Most Western countries are seeing increased dissatisfaction with the economic and political status quo. This has fed the rise of populism, destabilizing party systems and even democracy. The most recent twists in the French presidential race reflect this as well as some distinctive new features of French politics.
France’s Socialists are falling apart
One notable feature of the race is the crackup of the French Socialist Party (PS). Just like in France’s presidential election, the PS runs a two-stage primary (assuming no candidate wins a majority in the first round) in which the top two candidates go through to the second round. This time, two candidates with dramatically different views of the PS and its future, Benoît Hamon and Manuel Valls, got through to the second stage. Hamon, sometimes called the French Jeremy Corbyn after the controversial British Labour Party leader, is from the party’s left wing. He calls for a universal basic income, taxing robots, legalizing cannabis and decreasing the workweek; he is tolerant of immigration and a committed environmentalist. Valls, the prime minister, is the Tony Blair to Hamon’s Corbyn. He is pro-business, critical of “excessive” state regulations and the inefficiencies of the welfare state, and a strong law-and-order advocate. He also supports restrictions on headscarves and burkinis.
Although Valls was originally considered the front-runner, he was crushed by Hamon in the second round of the primary. The primary revealed devastating divisions in the party, with Valls and other “reformists” openly stating that they do not support Hamon’s policies. Some may even abandon the PS entirely.
This is merely the culmination of a long-term weakening of the PS. Like many other European center-left parties, the PS has swung back and forth over the past years between the “kindler, gentler” neoliberalism of Valls, which has sent working-class voters fleeing to populists, and the traditional leftism of Hamon, which many middle-class and centrist voters view as economically irresponsible. The result is a dramatic decline in support for the PS, a party with roots going back to the late 19th century, that has played a central role in modern French politics and given France its current president. Hamon is unlikely to make it past the first round of presidential voting.
The traditional right is in big trouble, too
The main party of the right, the Republicans, is imploding as well. Its candidate, François Fillon, was originally predicted to win the presidential race. Running on a platform of neoliberalism (he is an avowed admirer of Margaret Thatcher) and social conservatism (he is a committed Catholic who has expressed his discomfort with abortion and same-sex marriage), Fillon promised to get France back on its feet economically and restore traditional “values.” His (purported) personal honesty and integrity were also major selling points with an electorate increasingly fed up with a corrupt and out-of-touch political elite.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Fillon is very much a part of the self-serving elite that he criticizes. It is very likely that he paid his wife and children approximately $1 million for fictitious jobs. Nepotism is not illegal in France; indeed, it has long been an accepted perk of the political elite. But growing disgust with “politics as usual” seems finally to have made this practice — or at least the egregious version Fillon is accused of — unacceptable.
Fillon’s support has plummeted, and although he claims he is staying in the race, he may very soon be forced to quit. Fillon’s scandal revealed not only his own hypocrisy; it has made clear how deep the rot on the center-right had gone. The two most logical figures to replace Fillon, Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, have been involved in numerous scandals. There are no viable alternatives waiting in the Republicans’ wings should Fillon bow out.
So who is left standing in the presidential election?
That leaves the presidential race to two candidates running on anti-establishment platforms that reject the traditional left-right divide and promise to transform France from the bottom up. The first is Marine Le Pen of the National Front, running on a protectionist, welfare-chauvinist, anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalist platform. Le Pen claims that France is under attack from the “twin totalitarianisms” of globalization and Islamism, which only she is prepared to fight so that France again becomes a “free, independent and democratic country.”
The second is Emmanuel Macron, a young (39) charismatic former banker and socialist economy minister who is running as the candidate of his own political movement — En Marche! (On the March!). Although Macron has yet to publish his official program, he leans toward a “soft” neoliberalism, social liberalism, and is strongly pro-Europe. For his supporters, however, his appeal seems to have less to do with his specific policies than the fact that he is an outsider and can, like Le Pen, present himself as a candidate of “change.”
The appeal of Le Pen and Macron, in short, reflects the deep dissatisfaction that exists in France with the reigning economic and political status quo, the missteps of traditional political parties — the Republicans and the PS — and the corruption and elitism of the political class. Le Pen remains the single most popular candidate. Almost all the polls predict that she will win the first round of presidential elections April 23, but she will not get the majority that she would need to win outright. This means that there will probably be a second round, and Macron is not that far behind her. In the second round, most polls predict that Le Pen will lose because a majority of voters will not vote for her. This could catapult a candidate who has never held elected office and who lacks an established party behind him into the presidency.
The question, therefore, is: If Macron wins, can he govern? Will he be able to satisfy the apparent political demand for real change? It’s hard to know. Most obviously, to get anything done, Macron would need a majority in parliament, and that would require cultivating and running hundreds of candidates in the June parliamentary elections. If Macron succeeds, he could show that a candidate of the establishment center is capable of responding to the needs of disaffected and dissatisfied citizens. If he does not, however, then as in the United States — where Trump was the beneficiary of many voters’ disappointment with President Barack Obama — the populist right is likely to emerge even stronger. With the PS and Republicans in disarray, there would be less opposition to the National Front coming to power the next time around.