Obviously, a centre party is one which lies between parties of the left and of the right; but as these two terms are so elusive, so is ‘centre party’. The easiest examples to define are those in countries where politics is mostly dominated by the single dimension of economic policy, such as the Liberal Democrats in Britain and the Free Democrats in Germany. In the French Fourth Republic there were strong and clearly defined centre parties. In the Fifth Republic, however, the two‐round electoral system has tended to produce two coalitions. On the left, the Socialists may be regarded as more centrist than the Communists (though the label is seldom used); but which are the more centrist of the Gaullists and the non‐Gaullist right? A further complication comes from Scandinavia, where right‐wing parties renamed themselves ‘centre’ in order to increase their appeal.
Even in Britain and Germany, the ‘centre’ label can be misleading. The British Liberal Democrats are indeed centrist on economic matters (the leadership more to the left, those who vote for them more to the right) but socially liberal on a liberal–authoritarian scale. The Free Democrats are the most economically liberal (and therefore, on one definition, the rightmost) of the three main German parties.