Five months after the surprise election that brought Donald Trump to the White House, it is now France’s turn to elect its President. On April 23, eleven candidates will compete in the first ballot for two spots in the decisive run-off two weeks later, on May 7.
Over the past few years the French have anxiously awaited this moment, not only because it would put an end to the failed presidency of socialist incumbent François Hollande but also because the election of a new President could provide an opportunity to put France’s sputtering economy and increasingly fractured society back on track. Many observers expected that the neo-Gaullist “Les Républicains” (LR), the dominant Center-Right party, would win the presidency and a parliamentary majority in a separate election in June. Former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé was considered the favorite to succeed Hollande. “Les Républicains” have been keen to bring about the profound economic changes a majority of French people have long expected, but which neither Sarkozy on the Right nor Hollande on the Left were able to deliver during their presidencies. While the popular National Front (NF) and its candidate, Marine Le Pen, have offered a more radical program, the assumption has been that, once again, voters across party lines will mobilize in favor of the more moderate candidate, as was the case in the 2002 presidential and 2015 regional elections.
This scenario unraveled with the surprise victory of François Fillon, Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister, in last November’s LR primaries. Two months later, the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé revealed that Fillon’s wife had received generous salaries for a fictitious parliamentary job, derailing Fillon’s position as the new favorite to win the presidency.
Amplified by social media, this scandal unleashed an anger against elites, persistently high unemployment, and social fractures that had been simmering for years in French society. Once thought only to fuel the rise of the National Front and Marine Le Pen’s candidacy, the winds of revolt have been blowing through every corner of the electorate and have imparted a new, more populist dynamic to the entire campaign. Even before a single vote is cast in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections, the campaign has triggered a process of profound renewal of political leadership, partisan boundaries, and ideological cleavages in French politics that could ultimately shake the foundations of the Fifth Republic.
Never before in the Fifth Republic have the odds regarding the outcome of the two presidential ballots been so unpredictable on the eve of the vote. Whereas in the past, the two favorites to qualify for the run-off emerged several months before the ballot and represented the leading parties of Right and Left (with the notable exception of 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen surprisingly eliminated the socialist candidate from the run-off), this time, no fewer than four candidates may still qualify. All four have been approaching the 20 percent threshold and are within the statistical margin of error. The candidate of the main party of the Left, the “Socialist Party” (SP), with a paltry 9 percent in the polls, is not even among them, and former favorite François Fillon scores third or fourth in the polls (although there are signs of a possible surprise comeback). The others are Marine Le Pen on the far Right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far Left, two extremist and populist candidates, who score an unprecedented 45 percent among likely voters.
The fourth, 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron, has risen as rapidly as Barack Obama and expresses the same promise of renewal for French politics that JFK did for the United States. But with 34 percent of eligible voters planning to abstain—in protest or out of sheer confusion—and 40 percent still uncertain about whom they will vote for, the volatility of the electorate precludes any serious predictions. The only predictable features of this campaign are that, among the 11 candidates, five are “énarques” (alumni of ENA, the elite school that trains senior civil servants and politicians) and another five are Trotskyists or former Trotskyists. Lampedusa had it right: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
This campaign has been dominated by a succession of surprises that put personalities, tactics, scandals, and social media in the driver’s seat, at the expense of a much-needed yet overshadowed public debate on the crises facing France. Even the current “state of emergency”, enforced for the first time during a presidential election in the wake of the massive terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016, has not prompted any semblance of a debate on Islamist terrorism and national security. In fact, no over-arching theme has dominated the campaign, despite the ominous challenges facing the country and the remote but real possibility that Marine Le Pen and her National Front could win the presidency. Any debate about the reasons why the FN’s momentum has strengthened over the years has been conspicuously absent from politicians’ discourses or in the media. Rather than questioning the political assumptions and practices that have led France to the brink or borrowing from the successes of other Western democracies, a large segment of the electorate prefers to return to ideological purity and utopian visions, as Le Pen, Mélenchon, and Hamon, three of the five leading candidates, illustrate. No wonder that 75 percent of French respondents consider this a “botched” campaign, with a lingering legacy likely to burden the future President. Instead of becoming an opportunity to solve France’s problems, as many had hoped, this campaign reflects the continuing deadlock that characterizes the political crisis.
How has this campaign so thoroughly reshaped French politics?
On the incumbent side, the Socialist Party, for the third time, opted for open primaries modeled after those of the United States, despite the expectation that President Hollande would seek re-election. But with a low of 9 percent in his approval ratings last fall, François Hollande was in no position to resist the demands of the left-wing of his party, which had revolted against him after he advocated a pro-business agenda. Last December, reformist Prime Minister Manuel Valls convinced Hollande that he would be the better candidate, forcing him to step aside—the first time this has occurred in the Fifth Republic. But even Valls grossly underestimated the anti-Hollande wind blowing in his own party: In last January’s primaries, he was roundly defeated by one of the anti-Hollande candidates, Benoit Hamon, a second-tier politician.
What mattered for the grassroots voters in the primaries was not so much choosing a leader capable of winning the presidential election, but “punishing” Hollande for having betrayed the values and core identity of the Left. The fracture between the reformist and the radical Left, which led to the implosion of the Hollande government in the first place, further vindicated Valls’ own diagnosis of “two un-reconcilable Lefts.” Hamon did not attempt to re-unite his party by re-centering his discourse: His goal was less to compete for the presidency than to re-build a Socialist Party solidly anchored on the Left after the June parliamentary elections, reflected in his program, which included a €400 billion “universal income,” a reduction of the work week to 32 hours, and lowering the standard retirement age to sixty. Thus mainstream socialists, including many Hollande cabinet ministers and Valls himself, gravitated toward the more centrist program offered by Emmanuel Macron.
Hamon also resisted voters’ pressure for a merged candidacy with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far Left. Their agendas are not far apart and certainly much more radical than that of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries. But each candidate was eager to capture the lead in the reconstruction of the Left after the electoral cycle ending in June.
The result for the Socialist Party is Hamon, a weak, uncharismatic candidate anchored on the narrow bedrock of its Left-wing in direct competition with the better known and more charismatic Mélenchon for the soul of the “real” Left. In the final stretch of the campaign for the first ballot, Mélenchon’s superior eloquence, posture of revolt, and creative social media operation have propelled him far ahead of Hamon. In flocking to Mélenchon, Left voters expect their so-called “tactical vote” to prevent their most dreaded outcome: a run-off between far Right Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron. For the hard Left, both candidates embody their “bêtes noires”: nationalism and fascism on the Right versus betrayal of the Left by the architect and implementer of Hollande’s pro-business policies (and a former Rothschild banker to boot).
Shrinking support, fragmentation and radicalization are likely to end the life of the Socialist Party as we have known it since it was re-invented by François Mitterrand in 1971 to pave the way for his own victory in 1981 and that of his protégé François Hollande in 2012. Its demise would accelerate if Mélenchon pulls ahead of Hamon in the first ballot, as forecasted, and if Macron, thanks in part to the exodus of many moderate socialist voters, wins the presidency and draws many incumbent deputies to his side in the legislative elections.
For the first time, the Right also chose to organize primaries despite the fact that they fly in the face of Gaullist philosophy. However, primaries appeared inevitable to settle the rivalry between Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé and unite the party behind a strong and legitimate candidate to face Marine Le Pen. Juppé insisted on an open primary in order to dilute the pro-Sarkozy base of the party. To contrast himself with the Right-leaning Sarkozy and to anticipate his run-off strategy in the subsequent presidential election, Juppé chose to campaign on the Left of his party, even appealing to constituencies outside LR. That fatal mistake gave Fillon, a less polarizing figure than Sarkozy who is closer to the party’s center of gravity than Juppé, his opening: Fillon rode on LR’s small but cohesive socially conservative base, which was recently mobilized against the socialist-supported gay marriage law. He also offered a clear and ambitious free-market economic program, including eliminating half a million civil servant jobs, the 35-hour work week as well as the wealth tax, and cutting €100 billion of public spending. The neo-Gaullists chose in Fillon their most anti-Hollande candidate. Armed with the legitimacy of a clear victory in the primaries as well as an ambitious and credible program, Fillon immediately succeeded Juppé as the election’s overall favorite.
The scandal that cut short Fillon’s momentum two months later revealed that the primaries had deepened divisions among the various candidates as much as they had seemingly united LR behind their new champion. These divisions between the Fillon, Juppé and Sarkozy camps facilitated the exodus of supporters of the losing candidates toward Emmanuel Macron and, to a much lesser extent, Marine Le Pen. The same divisions also prevented LR from agreeing on a replacement candidate after Fillon lost between 7 and 8 percent of his support in the wake of the scandal (although Fillon himself deserves credit for his spectacular resilience in countering the putsch). On both the Left and Right, the choice by the base of a hard liner as the nominee (reminiscent of the U.S. primaries) shrank the appeal of the party and its candidate and fostered the dispersion of their traditional voters among candidates of other parties, Mélenchon on the Left, Le Pen on the Right, and Macron in the middle. Hamon and Fillon were “squeezed” between two other candidates who became potential options for their supporters. In each camp, the volatility of the electorate, instead of decreasing as the vote nears, is on the contrary continuing to climb to unprecedented levels in French presidential politics.
More than Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron was the main beneficiary of the results of both the primaries and the Fillon scandal. Between February and March, Macron climbed from 13 percent to 26 percent in the polls, just as Fillon went from 32 percent down to 17 percent. By contrast, Marine Le Pen gained “only” three or four points but consolidated her lead. The nomination of Hamon and Fillon opened a wide space in the middle of French politics, where Macron positioned his new, fledgling movement “En Marche” meant to be the vehicle for his candidacy. In fact, the surprising circumstances of the campaign justified Macron’s boldness and vision in founding a new movement that allowed him to run as an independent, resigning his position in Hollande’s cabinet, and declaring his candidacy for the presidency this past December. Macron avoided the socialist primaries because he knew his social-democratic, market-oriented reformism would not be in sync with the rebellious Socialist Party. He rightly bet that his mentor, François Hollande, would realize he was too weak to seek reelection. Then, all heavyweights among his potential rivals in the political Center were defeated in the primaries, including Alain Juppé on the Right and Manuel Valls on the Left. François Bayrou, who more than anyone embodies centrism in French politics and ran three times for the presidency, surprised observers and Macron himself by deciding not to run. The icing on the cake came when Bayrou simultaneously offered Macron his full and active endorsement.
Macron managed somewhat successfully to present himself as an “anti-system” and “revolutionary” candidate (the title of his recent book is Revolution), an approach one would think was more suitable for Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This shows us exactly how much chutzpah Macron can muster. After all, he was a high civil servant trained at the elite school ENA, a member of the even more prestigious “inspection des Finances” corps, and a former investment banker at Rothschild before becoming Hollande’s main economic adviser and Economy Minister. As such, Macron embodies both the political and business establishment as well as a certain continuation with the Hollande policies that he himself devised. He shares the same social-democratic and reformist vision as Hollande and Valls, with the noticeable difference that, having run on a reformist platform, he would not be perceived as betraying his electoral base. It is not political philosophy that separates Macron from Hollande but his political vision and method: for Macron, Sarkozy and Hollande failed because they had to rely on all-Right or all-Left majorities in parliament. He believes that the Right vs. Left dichotomy has lost its relevance in French politics: One half of France cannot be pitted against the other, and in any case each camp is split down the middle by deepening cleavages between anti-European sovereigntists and nationalists, on the one hand, and globalist reformers, on the other. Bringing the progressives together in the middle around compatible ideas is Macron’s approach to achieving meaningful reforms. Yet, so far, his proposals have stood out for their fuzziness and carefully balanced appeal to both Right and Left.
One could argue that splitting the political spectrum in three instead of two has many disadvantages as well. As illustrated in the Fourth Republic by the “Troisième voie” (the “third way”, already!), central governing coalitions make alternations of power either impossible or dangerous, since they can only benefit the extremes. The other downside of Macron’s centrist path would be to add to the social chasm a political one as well—between the well-educated, moderate elites in the middle and the more populist and protectionist Right and Left on the fringes. But should he win the presidency, Macron would be the first to do so in the institutional context of the Fifth Republic, which has encouraged bi-polarization, notably through two rounds of elections with only the top two candidates (presumed representing the Left and Right) competing in the run-off.
Like the Center, the far-Right is another strain of French politics that has successfully been marginalized by the Fifth Republic, at least until Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front in 1972 and began to make his mark on French politics in the 1980s. In 2002, it took only 18 percent in the first ballot for Le Pen to qualify for the run-off. With the same score in 2012, his daughter Marine finished a distant third. Yet, the Hollande presidency has been fertile ground for the FN: It achieved its best results ever, 28 percent of the vote, in the 2014 and 2015 local, European, and regional elections, a gain of 10 percent over Marine Le Pen’s 2012 presidential performance. With a wide and deep geographical presence, 43 percent of the working-class, 35 percent of the youth, and 37percent of the farmers’ vote, the NF has arguably become the leading political party and certainly its most dynamic one. It broke into the duopoly formed by the neo-Gaullist and Socialist parties to create a third major political force in France.
Yet one of the many surprises of this presidential campaign is that Marine Le Pen, despite often leading in the polls and without a doubt representing the greatest potential challenge to France and Europe, has not stood at the center of this campaign. In contrast to Fillon’s misfortunes and Macon’s spectacular rise, Marine Le Pen’s campaign has been in line with what was expected. Marine Le Pen and her party have become familiar fixtures of French politics and it was widely anticipated that she would do well in this race. In fact, unlike most parties, the NF has an undisputed leader, a clear ideology and program, and thousands of motivated activists. The FN behemoth is not susceptible to scandals, such as the one involving Marine Le Pen’s staffers at the European parliament, since such scandals are not enough to keep new voters away; rather, they only reinforce the assumption among the rank and file that their party and leader are the unfair scapegoats of the sinking political establishment.
There is a second reason why Marine Le Pen’s candidacy has not received all the attention it might have deserved: the widely shared assumption that she would qualify for the run-off. She has consistently scored above 20 percent in the polls, climbing above 25 percent and even 28 percent in the wake of the Fillon scandal. She has led in the polls more often than Fillon or Macron. About 80 percent of her would-be voters say they will not change their mind, more than Fillon and 25-30 percent more than Macron, Hamon, or Mélenchon. Half of Macron voters say they will vote for him as a default, not as an expression of support. With Marine Le Pen considered a shoe-in for the run-off, the campaign’s focus has been on the rivalry between her challengers, especially Macron and Fillon. As a result, Marine Le Pen and her ideas have not become the main target of her rivals or the media. The battle between her opponents will leave scars that could fissure an anti-Le Pen front in the run-off.
A third reason why Marine Le Pen’s profile did not hang over the other candidates is that she has never been considered a likely winner of the run-off. No poll has ever shown Marine Le Pen in a close race with any match-ups for the run-off, with the exception of Mélenchon early on. Of course, this does not prevent a majority of French voters from believing that she has a chance to win. But being a formidable first-round candidate with a strong and loyal base of support is seldom enough in French presidential races; winning the run-off has always required being able to gain votes from the losers of the first ballot, and Marine Le Pen has none. Whether Fillon or Macron, her opponents will be able to draw from others to form a bloc against the far-Right—the rationale behind the “tactical vote.” Of course, the scenario that unfolded in 2002 and 2015 might not work in 2017. Even if she is not the favorite to win the run-off, Marine Le Pen will regain a central role in the campaign.
Arguably, foreign observers had more reasons than their French counterparts to put Marine Le Pen center-stage. She and her party are much less familiar overseas than in France, and her victory would have a far greater international impact than that of any of the other candidates. From a distance, it is easier to concentrate on the “elephant in the room”. Americans and others also tend to view this French election through the lenses of the recent Brexit and Trump victories. But in France, the dynamics expected from the upheavals of the campaign and the two-round electoral system center around the serendipitous local context.
The high volatility of a disenchanted and confused electorate has been a key feature of this campaign. The vote itself is expected to be marred by a high level of abstention, especially in the first ballot, as well as a strong strategic calculation to defeat Marine Le Pen. As a result of having four candidates running neck to neck in the polls for the first ballot, that “tactical vote”, unusually, will come into play in the first ballot against the two extremist candidates, Le Pen and Mélenchon.
Traditionally, the second round of presidential elections amplifies the dynamics at work in the first. The crucial televised debate usually contributes to it. However, extrapolating the run-off from the first ballot might be insufficient or even misleading this time around: the rise of the FN next to LR and the SP means one of the three political forces in the country will be left out of that decisive confrontation, a key difference with the United States. The electoral dynamics and cleavages will be more unpredictable than ever. This is why polls taken before the first ballot, which all show Marine Le Pen losing by a wide margin, have limited credibility.
Let’s examine the scenario in which Marine Le Pen qualifies for the run-off. In addition to the scores of all eleven candidates in the first round (most supporters of the losing candidates will turn out in the run-off), four key variables are likely to shape the final outcome: turnout, the potential “hidden” vote, the “tactical vote”, and the overall dynamics of the campaign. The conventional wisdom is that a depressed turnout (the average has been 20 percent) would benefit Le Pen, who has a low yet solid and reliable electorate. But a reverse argument is that, since the sociology of the FN electorate overlaps with the sociology of abstention (young, working-class), Marine Le Pen will have the largest reserve of voters of any candidate should she prove able to mobilize them. Recent regional elections in France and national ones in the Netherlands have shown that high turnout has put a lid on the rise of populist candidates. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, support for Hillary Clinton seems to have been overestimated, especially among the young and African-Americans, while Donald Trump’s support among the working-class was underestimated. Could Le Pen benefit from a similar surge of voters “hidden” from the pollsters? Although possible, this is unlikely. Pollsters no longer need to adjust the results of their surveys to take account of the embarrassment of FN voters to disclose their opinions; such reluctance to respond has waned now that the FN has become an established party and surveys are conducted online.
What, then, about the prospects for a “tactical vote”? How tight is it likely to be? Strong mobilization against Jean-Marie Le Pen emerged in the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, with incumbent Jacques Chirac receiving the overwhelming support of the Left and winning with a stunning 82 percent of the votes against 18 percent for Le Pen. In the upcoming run-off, history will not repeat itself: the FN under Marine Le Pen is a more “normalized” party, and the French electorate as a whole is more divided than ever before. The Left is repelled by Fillon almost as much as Le Pen. Fillon is under examination by the judiciary, does not hide being a practicing Catholic and living a bourgeois lifestyle, and is proposing a radical liberalization of the economy, including the elimination of half a million civil service positions. For the hard Left, Macron is guilty by association with Hollande’s most pro-business policies and was an investment banker. Only about 40 percent of Fillon’s first-round voters would support Macron, while the other 60 percent would be equally split between Marine Le Pen and abstentions (or blank ballots). But a weak “strategic vote” would still not be enough to take Marine Le Pen to the Elysée palace.
A face-off between the two extremist candidates of the Right and Left, Le Pen and Mélenchon, would naturally be the worst possible scenario, for both politicians are statist, protectionist, and anti-capitalist. They reject the European Union, NATO, and the U.S. role in the world yet are fascinated by Vladimir Putin (not to mention Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in Mélenchon’s case). Both programs are un-realistic, ruinous, and dangerous. Such a match-up—and its likely electoral result—would trigger a political crisis of unexpected proportions in France as well as in Europe, a severe financial crisis in the Eurozone and beyond, Transatlantic tensions, and, ultimately, the unraveling of the European Union.
The level of abstention would be high, perhaps 40 percent or 45 percent. Most centrist Macron voters in the first round would be inclined to abstain, and only a fraction of Fillon and Hamon voters would cast their votes for Marine Le Pen and Mélenchon, respectively. Extreme political rhetoric and street violence could degenerate into major social upheaval. Unrest would be reinforced by the fact that Le Pen and Mélenchon’s electorates are disproportionately young and working class.
If Marine Le Pen qualifies for the run-off, let’s hope that she faces either Fillon or Macron. Attacking Fillon on the grounds of embezzlement of public funds would probably expose Marine Le Pen to easy reprisals. Fillon is likely to look experienced and statesmanlike in comparison to her. Unlike Marine Le Pen, he would obtain a majority in the June parliamentary elections. Fillon’s main asset is the credibility of his economic program, which most voters believe is the only one ambitious enough to turn the French economy around. Both candidates would inevitably clash on Europe, since one is a free-market reformer and the other seeks to exit the euro. Among the 68 percent of French citizens opposed to leaving the euro, many are seniors (a large Fillon constituency) who fear for their savings. Marine Le Pen is well aware of the electoral liability of her proposal and might change tack in the run-off to broaden her support.
On the rising issues of law and order, immigration, the integration of Muslims into French society, and the preservation of French culture, the approach of the two candidates partly overlaps, but Fillon will be able to exploit the extreme, dangerous, and unpractical nature of Le Pen’s proposals.
Against Macron, the opposition would be even more frontal. Macron has long been Marine Le Pen’s preferred opponent for the run-off because he embodies the political cleavage she believes has replaced the obsolete Left vs. Right one: sovereigntists and nationalists versus pro-Europeans and globalists; losers vs. winners of globalization; secularist vs. multiculturalists. Her goal would be to turn the race into a referendum on Europe: Since 2005, when the referendum to ratify the European constitution was defeated in France (and the Netherlands) by narrow margins, Euro-skepticism has gained strength throughout Europe. The NF would also target Macron for representing the continuation of Hollande’s policies (Fillon has successfully coined a new name for Macron: “Emmanuel Hollande”) and a former investment banker. Macron has downplayed the critically important issues of crime, immigration, and French identity while making two controversial statements—one denying the existence of a French culture, the other denouncing, on Algerian soil, the former French colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity.” The FN is convinced a majority of French people would fall into its camp on all such statements and issues.
The run-off campaign would underscore the radical contrast between their constituencies: Both disproportionately attract the young, but Le Pen disproportionately draws the least-educated and most economically challenged while Macron appeals to the highly educated, better off, more urban, more mobile, and entrepreneurial. In a recent computation of a “Happiness Domestic Product,” Macron’s supporters were at the apex, Le Pen’s at the bottom.
Four highly uncertain rounds of election, including the legislative ballots in June, are now set to unfold before we know the shape and direction of France’s next government. Let’s hope the French will make the best use of them.