Neither the unpopular incumbent Socialist Party nor the scandal-ridden conservatives will win the French presidential elections this month. If the independent candidate Emmanuel Macron is to hold off Marine Le Pen and her far-right Front National, he will need to convince voters that he too represents change.
A record 43 per cent of French voters remain undecided and will determine the winners of the first round of the presidential election to be held on 23 April. The election is remarkable because of the unelectability of both the French conservative right and the socialist left. It is unprecedented because the second-round runoff will most likely be between an independent centrist and a candidate from the far-right.
The conventional narrative is that the French left, centre and conservative candidates will compete ferociously throughout the first round of voting, before the ‘republican’ leftists, centrists and conservatives form a voting bloc to prevent Marine Le Pen’s victory. That is what took place in 2002, when Jacques Chirac faced Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But this is not 2002, and the Front National (FN) has worked assiduously under Marine Le Pen to distance itself from its anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic past. The FN performed strongly during the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, taking 25 per cent of the vote. The message was clear: mainstream parties in prosperous, urban France could no longer ignore the demands of provincial and rural France.
Despite the change in leadership to Marine Le Pen in 2011, the FN’s core policies are unchanged: it broadly opposes immigration; espouses protectionism; and constantly appeals to French cultural and historical themes. In these respects, the FN has not abandoned many of its original policy positions from the early 1970s, although the FN of the elder Le Pen was explicitly anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic.
A family business
Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, an FN member of Parliament, has developed a high public profile in this presidential campaign. Marion is closer to her grandfather than her aunt: Marine declared recently that Marion was too conservative for a cabinet post in an FN government. Since 2016, the abortion debate in the FN has come perilously close to splitting the party, as ultra-conservative FN Catholics who support Marion have sought to pressure Marine into taking a harder line against public funding of abortion.
Under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, the FN ultimately expelled Jean-Marie Le Pen from the party in 2015, following controversial comments about the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the FN has kept its core supporters by retaining the policies that brought the party sustained electoral success from the 1980s. In addition, Marine Le Pen inherited a national party structure with sitting members of the national and European parliaments, which has provided the foundation for her 2017 presidential run.
In March this year, Marine Le Pen predicted the disappearance of the EU and pledged to renegotiate France’s membership of the bloc. She also committed to holding a referendum on EU membership if she could not satisfactorily renegotiate France’s membership terms.
Marine Le Pen’s problem has been that most the FN’s party members are more conservative than her, unwelcome ballast as she attempts to drag the party closer to the political centre.
The 2017 presidential election is also unprecedented because, for the first time in the Fifth Republic’s history, the sitting president will not stand for re-election. Noteworthy is the level of disarray on both the socialist left and the conservative right of French politics. On the right, Nicolas Sarkozy failed to make a widely-anticipated return to the conservative leadership. Instead, François Fillon, Sarkozy’s former prime minister, is facing electoral disaster amid a “fake jobs” scandal. In late March, Fillon’s wife was formally charged with embezzlement.
Monsieur Hollande’s holiday
The Socialist Party (PS) has not fared any better, due largely to the unpopularity of the sitting president, François Hollande, whose single term of office is likely to become a historical footnote. Had Hollande stood, he would likely have been crushed by Le Pen in the first round. Instead, the PS chose Benoît Hamon, who easily defeated former prime minister Manuel Valls in the PS’s primary runoffs in January.
Hamon represents the environmental and interventionist wings of the PS, advocating significant investments in renewable energy. It is unclear whether Hamon would roll back Hollande’s controversial labour market reforms, which proved electoral poison to the PS’s traditional supporters. Hamon also denounces neoliberalism and wants to implement a universal basic income—an innovation in French politics.
Marine Le Pen tries to appeal also to the traditional left. The FN has appropriated the antiglobalisation rhetoric of Hamon, as well as the PS’s opposition to the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the EU-Canada free trade agreement (CETA). The FN hopes to poach the votes of the disenfranchised left; conversely, Hamon seeks to win them back after Hollande’s “betrayal” so that he can mount a credible bid for the presidency in 2022. In France, successful presidential aspirants typically must make two runs at the office.
Neither left nor right
The PS essentially conceded defeat by late March. Manuel Valls had infuriated his party by breaking an internal agreement and declaring his support for the independent candidate, Emmanuel Macron. Subsequently, Hamon also broke ranks with his own party, asking the PS to support Macron. Macron’s En Marche! movement has proven the only campaign organisation capable of competing with the FN, with polls giving Le Pen and Macron approximately 26 per cent each of the first-round vote.
Macron is scarcely a political cleanskin—he held the economic portfolio in Valls’ government under Hollande. However, like Le Pen, Macron has carefully honed his image as an anti-politician. His weakness lies in his background; he is tainted by his association with the Hollande/Valls PS; he supported the unpopular labour market reforms; and his background as an énarque (a graduate of the École nationale d’administration, widely regarded as the graduate school for future French politicians) and former Rothschild banker marks him as a member of the power elite.
Macron’s program appears to be an atypical market-oriented ‘third way’ project. He has publicly declared that he is “not a socialist”. Like Le Pen, he states that his movement is an attempt to unite both the conservative and progressive wings of French politics. En Marche’s major policy document this year was pro-free trade but oddly agnostic on key issues such as Syria and EU integration. Nevertheless, Macron wants EU reform, claiming the eurozone will soon collapse without major changes. Macron has declared the EU needs a reform referendum.
Brussels, borders and Brexit
Free movement, immigration and border controls have been the route to success for both the Brexit and FN movements. Macron dealt with his campaign’s weakness by promising to deploy 5,000 European guards on the borders of the Schengen Area, more resources for the coast guard, and the return of unauthorised arrivals from transit countries. However, Macron maintains a strong allegiance to free movement of labour within the European single market and has taken a direct shot at Le Pen, declaring Europe’s security would “not be better served by closing national borders”.
A victory for Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections would give the FN significant electoral credibility. Le Pen has attempted to make the election about identity politics and to blame both the EU and globalisation for France’s ills. Conversely, Macron wants to harness globalisation to reignite the French and the European economies. By 23 April, it will be clear which ‘anti-politician’s’ message best reflects the French people’s aspirations.
Dr Remy Davison is Jean Monnet Chair in Politics and Economics at Monash University and a United Nations Global Expert. He is the author of The Political Economy of the Eurozone Crises and The New Global Politics of the Asia-Pacific (both forthcoming, 2017).
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.
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