PARIS — In a little over two weeks, France will elect its next president. Given the French leader’s considerable powers, including the authority to dissolve the National Assembly, the presidential election, held every five years, is France’s most important. But the stakes are higher than ever this time.
The two frontrunners are the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, who served as economy minister under Socialist President François Hollande but is running as an independent. If, as expected, Le Pen and Macron face off in the election’s second round on May 7, it will be a political milestone for France: the first time in 60 years that the main parties of the left and the right won’t be represented in the second round.
France has not endured such political turmoil since 1958, when, in the midst of the Algerian War, General Charles de Gaulle came to power and crafted the constitution of the Fifth Republic. That shift, like any great political rupture, was driven by a combination of deep underlying dynamics and the particular circumstances of the moment.
Several factors fueling popular disenchantment
Today is no different. First, the underlying dynamic: the rise, as in most developed countries nowadays, of popular mistrust of elites, feelings of disempowerment, fear of economic globalization and immigration, and anxiety over downward social mobility and growing inequality.
These sentiments — together with the French state’s historical role in fostering national identity and economic growth — have contributed to a surge in support for the National Front. Le Pen’s nationalist, xenophobic message and populist economic policies resemble those of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Although support for the National Front has been growing for more than a decade, the party has so far been kept out of power by France’s two-round electoral system, which enables voters to unite against it in the second round. And, given the National Front’s inability to make alliances, power has remained in the hands of the main parties of the left and the right, even as France has moved toward a tripartite political system.
Traditional party system is under assault
Now, Macron is taking advantage of current circumstances to blow up the tripartite system. Macron’s great insight, which few initially recognized, was that the right-left divide was blocking progress and that the presidential election amounted to a golden opportunity to move beyond it, without the help of an organized political movement. At a time when the French people are increasingly rejecting the traditional party system, Macron’s initial weakness quickly became his strength.
It helped that, as Macron himself recognized, both the right and the left have fragmented in recent years. This is particularly true on the left, where a clear division has emerged between a reformist current, led by former prime minister Manuel Valls, and traditionalists, represented by the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon. The Socialists’ problems are compounded by the existence of a radical left working actively to eliminate them, much as Spain’s left-wing Podemos party has sought to replace the Socialist Workers’ Party there.
The source of the mainstream right’s travails is less clear. Its forces remain generally united on economic and social issues. In fact, until a few months ago, its presidential candidate, the Republicans’ François Fillon, was expected to lead the pack in the first round by a wide margin. But a scandal over his personal conduct (he allegedly paid his wife and children for non-existent jobs while he was a member of parliament) damaged his candidacy — probably fatally.
Whatever the reason for the right’s decline, Macron has benefited substantially from it, as well as from the rifts afflicting the left. Now, there is a real chance the young independent could be elected president on May 7, upending the Fifth Republic’s political system.
But an electoral victory is just a first step. To govern in France’s hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, Macron would need to secure a majority in the National Assembly. This opens the possibility of two scenarios.
In the first scenario, Macron quickly gains a parliamentary majority, as French voters seek to reinforce his mandate in June’s National Assembly election. This is conceivable, but not certain: it is here where the lack of an organized political movement on the ground remains a weakness for Macron.
Stage set for a radical remake of French politics
That is why the June election could give rise to the second scenario: cohabitation with a parliamentary coalition comprising a small right-wing faction, a large centrist faction, and a hopelessly divided left-wing faction. Such a development would be familiar in many European countries. But in France, where republicanism gave rise to the left-right ideological spectrum that shapes politics throughout the West today, it would be a genuine revolution — one that could spell the end of the Socialist Party.
Given the symbolic power of the left-right divide, France’s voters and political leaders alike have long tended to frame virtually all of the country’s problems in ideological terms. The public and its politicians have little experience with government based on broad coalition agreements. This partly explains why the political system becomes gridlocked, sometimes making reforms difficult to implement, and why Macron’s message, which includes clear reform plans, is so unusual for France.
If Le Pen somehow comes out on top, French politics — not to mention the European Union — will be turned upside. But even the ostensibly moderate Macron represents, in his own way, a truly radical stance. With both candidates likely to make it to the second round, France is on the verge of a political revolution, regardless of who wins.