France: The First Round

April 25, 2017

Pollsters proved so successful at predicting the result of Sunday’s French presidential first round that it would be easy to overlook its many unsettling significances. That the Front National’s (FN) Marie Le Pen has reached the final of the contest represents change of a lesser order than most accept: her father did so in 2002; symbolic resignation aside, she is the leader of a political dynasty that has troubled France for decades. And while Le Pen is no part of the usual French establishment, she is as much a representative of a certain political class as the other remaining contender — the ex-Rothschilds, ex-Elysée, classically-educated, Emmanuel Macron.

Regardless of their advantageous backgrounds, however, the upcoming legislative elections in June will be difficult for whoever acquires the presidency on 7 May. Although the position of president is, institutionally, very strong in France, its holder remains reliant on the Assembly to pass legislation — and both finalists would face problems in constructing a reliable majority. FN has worked hard across the country, yet has always struggled to win deputies, partly owing to a system that favours bipartite results. Macron has no established party behind him: he will gain coalition support from across the spectrum, but left the Socialist Party (PS) to set up his action group, ‘En Marche!’, which he has claimed will field a full set of candidates in June.

The constitutional reforms of De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic were intended to end the instability of the previous governmental system’s endless elections and weak coalitions. Talk of institutional reform is by no means new to France, but what effects should we expect from the coming president? Le Pen has called for a strengthening of the executive, and an increased number of referenda. A Macron victory could also end with demands for change, not least as he would presumably also depend on plebiscites in order to pass whatever he wasn’t able to push through the legislature.

Moreover, structural flaws, a permanently poor labour-market performance, and overdue need for public-sector reform has left France’s economy fragile. This infirmity is exacerbated by the challenges of integration, and a growing attraction to nationalism. The wider problems of Europe provide an even greater threat, however. On Sunday, nearly 45 per cent of voters (in an almost 80 per cent turnout) chose candidates — Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon — for whom euroscepticism is a defining feature. This is unsurprising: Frexit is not the unthinkable dream of a few. France is at the heart of the European project, and is often omitted from the list of South European countries seen to have been devastated by the euro — it shouldn’t be: French youth unemployment runs at over 25 per cent.

Sunday’s result also carries significance for the two main parties, which, in various instantiations, had dominated French politics for decades. The Socialist Party’s (PS) candidate, Benoit Hamon, gained only six per cent of the vote. And Francois Fillon — Les Républicains’ (LR) representative, whose progress, after a strong start, was afflicted by corruption allegations — only just beat the Communist-backed Mélenchon into third place, and clearly failed to convince the Le Pen voters to whom he could have appealed as a candidate willing to address issues of religion and immigration.

The combination of Hamon and Fillon’s parties typifies a lazy description of the French political landscape, however — showing that the old spectrum is, once again, proving outdated. And, although Macron is to as many a third-way Blairite, as Le Pen is a collectivist protectionist, these finalists are also seen to override traditional descriptors. Of course, the left-right narrative was never perfect: it simply offered us useful signifiers to know how we might fit against each other. But France was where that narrative was born, in the seating pattern of its Revolutionary Assembly.

The new division is typically described as liberal/authoritarian or system/non-system. These are helpful terms, too — although, again, they fail to explicate the complex reasoning behind the beliefs and electoral actions of the modern French electorate, with its 47 million individual players. It is also misleading to attempt easy comparisons between French voting patterns and those of Britons in the Brexit referendum, or Americans in last year’s presidential election. Nonetheless, internationally evident feelings of frustration with various versions of the status quo, and fears about access to employment and wealth, should not be ignored.

Yet much of Sunday’s voting in France was about something else. The opportunity that Macron offered to beat Le Pen was always the most likely reason for his ascendancy. It had long been assumed that the controversial FN leader would reach the final round of the presidential contest, and many voters’ principal objective was to prevent her overall success. Indeed, it has been suggested that two thirds of Macron voters voted for those reasons. One clear takeaway from Sunday’s result is, therefore, that Le Pen divides the nation. And it is important to note that, while few will be surprised that many young people supported Macron and Mélenchon, a disproportionate number also voted for Le Pen.

If Macron turns out — as a superficial candidate propped up by the press and excitement — simply to symbolise a sticking plaster against the rise of Le Pen, then those fearing her eventual dominance should not sit back. He will almost certainly be elected President in two weeks’ time, but has no substantial agenda on which to carry through the structural reforms France needs. And when he fails to manage its deep-set problems — and those of Europe as a whole — then what next? The French electorate is clearly increasingly worried about the loss of sovereignty and lack of democratic accountability inherent in membership of the European project. If the euro collapses, the EU falls apart, another financial crisis materialises — or his electors just recognise that he represents little more than continuity-Hollande — how will Macron cope? Le Pen will be waiting on the sidelines, keen to find out.

Sunday may have represented a good result for the pollsters, but others celebrating prematurely should take pause for thought. Those scared of Le Pen should not feel relief — and neither should those who still believe in the EU. This is not over yet.

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