What does France believe in?

With Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and François Fillon we have a political newcomer in French presidential elections, far-right and far-left candidate and conservative fighting media. Though polling very low the majority of the other candidates represents fringe and extreme ideas. How do you read this, does it show public is really fed up with the politics as usual, and what does it mean for French society and politics? Read few comments.

Jonah Levy, Associate Professor, Vice-Chair of the Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

France offers an extreme case of the anti-governing elite populism that is sweeping many nations. Incumbents have lost pretty much every national election since 1981. Now, for the first time, neither of the two main governing parties, the Socialists on the left and the Republicans on the right, is expected to have a candidate in the presidential run-off May 7. On the left, incumbent Socialist President, François Hollande, facing approval ratings as low as 4% (!), declined to run for reelection, and his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls lost the Socialist Party primary election. On the right, the most recent conservative President, Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t even make it to the second round of the the Republicans’ primary. The official Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon is seen as having no chance of placing among the top two candidates, but it is possible that the Republicans’ candidate, François Fillon will make it to the run-off or even win the presidency. Prior to the outbreak of a corruption scandal, Fillon seemed poised to win easily, and he still can count on a core of dedicated conservative voters. Still, the most likely outcome is that two political outsiders will contest the run-off May 7.

The three leading outsider candidates are: 1) Marine Le Pen, the leader of a radical right, xenophobic party, the National Front, who pledges to reduce immigration to zero; 2) Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an anti-capitalist, populist fire brand, who wants to substitute alliances with Cuba and Venezuela for membership in the EU and NATO; 3) Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker and Minister of the Economy, who has never held elective office and who created his own party, En Marche! (On the Move!) just a few months ago. Why are these three outsiders in a position to become the next president of France? For starters, mainstream left and mainstream right governments have alternated in office for decades without producing any kind of viable solution to France’s most pressing problems, including double-digit unemployment, economic decline, a simmering underclass in the suburbs, terrorist attacks along with home-grown Islamic terrorism, and a loss of international influence and eclipse by Germany within Europe. Linking all of these problems, French elites have broken with the statist model that was associated with the postwar boom period and international influence, without substituting any coherent vision in its place. The French public and governing parties have long refused to embrace American-style neo-liberalism; Northern European social democracy seems a world away for a country with no tradition of dialogue between the government and the social partners and the lowest rate of unionization in the OECD; and efforts to reform or reinvent the statist model have been largely still-born. As a result, successive governments, whether of the left or right, are not only pursuing incoherent and unsuccessful policies; they also lack a vision or roadmap to guide those policies and explain them to the voters.

The impact of the election of one of the outsider candidates as president is difficult to forecast, in part because the three outsiders offer very different packages. Equally important, though, is that France will be holding not one election, but two. Following the presidential election, legislative elections will take place June 11 and 18. In the past, French voters have always “ratified the presidential election” by giving a majority to the president’s coalition in parliament, but the French president always came from one of the two main governing coalitions. If an outsider wins the presidency, however, it is by no means certain that he or she will be able to secure a sympathetic majority in parliament. The character of policy would likely depend on the capacity of the president to work with a parliament that does not share his or her ideas. A range of outcomes, from compromise, to stalemate, to constitutional crisis, is possible.

The impact of the presidential election on the French party system is also difficult to forecast. Assuming that the current front runners, Macron and Le Pen, face each other in the run off, it could be argued that a fundamental restructuring of the party system is taking place. Whereas traditionally broadly speaking, the left was statist on economic affairs and liberal on social mores, while the right was liberal on economic affairs and statist on social mores, Macron and Le Pen are scrambling that division. With Macron liberal and internationalist on both economic affairs and social mores, while Le Pen is statist and authoritarian, the ideological axis between left and right could be fundamentally transformed. Much would depend, though, on the outcome of the legislative elections — whether voters “ratify the presidential election” by supporting the parties of the leading presidential candidates in the legislative elections or return to their traditional representatives.

John Keiger, Professor, Department of International Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge

1) Of the 11 candidates, only 2 are not Eurosceptics: Macron and Fillon, but even they wish to set aside EU budgetary constraints on 3% deficits if they are elected. In many ways this reflects a more general euroscepticism in the French public

2) Never before under the 5th Rep have there been 4 candidates equally placed for the first round. This demonstrates that the French really do not know who to choose or even who to eliminate from one extreme to the other.

3) The projected abstention rate is around 30%, much higher than in previous elections at this stage of the campaign. This suggests that the electorate is unhappy with the choice on offer

4) Of the 4 main candidates with projections of around 20% each in the most recent polls; 2 are from the extremes of the political spectrum, the Far Right Marine Le Pen and the Far Left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Both wish to withdraw from the present state of Europe. This is new under the 5th Republic.

5) The fact that the official Socialist Party candidate, legitimised by the left wing primaries, is predicted to obtain only 8% of the vote is a sign of the melt-down of one ofFrance’s main political parties.

6) The recently obstructed terrorist attack (in Marseilles), apparently targeted against Fillon, may have an impact on the campaign in favour of Fillon and/or in favour of Le Pen. It will be interesting to see how the opinion polls react.

7) Most commentators think the contest is extremely open. Many French are willing to vote (at least in the 1st round) for extremes to demonstrate their (revolutionary?) hostility to candidates of moderate right and left (since at least 2007 ie Sarkozy and Hollande) who have failed the electorate. What will happen in the 1st round will obviously determine the 2nd round. If the French are too revolutionary in the first round their choice in the second will already be determined eg a 1st round victory of Le Pen and Melenchon.

Jean-Yves Camus, Director, Observatoire des radicalités politiques (ORAP), Associate Research Fellow, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS)

What is interesting with this election is that the candidates of the two established and mainstream parties, Socialist and Conservative, are not leading the polls. Le Pen is leading, and this is an anti-establishment vote. Mélenchon is now around 18-20% and this is also an anti-establishment vote. And Emmanuel Macron is second ( or first), though he is not supported by any established political party. We’ll have legislative elections in June and if Macron is elected, one does not even know how he will build his majority! He is attractive to the voters because of his age (37) and his very short stint as a Minister ( 2 years), so he is (not yet) seen as corrupt or totally uneffective. This situation tells much about a country which does not believe in itself anymore, and where pessimism is very high as far as the prospects of the economy, but also law and order, terrorism and national identity, are concerned.

Aurélien Mondon, Senior Lecturer in French politics, University of Bath

I think this election is yet another proof that people are tired of politics as usual and that the austerity consensus is clearly not what most want. However, what is exciting about this particular campaign is that the alternative is not solely placed on the far right. In fact, Le Pen’s campaign has shown that she is perhaps more or at least as much part of the system as the other candidates. The big difference, and what could sway the election, is that the left has found its champion and that through a positive, hopeful campaign, Mélenchon might manage to bring enough people out of abstention to get through to the second round. This is a promising development as the West had become used to pessimistic and even apocalyptic politics.

Rainbow MurrayReader in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London

Yes, the French are fed up with politics as usual due to long-term problems such as unemployment, plus immediate problems such as the ongoing terrorist threat, and politicians from all sides have struggled to resolve these problems.



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