France offers an extreme case of the populist wave against governing elites that is sweeping many nations: In some ways, the incumbent leadership in France has been repudiated in every national election since 1981. In Sunday’s first round of presidential balloting, that repudiation was taken to a new level. For the first time, neither of the two main governing parties, the Socialists on the left and the Republicans on the right, has a candidate in the presidential runoff, to be held May 7.
On the left, incumbent Socialist President François Hollande, facing approval ratings as low as 4 percent, declined to run for reelection. The official Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, received a mere 6.3 percent of the vote, according to the latest estimates — the worst score by far since the party was founded nearly a half-century ago. In the past, the Socialists’ loss would have been the Republicans’ gain. However, the Republican candidate, François Fillon, who has been dogged by accusations that he paid family members about $1 million in wages for no-show jobs, placed third, with less than 20 percent of the vote. The parties that have governed France without interruption for 60 years earned barely 25 percent of the vote combined.
Outsider candidates dominated the first ballot. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left populist firebrand who has given the appearance of wanting to substitute alliances with Cuba and Venezuela for membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, received more than 19 percent — or more than three times what Hamon, the governing party’s candidate, registered. Marine Le Pen, the leader of a far-right, xenophobic party, the National Front, placed second with 21.4 percent, qualifying for the runoff. The winner of the first ballot, with 23.9 percent of the vote, was Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker and minister of the economy who has never held elective office and who created his own party, En Marche! (On the Move!), just a few months ago.
Why have outsiders fared so well? For starters, mainstream-left and mainstream-right governments have alternated in office for decades without producing any kind of viable solution to France’s most pressing problems, including double-digit unemployment, economic decline, a simmering underclass in the suburbs, terrorist attacks along with homegrown Islamist terrorism, and a loss of international influence and being eclipsed by Germany within Europe. Linking all of these problems, French elites have broken with the statist model that was associated with the postwar boom period and international influence, without substituting any coherent vision in its place. The French public and governing parties have long refused to embrace American-style neo-liberalism; northern European social democracy seems a world away for a country with no tradition of dialogue between the government and the social partners and the lowest rate of unionization in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and efforts to reform or reinvent France’s historical statist model have been largely stillborn. As a result, successive governments, whether of the left or right, are not only pursuing incoherent and unsuccessful policies but they also lack a vision or road map to guide those policies and explain them to the voters.
Macron and Le Pen are miles apart on just about every issue of importance. Whereas he is a liberal in the European sense, favoring individual liberty in both the economy and social mores, Le Pen is statist and authoritarian, proposing to all but halt immigration, “massively rearm” the police and “disarm” the troubled high-rise projects, and ban the wearing of religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves from all public places. The two finalists also disagree on the place of France in the world. Macron is an ardent Europhile who almost always has an E.U. flag in the background at his appearances. He was, by all accounts, the most pro-Europe of the 11 presidential candidates and wants to advance European integration by having a European budget and economics minister. Le Pen is an insular nationalist who has pledged to pull France out of the European Economic and Monetary Union, the Schengen Area, and — if she doesn’t get what she wants — the E.U. itself. Her election would clearly spell disaster for European integration.
A victory by Le Pen would be seen as part of a global populist trend embodied by the Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump, although it would not necessarily lead to closer relations with the United States. The National Front has generally been quite critical of the United States, and Le Pen has pledged to pull France out of the integrated NATO command. At the same time, she has continued the policy of her father, the founder of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, of cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Marine Le Pen praised Putin as a leader who has “cleansed Russia’s bureaucracy and developed an economic patriotism,” and she has opposed the imposition of sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. Perhaps coincidentally, in 2014, the National Front received a badly needed $10 million loan from a Russian bank, a loan that most assuredly required Kremlin approval.
The selection of Macron and Le Pen for the runoff may be a harbinger of a more far-reaching transformation of the French party system. Scholars like MIT political scientist Suzanne Berger have long argued that as globalization, European integration and immigration have become increasingly salient, the traditional anchors of the French party system, such as class and race, are giving way to a new political cleavage centered on France’s relationship to the outside world — on whether France is an open or a closed society, globalized or nationalist. The runoff between Macron and Le Pen would seem to offer precisely such a battle. Another take offered by Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke University, is that the terms of political competition are shifting: Whereas left voters traditionally combined statist economics with a more liberal, tolerant approach to social issues (racial equality, legalization of divorce and abortion, etc.), and right voters combined liberal economics with a more authoritarian approach to social issues, voters are increasingly gravitating toward either liberal positions on both economics and societal issues (immigration, LGBTQ rights, the place of Islam, etc.) or authoritarian positions on both sets of issues. Macron the liberal and Le Pen the authoritarian would seem to incarnate this new alignment. Of course, voters may just be flocking to Macron and Le Pen out of dissatisfaction with recent governments, as opposed to ideological conversion; it will take more than one election to find out. Either way, the foundations of party politics in France appear shakier than at any moment in recent history.
Macron is an overwhelming favorite to beat Le Pen in the runoff. Le Pen’s score on the first round was somewhat disappointing; she had been the front-runner for much of the campaign and was expected to benefit from a terrorist attack on the Champs-Elysees two days before the election. More important, although Le Pen has a higher ceiling than her father, who reveled in issuing provocative statements trivializing the Holocaust and other crimes of World War II, that ceiling is probably nowhere near 50 percent. Many French citizens view the younger Le Pen as an airbrushed version of her father, different in style but not substance. Already, the mainstream right and left are closing ranks behind Macron: The third-place finisher, Fillon on the right, and the fifth-place finisher, Hamon on the left, have called on their supporters to vote for Macron, as have many leaders in both camps, including Hollande and the prime minister. Opinion polls place Macron 20 to 25 points ahead of Le Pen, suggesting that she will do well to clear 40 percent in the runoff.
All will not be decided May 7, however, even if Macron is elected president as expected. While U.S. media have focused on the presidential election, the legislative elections on June 11 and 18 will be no less important and even more unpredictable. In the past, French voters have always “ratified the presidential election” by giving a majority to the president’s coalition in Parliament, but the president always came from one of the two main governing coalitions. By contrast, Macron’s political party is completely untested, and its ability to run legislative candidates unknown. Further complicating matters, in legislative elections, unlike presidential elections, any candidate receiving the support of more than 12.5 percent of registered voters can remain on the second ballot, meaning that candidates from three or even four parties could wind up battling it out.
Should Macron’s movement fail to secure a majority in Parliament, the best-case scenario would be that he would manage to cobble together a coalition with representatives from the mainstream left or right. The worst-case scenario would be what the French call “cohabitation,” that is, a president from one party facing a parliamentary majority and its appointed prime minister from another. Historically, under cohabitation, the president has ceded much of his power to the prime minister. In the most recent example, from 1997 to 2002, center-right President Jacques Chirac was essentially reduced to a figurehead, while the head of a leftist coalition, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, steered French policy. Past cohabitations only occurred when a new legislature was elected several years into the presidential term, however; Chirac had been president for two years when the left won the 1997 legislative elections. In the current context, with both an eventual President Macron and an opposition prime minister claiming a fresh mandate, it would be by no means clear who should or would stand down. In such uncharted political waters, anything could happen, from compromise, to stalemate, to constitutional crisis.