France: what kind of change?
By Benjamin Fievet
This Sunday, the 23rd of April, France will hold the first round of its presidential election. The second round between the two candidates with the most votes is set for the 7th of May. Never has the result been so uncertain. Current polls show that the four leading candidates are within the margin of error of each other, with Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen leading at around 23% followed by François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon at around 19%. All four of them could make it to the second round. Meanwhile, Benoît Hamon, the socialist candidate, is projected to get less than 10% of the vote. An unprecedented situation in France.
Eighteen months ago, the situation looked very different. Most people expected François Hollande to be running for re-election and face former President Nicolas Sarkozy who, after losing the 2012 presidential election to François Hollande and regaining leadership of Les Républicains in November 2014, aimed to challenge him in a ‘2012 rematch’. But it seems that French people do care for some change. Indeed, in a January 2016 poll, 74% of those surveyed said they were not keen to see such a rematch. 88% stressed that renewal was needed among the political class.
The main parties in turmoil
In November 2016, Nicolas Sarkozy was eliminated in the first round of the right-wing primary and François Fillon, belonging to the most conservative part of Les Républicains, won on a platform of fiscal and social conservatism, cuts in public spending, and integrity of politicians. That alone made it difficult for the more moderate members of the party to support him fully, but the various financial scandals he has been entangled in since January, and his attacks on the media and the judicial system in response to the allegations, as well as the increasing proximity of his campaign with even more right-wing groups and characters, worsened his prospects. Even though Fillon still has the support of a strong basis among the most conservative – and oldest – part of the population, it is not sufficient to guarantee him a spot in the second round and the ultimate victory that was all but promised to Les Républicains just a few months ago.
As for François Hollande, being the least popular President of the Fifth Republic and having faced internal opposition from the left of his own party (by a group called les frondeurs); he announced at the end of last year, that he would not to run for re-election. In the subsequent primary, his former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls lost to Benoît Hamon one of the frondeurs. However, Hamon never got the full support of the Socialist Party and his campaign quickly lost momentum.
The populist temptation
Discontent with both the Socialist Party and Les Républicains, the two main historical parties, and the system as a whole, citizens are looking to challenge it. And as in many other countries, they turned to populist candidates from both the far right and the far left. Candidates that share a resentment towards the EU, while at the same time being Members of the European Parliament.
On the right, Marine Le Pen and her Front National – with her anti-immigration, anti-Islam stance and a vision of a France focused solely on itself – has been on the rise for years (especially among factory workers and those that do not feel the benefits of globalization). It’s widely expected that she’ll reach the second round of the presidential election. However, her ability to break the ‘glass ceiling’ is still doubtful. The polls show her losing in the second round, no matter who her opponent is. But a high abstention – from disillusioned voters – could play in her favour.
On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon with his virulent speeches and his leftist agenda – in part inspired by the policies of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez – generally attracts younger voters, more concerned with ecological issues and economic (in)equality. He is by no means an irrelevant candidate (he ranked 4th with 11.13% of the vote in 2012), and, this time, he received a significant boost from the socialist candidate’s demise. In all, more than 40% of French voters are about to vote for decidedly illiberal populist candidates.
The Macron alternative
This radicalization and the widening gap between the classical left and the classical right also opened up a space in the center – a space that has traditionally been hard to occupy because of the bipolarization of French politics – for a young, social liberal, progressive and pro-European candidate: Emmanuel Macron, 39. Running outside of traditional parties with the support of En Marche ! (a movement he launched a year ago) he has garnered support from civil society and moderate politicians from the center, the left and the right alike, notably from François Bayrou. The centrist leader had until then been considering running himself.
Emmanuel Macron wants to modernize France. He proposes to diminish the size of the state, reduce taxes, simplify bureaucratic procedures, encourage innovation rather than stifle it, and reform labour law while protecting and creating opportunities for the more vulnerable. He believes in equality and LGBT rights, sees immigration as an opportunity, and defends the right to practise religion (a right that has been under attack in France in recent years). He also vowed that half of En Marche !candidates in the legislative elections, would come from civil society.
Macron strives to unite France rather than divide it, and instils hope rather than play on fears, with a can-do attitude reminiscent of Obama’s 2008 campaign. He is the current favourite and polls well across all age groups. But he lacks support among the more disadvantaged voters and his supporters are among the least sure of their vote.
As it stands, Emmanuel Macron is France’s best hope against populism. In that poll from January 2016, he was the one that best embodied renewal (with 55% agreeing). Sunday, we will see what kind of change France really wants.
Benjamin Fievet is a LYMEC and ALDE individual member and volunteers for En Marche!