Why the French Election Matters

By Jimmy Quinn

This spring’s presidential election here in France is shaping up to be the most consequential in recent history.

Perhaps looming most significantly over this year’s discourse is the specter of right-wing nationalism. Marine Le Pen promises to bring a Eurosceptic, “economic patriotism” to the Front National’s bid for the Elysee (France’s presidential palace) free of the overt racial controversies that plagued her father’s tenure at the head of the party. She’ll propose a referendum on French membership in the European Union as president, possibly leading to a “Frexit,” and will take steps to limit immigration to France. A Le Pen victory would contribute to the narrative du jour of an unstoppable nationalist tidal wave crashing across the western world. Needless to say, her victory would be a game changer.

She’s currently leading in the polls. In France candidates must reach an absolute majority of the popular vote to win the presidency. Candidates rarely receive more than 50% of the vote in the first round, thus triggering a runoff vote between the two highest receivers of the vote. Recent polls show Le Pen on top, followed by former prime minister Francois Fillon and former finance minister Emmanuel Macron.

Fillon won the primary of the center and the right in a startling victory thanks to a strong performance in the televised debates. He represents a very traditional wing of the French right that appeals to France’s notably Catholic electorate. He’s seen as a champion of traditional values and free market ideals by his followers, but he’s been accused of  proposing an “ultra-liberal” agenda (this is a slur in French politics) for arguing that 500,000 public sector jobs be terminated by his detractors. His general election campaign came off to a rough start after he unveiled policies to curb social benefits, and he’s now embroiled in a controversy regarding payments to his wife by his parliamentary office.

Macron, the ambitious former finance minister under President Hollande, slightly trails his right-wing rival in most polls. He left the government to form his own political movement last summer with the heavy implication that it would be his platform to seek the presidency without the baggage of the Socialist Party. The En Marche movement, meaning “onward” in French, has been described by Macron as “neither of the right nor of the left.” It’s a centrist force that Macron hopes will serve as a balance to Le Pen’s nationalism (En Marche is a forceful advocate for European integration), as well as the conduit through which he can realize his personal ambitions.

Both Macron and Le Pen have played up what they consider to be a shift in the political debate. They say that the traditional divide between left and right has been supplanted by a newly sharpened divide between nationalism and globalism. A contest between the two in the second round would reveal the extent to which this is true.

Many in the PS feel betrayed by Macron’s self-promotional political instincts and blame him for contributing to the already precarious electoral position of the French left. When Hollande announced his refusal to seek a second term in December, he had an approval rating hovering around 4%. Benoit Hamon’s victory in the primary of the left this past weekend shows a shift from the pro-market instincts of Hollande’s term. In fact, Hamon won precisely because he was a departure from the president’s more moderate wing of the party, beating Hollande’s former prime minister in the primaries.

The insurgent socialist candidate was successful in pushing an unapologetically left wing agenda, which included a proposal for a universal basic income and a tax on machines to counter the effects of mechanization on the workforce. Even if Hamon doesn’t win the presidency–given current polling he almost certainly will not–he will have succeeded in bringing his party back to its labor-centric roots. Jean-Luc Melenchon of the France Insoumise movement seeks similar ends in different ways. He’s assembling a revolutionary force around his campaign to implement a new constitution (also one of Hamon’s proposals) and pursue policies that put workers and the environment ahead of economic growth. Like his competitors, he’s pushing a program of change, albeit a bit more radical.

The major themes of this election–the division and current weakness of the political left, a growing shift towards a globalist-nationalist clash, and the role of the traditional right in adapting to the rise of the far-right–aren’t exclusive to France by any means. They feed into newly realized political currents common to many western democracies these days.

With Brexit and Trump in the background, and national elections in the Netherlands and Germany also taking place this year, the results of the French election will be one important part of a broader referendum on the new trends establishing themselves on both sides of the Atlantic. It is through this political contest that we will gain an even clearer picture of how permanent these shifts will eventually become.

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