What’s at Stake in France’s Presidential Election

Image by Monica Day from footage of the televised presidential debate

On April 23, France will hold the first round of voting in the presidential election. Because none of the eleven candidates are likely to take over 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will enter into a runoff election held 14 days later on May 7. Facing historically low approval ratings, the incumbent Socialist President Francois Hollande announced in December that he would not be seeking re-election in 2017, the first time a French President has not done so in 60 years.

Tailing the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the French presidential election has been subject to heightened international scrutiny. The leftist Socialists and the center-right Republicans typically led the contest in past French elections, but the parties have lost their stronghold in 2017. The top five candidates run the gamut of the ideological spectrum, suggesting a continuation of the current pattern of anti-establishment polarization in Euro-American politics.

Currently leading opinions polls is National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen, a far-right nationalist with an anti-immigration and Eurosceptic platform. Le Pen has capitalized on public fears after the attacks in Paris, Nice and London to push the narrative that immigration enables Islamic terrorism. She has recently come under fire for her claims that France was not responsible for the Vél d’Hiv Roundup in which French police arrested 13,000 Jews to be deported to concentration camps. On economic issues, Le Pen has promised to boost France’s competitiveness with protectionist policies that include abandoning the Euro and limiting job opportunities for migrants. Her nationalist message specifically targets blue-collar workers suffering from deindustrialization, the same demographic Trump appealed to in the United States and the same that voted “Leave” in Britain. The FN has resituated itself for a post-financial crisis world, manipulating the legitimate anger of voters with neoliberal EU policy and globalization to peddle xenophobia.

Neck and neck with Le Pen is centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron. A 39-year old former investment banker and economy minister with no experience as an elected official, Macron has sought to depict himself as an outsider to the antagonism of mainstream French politics by creating his own moderate party, En Marche! (“On the Move!”); he refuses to align himself with the left or right. Macron’s pro-EU stance and proposals for new tax and public spending cuts earn him the support of business leaders, while his liberal environment and immigration policies woo socially progressive French voters. A few notable Socialist figures have broken party lines and announced their support for Macron, including former Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrualt. Overall, Macron’s voting base represents the same type of financially successful, big-city moderates that voted Remain in Britain last year.

Former Republican Prime Minister François Fillon was an early favorite but charges of embezzlement of public funds have shaken his support. In January, it was revealed that Fillon had employed his wife as a parliamentary aide and paid her in hundreds of thousands of public euros, despite little evidence of actual work performed by Penelope Fillon. The Thatcherite Fillon has still remained afloat due to his committed socially conservative and Catholic voter base.

The other “establishment” candidate, Socialist Benoît Hamon, has trailed near last in the polls. Though he resigned from his position as education minister under Hollande, Hamon’s association with the extremely unpopular Hollande administration may be hurting him. Hamon’s recommendations for a universal basic income, reduction in the working week, and automation tax place him on the very left of the Socialist party, illustrating the fragmentation of the Socialists into moderate and far-left factions.

The radical leftist ex-Socialist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged in popularity in the last few weeks, bringing him closer in the polls to Fillon for third place. Backed by the French Communist Party, Mélenchon is campaigning on a 100-billion euro stimulus package, minimum wage raise, tax hikes, and other economic reforms. Hamon and Mélenchon both openly criticize the EU’s free trade policies; however, Mélenchon has called to renegotiate completely France’s role in the EU, threatening to hold a referendum to “accept the reformed terms of EU membership or leave the Union.” Mélenchon also distinguishes himself from Hamon in his support for an alliance with Assad against ISIS in Syria and a French exit from NATO.  Mélenchon’s campaign taps into the French left’s disaffection with the corruption and perceived betrayal of the working class by the Socialist Party under Hollande.

Though the political designations “left” and “right” originated in France during the Revolution, the terms are increasingly less pertinent tools for mapping the country’s presidential election in 2017. With a Hamon v. Fillon matchup unlikely, the fault line in French politics now appears to rest between a centrist establishment and an anti-establishment extremism. This shift in political orientation is no surprise: with France’s economy lagging since the financial crisis of ‘08, unemployment over 10%, and the most unpopular president in all of France’s history, voters have turned against traditional parties and the European Union. Brexit itself was a result of an anti-establishment mood felt by an accidental coalition of the left and right, with more than half of Labour party members voting Leave. After a financial crisis, distaste for ruling elites rises and a country’s electorate grows more likely to support radical opposition groups, as has been the case recently across much of the Euro-American region.

If Le Pen succeeds, her victory will further embolden xenophobic right-wing populist movements in France and abroad. If the Marx-quoting Mélenchon beats Hamon, the win could potentially mobilize France’s Socialist Party to move further left – or fracture it to death. Though Macron proclaims to be an outsider, his win would likely usher in more of the same. His affinity for deregulation and corporate income tax cuts would place him squarely between the economic policies of Hamon and Fillon. Regardless of the results, the 2017 French presidential election will be another watershed moment for anti-establishment sentiment within and beyond France’s borders.

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