Brexit, Trump, France: third time unlucky?

A tumultuous election season has stirred up France's political landscape. While Macron seems likely to win, he needs to do so convincingly to create new stability.

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A few days out from the second round of the French presidential election, it does not seem too outlandish to consider the chances of a Le Pen presidency. In fact, the run-up to this election, the two primaries in the traditional right-wing and left-wing parties confirmed one rare certainty: that she would, indeed, be one of the two candidates in the second round.

Indeed, uncertainty has been the watchword of this long campaign: Alain Juppé was supposed to win the primary of Les Républicains, on the right. Yet, François Fillon beat him with a large majority in a surprising and unexpected outcome. On the left, Benoît Hamon was the clear victor in the Socialist primary, outpolling former prime minister Manuel Valls, who himself had entered the fray at the last minute after François Hollande quit. These two primaries were supposed to bestow clarity and legitimacy on their winners. They seemed to represent the return of the traditional left-right divide whose obsolescence has been discussed for several years.

But by the end of January this apparent clarity had disappeared, when Fillon got entangled in a variety of scandals that pursued him until the end. Hamon found it difficult to gain traction, lacking his own party’s full support. In this context, Emmanuel Macron’s popularity embarked on an unstoppable rise, upsetting the left-right divide and cementing one between progressives and conservatives, and then between outward-looking and inward-looking. In addition, Marine Le Pen maintained her strength in the polls, and was, until recently, even ahead of Macron. This four-way contest underwent a final disruption with the rise of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the last three weeks of the campaign, who ended up siphoning off most of Hamon’s voters.

And that is how an election that in early 2017 seemed set to be won by Fillon, turned into a guessing game until the very last minute. There was but one certainty throughout: Le Pen would make it through to the second round. The major question: who would ultimately confront her? In the end, French dissatisfaction with establishment parties prevailed.

The rise of Le Pen is sometimes explained as a French version of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States. A French expression goes “jamais deux sans trois”, which can be loosely translated into “third time lucky”; or not, as the case may be. In a word, the result of the French presidential election not only has obvious ramifications for France, but will be analysed through the larger prism of Europe’s future, too. If Le Pen ends up winning, it would be destructive for France, and could mark the end of the European project. Moreover, it would signal to populists all around the world that they have one more critical and influential agent.

Macron’s challenge is not only about defeating Le Pen, but also making sure that it is a convincing and overwhelming victory.

The general expectation is that Macron will ultimately win, and signalling instead hope and optimism for France and Europe. Fillon and Hamon have instructed their supporters to vote for Macron as a bulwark against the National Front. Disappointed not to be in the second round, Mélenchon has refused to explicitly support Macron’s liberal economic platform, but still vowed “not to leave one vote to the National Front”. Turnout on Sunday might be key to Macron confirming the polls that predict his victory, and overcoming the uncertainty that has characterised this campaign. Not only is 7 May a long holiday weekend, and might thereby cause lower turnout in general, but Le Pen’s voters have consistently appeared more mobilised and determined to turn out than Macron’s. This is not to mention those voters from the first round, who are not convinced by the former Hollande adviser and economy minister. Le Pen’s insurgent campaign has opened up a broader debate on the impact of globalisation, the threat of terrorism, the disconnect of the elites…

Moreover, the pressure on Macron is all the more daunting as his challenge is not only about defeating Le Pen, but also making sure that it is a convincing and overwhelming victory. Because even if he becomes president, the parliamentary elections on 11 and 18 June will be another test for him. A majority is far from guaranteed. If the decomposition of the traditional party system now appears quite advanced, any recomposition will likely depend upon the elections’ outcome. After 30 years of a binary left-right divide, will France fragment into a four-party system? Given that in many constituencies three or even four candidates could qualify for the second round, it does not seem too unlikely. Whichever party comes first on 18 June, it might still have to form a ‘coalition of the willing’, in opposition to the majoritarian system created by de Gaulle in 1958 precisely to mitigate the political instability of the 4th Republic.

Several candidates in this campaign ran on platforms advocating an overhaul of the institutions of government, and with the expressed aim to establish a 6th Republic with a more parliamentary system. Yet, neither Macron, nor Le Pen, are proponents of this, although they both call for institutional reforms and particularly better representation of the diversity of French political parties. If Macron wins, numerous questions remain about how he would govern. In the case of a hung parliament, he might be forced into a coalition, or even a ‘cohabitation’. The prime minister and government, who will be appointed in the wake of Sunday, might have to change come June…

Let’s hope that the French will be contrarian enough to buck global trends as we can expect them to be, and show that the ‘French exception’ is alive: for once, let this not be “third time lucky”.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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