2016 was a year that rocked political boats around the world. 2017 continues to shake up the traditional political landscape with a French presidential election that was an uninterrupted series of twists and surprises. The rules that have applied since the founding of the 5th Republic in 1958 have been torn up.
The end of the dominance of two mainstream parties
The most dramatic turn of the election is the absence of the two major political parties, the right (Les Républicains) and the left (Parti Socialiste) were voted out of the election race in the first round. This put an end to the so called “alternance”, the two main parties more or less taking turn to govern every five years.
The French populace expressed their disappointment in outgoing President François Hollande, crediting him with historically low approval rates. The Socialists suffered from creeping internal dissensions and struggled to pass reforms during his term, meaning Hollande was the architect of his own demise. Distrust and dissatisfaction towards mainstream parties culminated when the Republicains’ candidate François Fillon was at the heart of a scandal, “Penelopegate” (after his wife Penelope’s first name) where his wife and children were getting paid for parliamentary work they actually never performed.
Facing the implosion of traditional political parties, French electors were left calling for change.
The emergence of ad hoc movements
To transcend political boundaries, Emmanuel Macron started his own liberal and progressive movement, En Marche !, in April 2016. In the summer, he left his position as Minister of the Economy in the Socialist party. Within a year, he managed to gather support and win the first round, without the backing of a political party.
Left winger, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also created his own movement in 2016, La France Insoumise, with strong direct democracy components. He split from the traditional left, proposing deep political and societal changes: constitution, labour and environmental law reforms.
Although the two movements have very little in common and only one made it to the second round (La France Insoumise was in fourth place with 19,58%), they both confirm the declining trust in career politicians, complementing the decline of mainstream parties. Both trends are the symptoms of the general public’s lack of belief in politics, resulting in fragmentation and volatility.
The rise of the extremes and populism
One obvious but still notable fact of this election is the rise of the extremes: the far right taking second place and far left the fourth in the initial round of the election. It does not come as a surprise, on the contrary, it follows the European trend, which has seen the rise of the far right (e.g. PVV in Netherlands, AfD in Germany) and also the emergence of the far left (e.g. Podemos in Spain, Five Stars Movement in Italy). What could have been seen as an ‘accident’, a duel between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the 2002 elections, has become a norm. The Front National lead by Marine Le Pen received a facelift, cleared out the old rhetoric, addressing instead security, immigration and poverty issues.
A new division: Europeanist/globalist vs. nationalist/protectionist
The classical left-right division was lost with a result of the collapse of the traditional parties. It is not that the topics for discussion have changed but the ideological gap has become wider; Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister who founded his own movement, is centrist, socially liberal, pro-business, pro-immigration and pro-European. Le Pen is the heir of a populist far right party, Eurosceptic and against the euro, socially conservative, anti-immigration and protectionist.
Even their voters embody this gap. Macron does well with urban, higher educated and upper socio-professional categories in the West, while Le Pen’s electorate is more represented in the deindustrialised North and East, suburban and rural areas, as well as lower socio-professional categories. When Macron’s voters appear to take advantage of globalisation, Le Pen’s are more vulnerable to it.
Even if Macron drew support from his defeated rivals among the Socialists and Republicans and benefited from the “front républicain” (French people united against far right), this election leaves a greater divide within French society than ever before.
The open distrust for career politicians
Lately, the world has seen a certain appeal in politicians from outside politics. Whether the American and the French elections have set a precedent will have to be seen in the light of elections to come. It is one more illustration of the decline of traditional parties. Neither Mr Macron nor Mr Trump can be legitimately labelled anti-system: one, the graduate from an elitist French National Administration School who became a Rothschild banker, and the other a son of millionaire who became a billionaire. What is more certain is the appeal that their “lack of political experience” had on people. There the comparison stops. Macron aged 39 served four years as Minister of the Economy in a socialist government. He seems fresher than the other politicians that have been serving the old establishment and has more credibility talking about hope and change.
The political landscape has seen changes; challenges lie ahead. As president Macron will have to face the ideological and social gap that has opened up; nearly half of French voters opted for candidates on the extreme right and left. It is hard to believe that these people, no matter how much their votes were “protest votes”, will rally to Macron’s liberal democratic vision.
The “front républicain” belongs to the past already. Macron will have to gather a majority in the parliament after the legislative elections in June. It will be a real challenge, because part of the population does not trust him and is likely to turn towards the extremes, and because the mainstream parties, although badly hurt, are preparing their counter attacks.
The questions will be, does Macron have enough En Marche ! candidates to stand during the upcoming legislative elections? Will France give him a majority or will she keep hanging on to the traditional parties? Will there be second round alliances between En Marche ! and the left/right parties? Finally, will the success of the Front National during the presidential election be reflected in the parliamentary election?