There are four important takeaways from this election:
Lesson 1: This election was less surprising than others, but voter abstention is a noteworthy trend
As French scholars know too well, French citizens often surprise observers. That happened in the 2002 presidential ballot, when the Front National (FN) candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen, shocked France by coming in second during the first round, knocking the incumbent Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, out of the race. In a similar surprise, French voters rejected the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution.
But this year’s election was not a political earthquake. France is suffering from a slow economic recovery, with a 10 percent unemployment rate and only 1.2 percent GDP growth in 2016. With the rest of Europe, it faces an unresolved and unprecedented migrant crisis. Its two most recent presidents have been highly unpopular: Nicolas Sarkozy failed to get reelected; and François Hollande’s record as the most unpopular president prevented him from running again. And so a vote rejecting the establishment is readily understood.
In contrast to the recent British and U.S. votes, French pollsters called this one correctly. That was challenging, considering that 11 candidates ran in the first round, many of whom were quite close; citizens increasingly mistrust the media and pundits; and pollsters have been accused of “herding,” or adjusting their findings to match other pollsters’ results. The second-round polls, however, underestimated the actual size of Macron’s victory by eight to 10 percentage points.
But two trends are noteworthy: First, high numbers of citizens abstained from voting — or cast blank or spoiled ballots. The abstention rate was 22.23 percent in the first round and is expected to be 25.4 percent in the second round, once the official data are confirmed. That second-round figure would be the largest since 1969 — and the first time that voting participation failed to increase since that year. The anticipated 11.47 percent tally of blank or spoiled ballots, similarly, would be another record-breaking result.
The second big surprise was how large a vote share Marine Le Pen managed to achieve. Her vote tally increased from 21.3 percent in the first round to 33.9 percent in Sunday’s runoff. She brought in almost double her father’s vote share, which was 17.79 percent at its peak. Even though she lost the race, these achievements guarantee her political survival.
Lesson 2: The French party system is changing from within
Across the developed world, voters are making clear their disenchantment with political elites. So it’s no accident that all the candidates attempted to define themselves as anti-system. This was much easier, of course, for the parties of la France protestataire — the parties voicing fundamental disagreement with the political and economic status quo. Together, first-round scores for the extreme left, radical left (the France Insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon) and the extreme right amounted to 42.61 percent. That distrust has been accelerated by recent corruption scandals. For instance, François Fillon, candidate of the main right-wing party, was accused of nepotism (“Penelopegate”), with charges pending on embezzlement. And E.U. authorities are investigating Marine Le Pen, charging that she illegally used E.U. funding on her presidential campaign.
This anti-establishment impulse delivered two “unconventional” candidates to the race’s second round. But while neither Emmanuel Macron nor Marine Le Pen has previously held office, we can hardly call them “outsiders.” Although Marine Le Pen’s political views mark her as extreme, she is a political veteran. She was elected to the European Parliament, where she has served since 2004 and became FN president in 2011.
Macron is much more a political novice. He served as former President Hollande’s economics minister for about two years, but has little other government experience. He has never been elected to office but has all the elite connections: he graduated from École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the epitome of elite schools for senior civil servants, and was an investment banker at Rothschild & Co. His election to the presidency represents, so far, a change from within.
But this change has been underway for decades. The establishment parties have been losing votes since the 1990s, with the exception of 2007, which was a direct response to the “shock” of Jean-Marie Le Pen reaching the second round in 2002 (see figure). To avoid further bleeding, this time around both main parties held party primaries to select their presidential candidates, something new in France (only the Socialists had previously held a primary, in 2012). These backfired, however, and exposed the parties’ division and factionalism. Voters selected relatively extreme candidates — Benoît Hamon for the PS and François Fillon for the LR — who did not represent the center of gravity of either of the establishment parties.
Unable to energize an already-fractured electorate, the Socialists suffered a catastrophic blow in the first round by coming in fifth place, with a meager 6.36 percent of the vote. And though LR’s Fillon garnered 20 percent, it simply was not enough to get to the second round.
Both parties will now need to seriously restructure, but LR seems in a better place than the battered PS. Party labels may change — but historically, the party system, and the main political traditions associated with them, have been very stable in France.
Perhaps most interesting, Macron’s election has gone against the global tide of populist extremism and endorsed a functioning centrist discourse. This may be the biggest mark of France’s president-elect. His victory speech last night further stressed his differences with Le Pen’s extreme populism while striking a conciliatory tone that emphasized the need to govern for all French citizens alike.
Lesson 3: The French Fifth Republic has rebounded, but the Front National is no longer a fringe party
The single most important lesson from this election is the weakening of one unwritten rule of the French model: the “cordon sanitaire” imposed against the FN. By securing its first-ever political endorsement from a conservative politician — Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a dissident Gaullist — the FN has consolidated as a mainstream party. Similarly, the radical left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s refusal to join the “republican front” against the extreme right contributed to further normalizing the FN.
Not surprisingly, in her concession speech, Marine Le Pen announced a new political movement to carry her cause onward. It is too early to tell what her plans are exactly, but she has definitely carved a niche for herself. It seems likely that she will finally be able to break completely free from the shadow of her father (and her father’s party, the FN) by becoming a mainstream actor.
Lesson 4: It’s all about the June legislative elections
The biggest unknown now is whether and how Macron and Le Pen will transform their movements into solid party structures capable of standing in all 577 legislative districts. France’s current system makes it relatively easy for presidents to win majorities in the National Assembly. However, local notables and party structures are influential in winning local seats — and, therefore, in creating parliamentary majorities. To really start changing things, as he promised, Macron will need to build coalitions and a party.