Monday,18 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Monday,18 February, 2019
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Who will France vote for?

With just weeks to go before the first round of the French presidential elections, a clear frontrunner seems as elusive as ever

Who will France vote for?
Who will France vote for?

With only weeks to go before the first round of the French presidential elections on 23 April, commentators have been scratching their heads over the absence of a clear frontrunner.

Ordinarily, observers say, a plausible winner could have been expected to have emerged from the pack at this stage in the campaign, making betting on the next French president a good deal easier.

This time round, however, things have been thrown into question by the collapse in the polls of the two mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties, owing largely to internal divisions and allegations of corruption, respectively. This has left the way open for various anti-establishment figures to present themselves as radical outsiders wanting to shake up the system.

The first of these is extreme-right Front National Party leader Marine Le Pen, whose party, founded in 1972 by Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, has long positioned itself as the voice of the French little man, squeezed between a privileged and out-of-touch political class and the threat of economic impoverishment and unemployment.

Thus far, the Front National, in the past more a pressure group on a narrow range of issues than a fully-fledged political party, has not done well in national elections. “Although Jean-Marie Le Pen did progress beyond the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, he was decisively beaten in the second (and final) round by centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac.

Today, the Front National only has two MPs in the Assemblée Nationale, the directly elected lower house of the French parliament. But the upcoming presidential elections will be an important test of the party’s wider electoral appeal under Marine Le Pen, its leader since 2011.

Le Pen has been claiming in recent months that the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in November and the surprise result of the British referendum to exit the EU in June last year indicate a desire for change on the part of electorates in many Western countries and a distrust of established policy directions.

While there is still a refusal to make electoral deals with the Front National among France’s mainstream political parties, which see it as outside the consensus that has dominated the country since at least the 1970s, Le Pen, younger and more media-friendly than her father, has been able to carve out a space for the party’s ideas on the political agenda.

The second outsider and the man many commentators see as a possible future president is Emmanuel Macron, a former finance minister under current Socialist Party President François Hollande, but someone who has refused the label of the Socialist Party ticket.

Macron’s personal and political background makes him a less plausible outsider than Le Pen, who, aside from her position as a member of the European Parliament, has never held political office and leads a Party that has deliberately positioned itself off one end of the French political spectrum.

He is a former government minister and investment banker and a product of the French establishment, having been educated at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (“Sciences Po”) in Paris followed by the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in Strasbourg, a path that is a good deal less radical even than Oxford followed by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Yet, Macron has nevertheless positioned himself as an outsider, though one serving up the paradox of a radical programme that comes from the security of the centre. Could he be a French version of former British prime minister Tony Blair, some commentators are asking, his ideas a French reheating of Blair’s “third way” between socialism and capitalism?

Whether French Blair-ite or just warmed-up Hollande, Macron has been insisting that he is the providential figure who can save French politics, his personal political party En Marche! (Let’s Go!) having something of the appeal to especially younger people of former US president Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes We Can!” before the 2008 US presidential elections.

Whether Macron can persuade the older and more sober-minded that he has the policy prescriptions and political support in the French parliament that will be necessary to form a government and pass legislation is another question, though it is also one that is even more pressing on Le Pen.

The third outsider, this time in a more traditionally French radical mould, is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a firebrand speaker who has been positioning himself as the inheritor of the now-defunct French Communist Party and as having something of the romantic, tribune-of-the-people appeal of the leaders of the 1871 Paris Commune.

Like Macron, he has formed his own political party, La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France), this time modelled on the new and non-traditionally organised political movements like the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) and Podemos (“We Can”) that have been shaking up Italian and Spanish politics.

No one expects Mélenchon to be elected as the next French president, but the success of his campaign thus far with formerly Socialist Party voters has underlined the fragmentation of the French party system in general and the collapse of the mainstream left in particular.

This was brought home by Hollande’s earlier decision, unprecedented for a president under the French Fifth Republic, not to run for a second term in office, which was seized on by his opponents as an admission not only of personal defeat but also of the bankruptcy of the approach to politics that his party represents.

Mélenchon’s attempt to outflank the Socialist Party on the left, rejecting the Socialist Party label, echoes Le Pen’s strategy of trying to outflank the mainstream Les Républicains Party on the right while rejecting it as irredeemably compromised and unable to respond to public demands.

For the time being, these three outsider figures, each leading radical campaigns but from the extreme-right (Le Pen), extreme-left (Mélenchon) and “extreme-centre” (Macron), have eclipsed the more sober representatives of France’s established political parties, the Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon representing the mainstream left and the Républicains candidate François Fillon, representing the mainstream right.

Both the Socialists and the Républicains held primary elections late last year in order to select their candidates, with Fillon convincingly beating competitors former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister and foreign minister Alain Juppé for the party’s nomination. Fillon was prime minister during Sarkozy’s presidency from 2007 to 2012.

Hamon, standing against former Socialist Party prime minister Manuel Valls, saw off his Socialist Party competitors by capitalising on the unpopularity of the present government and the personal unpopularity of Valls. He has since been conducting a low-key campaign characterised by his inability to make an impression on the polls or to differentiate himself sufficiently from the uninspiring record of Hollande’s governments.

But what of the different candidates’ programmes, some may ask, over and above their positioning on the political map and their standing in the polls?

For those used to political systems in which there is a clear binary division between the governing and opposition parties, the French system, marked by ad hoc groupings, personal followings and even personal political parties, along with shifting coalitions within the traditional left-right division, can be rather confusing.

This confusion can be compounded by the unwillingness of the various candidates and party groupings to offer specific policy prescriptions, as opposed to engaging in what can appear as possibly rhetorically appealing, but nevertheless almost wholly vague, hustings posturing.

Perhaps it is for this reason that French voters have traditionally tended to remain loyal to a specific “family” of political parties or personalities, sometimes even voting along regional lines for local political barons. However, this system, linked to sociological divisions in French society, may also now be changing.

While public-sector workers, a huge constituency in France, have historically tended to vote for Socialist Party candidates, they may now be flirting with “third way” figures like Macron or Le Pen.

While the French business community has tended to make common cause with Roman Catholic traditionalists and small-town patriots in voting for the Républicains or other centre-right groupings going back to former French president Charles de Gaulle, they too may be leaning towards Macron or Le Pen after the disappointing performance of the official centre-right candidate François Fillon.

The latter’s woes are by now well-known, with allegations of the misuse of public funds while he was prime minister (and before that an MP) haunting the Fillon campaign. These have been a boon for Macron, Le Pen, and Mélenchon, since along with Hamon’s unfortunate air of even himself believing that he cannot possibly win, they may have convinced many French voters that some kind of outside change is necessary.

The success of these three outsiders has been reflected in the opinion polls, with the most recent ones, taken at the end of March, putting Macron in the lead at 26 per cent, followed by Le Pen at 25 per cent, and Mélenchon at 15.

Hamon, though the official candidate of the present ruling party, is at only 10 per cent, while Fillon has rallied to 17, still not enough to prevent his outsider competitors Macron and Le Pen going through to the all-important second round in the presidential elections.

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