constitution – the Constitution
le premier (deuxième, etc.) amendement – First (Second, etc.) Amendment
la Déclaration des droits – the Bill of Rights
le Père fondateur – Founding Father
le système de freins et de contrepoids – system of checks and balances
la passation pacifique du pouvoir – peaceful transition / transfer of power
➠ PRO TIP: Other terms used: le transfert or la transmission pacifique du pouvoir.
la séparation des Églises et de l’État – separation of church and state
la séparation des pouvoirs – separation of powers

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• • •

 

Le Gouvernement – Government

 

le niveau fédéral – federal level
le niveau local – local level

 

l’exécutif – executive branch
le législatif – legislative branch
le judiciaire – judicial branch

 

le président / la présidente – President
le vice-président la vice-présidente – the vice president

 

le Congrès des États-Unis – US Congress
la Cour suprême des États-Unis – US Supreme Court

 

le mandat – mandate, but also: term of office (e.g. deuxième mandat = second term)
la législature – term of office (duration of one’s mandate)
⚠️ (FR) législature ≠ (EN) legislature. These are faux amis.

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• • •

 

Les Lieux – The Places

 

la capitale – capital city
⚠️ Ne confondez pas : la capitale ≠ le capital (money, capital)
le Capitole des États-Unis – Capitol Hill
⚠️ Ne confondez pas : le Capitole la capitale

 

la Maison-Blanche – the White House
l’aile ouest / la « West Wing » – the West Wing
la salle de crise – the Situation Room
la roseraie – the Rose Garden
le Bureau ovale – the Oval Office
le bunker – bunker

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• • •

 

Les Partis et les convictions politiques – Political Parties & Convictions

 

Image of American political vocabulary and party mascots

 

le Parti démocrate – Democratic Party
le Parti républicain – Republican Party
le Parti libertarien – Libertarian Party
le Parti vert – Green Party
le bipartisme – two-party system
le troisième parti – third party
⚠️ Ne confondez pas : le parti ≠ la partie (part of a whole, of a group)

 

l’échiquier politique – political spectrum
le centre – the center
la gauche – the left wing
la droite – the right wing

 

The following are both adjectives and nouns:
•  démocrate – democrat
•  républicain / républicain– republican
•  indépendant / indépendant– independent
⚠️ Notez l’orthographe française : independant
•  libertarien / libertarienne – libertarian
⚠️ Notez l’orthographe française : libertarien
•  libéral / libéral– liberal
•  progressiste – progressive
•  conservateur / conservatrice – conservative
•  centriste – centrist
•  modéré / modérée – moderate
•  extrémiste – extremist

 

… de nom seulement – … in name only
➠ républicain de nom seulement – Republican in Name Only (RINO)
➠ démocrate de nom seulement – Democrat in Name Only (DINO)

 

NOTE: French has different capitalization rules, so the issue of “big-D or small-d democrat” (and the like) may have to be explained more explicitly.

 

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• • •

 

Le Congrès – Congress

 

le Sénat – Senate
la chambre haute – upper house (Senate)
le sénateur / la sénatrice – senator
le chef de la majoritéla minorité au Sénat – Senate Majority / Minority Leader
le whip de la majorité / la minorité au Sénat – Senate Majority / Minority Whip

 

la Chambre des Représentants – House of Representatives
la chambre basse – lower house (House of Representatives)
le représentant / la représentante – representative, congress(wo)man
 PRO TIP: Représentants are also called députés.
le président / la présidente de la Chambre des représentants – Speaker of the House
 PRO TIP: In French, the Speaker is referred to as the “president” of the House of Representatives. More informally, he or she may also be called the leader (le chef, la cheffe) of the House.
le chef de la majoritéla minorité à la Chambre des représentants – House Majority / Minority Leader
le whip de la majorité / la minorité à la Chambre des représentants  – House Majority / Minority Whip

 

le redécoupage électoral – redistricting
le charcutage électoral – gerrymandering
l’obstruction parlementaire – filibuster

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• • •

L’Élection – Election

 

There are a couple of French words for “election,” each with a nuanced meaning:

1. l’élection – election
2. le scrutin – election involving ballots
3. la Présidentielle / l’élection présidentielle – presidential election

 

And as soon as the presidential election is over, conversations will shift to:

les élections de mi-mandat – midterm elections

 

Image of American political vocabulary and woman dropping vote into ballot box

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• • •

Le Vote – The Vote

 

French also has a few terms for the noun “vote”. And admittedly, there’s some serious semantics involved too. However, if you’re simply checking the news, you’ll find that the differences aren’t strictly observed. So, to be practical, just anticipate encountering these three words, especially in discussions of numbers or percentages of votes. Finally, pay attention to fixed expressions, where a specific word is preferred.

 

1. le vote
➠ le droit de vote – the right to vote
➠ le vote à main levée – vote by a show of hands

 

2. la voix – literally: voice
 la pêche aux voix  – fishing for votes

 

3. le suffrage
le suffrage universal indirect / direct – indirect/direct universal suffrage

 

Additional Reading: If you love semantics, these two articles (here and here) go into more detail about the differences between vote, voix, and suffrage.

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• • •

 

Les Électeurs – The Voters

 

l’électeur l’électrice – voter
le votant la votante – voter
le partisan / la partisane – supporter
le sympathisant / la sympathisante – sympathizer (not an active supporter)
l’indécis / l’indécise – undecided voter
la majorité silencieuse – silent majority

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• • •

Les Candidats – The Candidates

 

le ticket – the ticket
le candidat la candidate – candidate
le colistier la colistière – running mate
l’homme politique la femme politique – politician

 

le président sortant la présidente sortante – the incumbent president
le sortant / la sortante – the incumbent candidate
⚠️ Sortant means “outgoing” or “departing” (from sortir or “to leave”). However, it doesn’t necessarily mean the incumbent is losing and on his/her way out.
PRO TIP: You could also describe this candidate as the “current” position holder and use the adjective actuel.le. ? le président actuel

 

le concurrent / la concurrente – competitor
l’opposant / l’opposante – opponent, challenger
le rival / la rivale – rival
« l’outsider » – outsider

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• • •

 

Les Autres acteurs – Other Players

 

le directeur / la directrice de campagne – campaign manager
l’équipe de campagne – campaign team
le comité de soutien – Political Action Committee (PAC)
le la stratège politique – political strategist
le commentateur politique / la commentatrice politique – political pundit
le « fact-checkeur » la « fact-checkeuse » – fact-checker
le lanceur d’alerte / la lanceuse d’alerte – whistleblower

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• • •

Le Collège électoral – Electoral College

 

le grand électeur – elector, delegate (in the Electoral College)
le grand électeur infidèle / déloyal – faithless elector
« le vainqueur remporte tout » – winner takes all
PRO TIP: This can be explained as: le gagnant rafle tous les grands électeurs d’un État.

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• • •

Les Campagnes électorales – Election Campaigns

 

la campagne électorale – election campaign
la course à la Maison-Blanche – the race for the White House
l’État-clé / l’État-pivot – swing state, battleground state
l’État-baromètre – bellwether state
le programme électoral – platform
le meeting de campagne – political rally
la publicité politique – campaign ad
le sondage – opinion poll, survey
la cote de popularité – approval rating
la promesse de campagne – campaign promise
le « fact-checking » – fact check
⚠️ The French media use this anglicism freely, but to keep things 100% français, go with la vérification des faits.

 

la primaire – primary / caucus
le « caucus » – caucus
⚠️ The term caucus exists in French, but the one we associate with states like Iowa is often put in quotes or lumped together with les primaires.
la convention nationale – national convention
l’investiture du parti – party nomination
le débat présidentiel – presidential debate
la « surprise d’octobre » – October surprise
le jour du scrutin de l’élection – Election Day

 

•  briguer la Maison-Blanche – to seek the (US) presidency
•  se présenter … aux élections – to run for office
comme démocrate / républicain (etc.) – to run as a Democrat / Republican (etc.)
… contre quelqu’un – to run against someone
•  faire campagne – to campaign
•  s’adresser à ses partisans – to speak to one’s supporters
•  convaincre les indécis – to convince the undecided
•  gagner l’investiture du parti – to win the party’s nomination

 

Image of American political vocabulary and swing states

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• • •

Les Débats – The Debates

 

la Commission électorale fédérale – Federal Election Commission (FEC)
le thème – theme, debate topic
le téléspectateur / la téléspectatrice – TV viewers
le modérateur / la modératrice – debate moderator
PRO TIP: Le journaliste modérateur / la journaliste modératrice is the term used during the French election debates.

 

•  participer au débat – to participate in the debate
•  débattre – to debate
•  s’affronter – to clash
•  interrompre – to interrupt
•  se couper la parole – to cut each other off
•  couper le micro – to cut the mic / to turn off the microphone
•  esquiver la question – to dodge the question

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• • •

Le Jour du scrutin – Election Day

 

le bulletin de vote – ballot
le bureau de vote – polling place
l’urne (électorale) – ballot box
l’isoloir – voting booth
le vote anticipé – early voting
le vote par correspondance / par courrier – mail-in vote
le bulletin provisoire – provisional ballot
le vote nul – invalid vote (intentional or unintentional)
le
vote blanc – blank vote
le 
panachage – split-ticket voting
le 
sondage à la sortie des urnes – exit poll
l’
autocollant « j’ai voté » – “I voted” sticker

 

•  se rendre aux urnes – to go to the polls
•  faire la queue – to queue
•  voter pour / contre – to vote for / against
•  voter… par anticipation – to vote early
… par correspondance – to vote by mail
… en personne – to vote in person
•  déposer son bulletin de vote – to drop off one’s ballot
•  s’abstenir de voter – to abstain from voting

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• • •

Le Dépouillement – The Counting of Votes

 

le dépouillement – counting of votes
le recomptage – recount, recounting of votes
le vote populaire – the popular vote
le taux de participation – voter turnout
le duel serré – tight battle, close race

•  être au coude-à-coude – to be neck-and-neck
Coude-à-coude literally means “elbow-to-elbow.”
•  être en tête – to be ahead, to be in the lead
•  se jouer dans les États-pivots – to play out / to be decided in the swing states

Au coude à coude = literally: “elbow-to-elbow” = neck-and-neck.

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• • •

La Victoire et la défaite – Victory & Defeat

 

la victoire – win, victory
la victoire écrasante – landslide victory
la réelection – re-election
le gagnant la gagnante – winner
la vague (+ adjectif) – “wave” or large number of voters supporting a candidate or party
➠ la vague bleue
le raz-de-marée (+ adjectif) – “tsunami” or overwhelming turnout of voters supporting a candidate or party
le raz-de-marée démocrate, le raz-de-marée républicain
le raz-de-marée en faveur de… – heavy voter turnout for…

 

la défaite – defeat
le perdant la perdante – loser
le discours de défaite – concession speech

 

•  élire – to elect
•  gagner / remporter les élections – to win the elections
•  rafler – to sweep (states, votes, etc.)
•  rafler la mise – to win everything / to clean up
•  se déclarer vainqueur – to declare oneself the winner
•  perdre – to lose
•  être mauvais perdant – to be a sore loser
•  contester le résultat – to contest the result
•  concéder – to concede
•  surfer sur le succés de… – to ride on the coattails of…
•  faire basculer… l’élection – to swing the election
… le Sénat – to flip the Senate
… la Chambre des représentants – to flip the House of Representatives

 

Image of American political vocab and people celebrating election victory

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• • •

 

La Transition – The Transition

 

le président élu la présidente élue – the president-elect
l’équipe de transition – transition team
la session « canard boiteux » – lame-duck session
⚠️ Though many media outlets use this literal translation, the concept of the “lame duck” in politics remains foreign to most French-speakers. As a result, it’s often used with quotation marks and followed by an explanation.
PRO TIP: It’s also worth nothing that le canard boiteux is more commonly understood as a misfit or odd duck. Furthermore, in business, it can refer to a flailing, dysfunctional company.
le cabinet – Cabinet
la nomination (d’un candidat) – nomination
la confirmation par le Sénat – Senate confirmation

 

•  être nommé.e par le président  – to be nominated by the President
•  être confirmé.e à un poste par le Sénat  – to be confirmed for a position by the Senate

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• • •

L’Investiture – Inauguration

 

le Jour d’investiture – Inauguration Day
le 20 janvier à midi – the 20th of January at 12 noon
une capitale quadrillée – a locked-down capital
la sécurité renforcée – heightened security
l’hymne national – national anthem
la prestation de serment – swearing-in
la salve de 21 coups de canon – 21-gun salute
la mallette nucléaire – nuclear football
le discours d’investiture – inaugural address
la parade inaugurale – inaugural parade

les cent premiers jours – the First 100 Days

 

•  prêter serment – to take an oath

 

• • •

Autres expressions – Other Expressions

 

« J’accepte votre nomination. » – I accept your nomination.
« J’ai voté. » 
– I voted.
« Nous, le peuple
 » – We, the People
« Le peuple a parlé. » – The People have spoken.

 

•  manier la langue de bois – to use “wooden language” / to use lots of jargon, doublespeak, and weasel words to avoid sharing one’s real opinion or answering a question.
➠ This expression is often associated with politicians.
➠ This expression literally means “to wield the tongue of wood.”

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• • •

 

More Resources

 

Can’t get enough? Check out these resources:

 

2021 Inaugural Address (français) – The US State Department’s complete French translation of President Joseph R. Biden’s 2021 inaugural address.

 

Share America – A US State Department website (French version) with informative articles about the country. This link leads to the government and politics section.

 

TV5Monde – Élection présidentielle 2020 – Produced by the awesome folks at TV5Monde, this page features a collection of articles and videos on the 2020 US Elections.

 

• • •

 

Mastered all that French Political Vocabulary? (It’s a long list!) Looking for more vocabulaire to improve your French?

Find all my posts on French vocabulary right here! Packed with memorable graphics and designed to help you master those tricky noun genders and spellings, my lessons will make learning easier and show you the FUN in French!

 

© French à la folie.

 

All rights reserved. No reproduction or distribution of this content is allowed without the express written permission of the author.

 

FALF Guide: French Political Vocabulary

CategoriesVocabulary

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