French elections: The demolition game heats up

So far, this French electoral cycle is something in between a roller coaster and a demolition game. The French political system is accustomed to crushing incumbents, but this time the destruction has been more inclusive.

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Last December, President Hollande – who would likely have lost the left’s primary – decided not to run for re-election. When former prime minister Manuel Valls decided to take up the gauntlet and defend his stiff brand of social-liberalism, he immediately became the favourite for the socialist primary vote. And yet (or perhaps because of that status), he was defeated last week by his rebellious party comrade and former minister, Benoît Hamon. Hamon is a more classical French social-democrat, more progressive on social issues and further to the left economically than Valls.

This unexpected result echoed the right’s primary outcome from last November. The frontrunner Alain Juppé had been widely tipped to go all the way in the second round of the presidential election, yet was knocked out (along with former President Nicolas Sarkozy) by François Fillon.

Fillon, however, was unable to capitalise on this momentum. And after recent media questions on his wife’s work as a parliamentary assistant, he is now mired in controversy and may be unable to stay in the race.

Given the weakness of the socialist left and the difficulties of the conservative right –  especially against rising distrust of the political establishment as a whole – outsiders sense that this might be their year.

Top of this list of hopefuls, of course, is the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. She sees the Brexit referendum and the Trump election as evidence that populists can win against all odds, and without the sky falling on their voters. And indeed, if polls are to be taken seriously, she seems poised to reach the second round. But others are lining up to cast themselves  as the outsider. Of these, the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon seems like a long shot, but the more centrist Emmanuel Macron – a different sort of outsider, given he was an adviser and then minister to Hollande – appears to be gaining momentum. This, in spite (or, again, precisely because) of his bet to run outside of the traditional party-system.

With so many upsets, and still several weeks to go, it seems hard to make any predictions about the election. At this point, the race seems quite open, with the five above-mentioned candidates ranking between 15 and 25 per cent of the votes in polls for the first round. Even the polls on the second round – consistently showing Le Pen losing by more than 10 points against any other candidate – need to be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, even though the first round will take place in less than three months from now, the campaign is still at quite an early stage.

Obscured by this eventful political show, and by over-crowded primaries which turned the spotlight on intra-party nuances rather than general differences, the real debate has only just begun. Indeed, some candidates are only now finalising their policy platforms.

In this context, European and international affairs haven’t yet attracted much attention. This, of course, is not surprising. But one cannot help but notice that to address the voters’ top priorities – terrorism and unemployment – the next French president’s European strategy will not be insignificant.

Europe has been a tricky issue for years, with fault lines running through the traditional parties. In this context, Hamon and Fillon will likely remain cautious and stick to qualified support for the EU. Hamon seeks an end to austerity and a drive towards environmental investment, while Fillon aims at a more intergovernmental Europe with tighter borders. But neither candidate is likely to rock the European boat too much.

The other candidates are more comfortable with bolder positions. Macron casts himself as an adamant supporter of closer integration and stronger Franco-German cooperation. Mélenchon and Le Pen, on the other hand, seem ready to leverage a possible withdrawal from the Union in order to renegotiate a fundamental revamping of the EU, although their respective endgame differs widely.

The differences between the candidates on foreign policy topics remain to be clarified in the upcoming debates. Only a few topics have made it to the headlines, such as Russia, the Middle East or the refugee crisis. But some interesting facts are already clear. The traditional bipartisan consensus on foreign policy is fading further away, if only because the world is changing at an accelerated speed. And yet, the historic division between “gaullo-mitterandists” (who conveniently developed and upheld this so-called “consensus” for decades) and “atlanticists” seems to remain the default reading lens for observers.

One of the major consequences of this mistaken approach is that it obscures the need for discussion on how to Europeanise France’s foreign policy. The evolution of Russia’s foreign policy, the consequences of the US election, the growing challenges facing the multilateral system, and the overstretch of French military capabilities are only some of the reasons why France should reflect more deeply on what it can achieve by itself and what it is willing to do to rally the European Union around a more assertive and credible foreign policy agenda. Not to mention, obviously, the evolutions within Europe, with the prospect of Brexit, the evolution of Germany’s global status, or the rise of populism, etc.

Until now, the French foreign policy debate has been primarily structured by the implicit idea that France has not only a specific national role, but is able to play it alone.  In this regard, the upcoming election may show that, following the UK (although in a quite different fashion), France is having its own delusionary episode on what it can achieve by itself in the world. Whatever the outcome, that would likely represent another missed opportunity, both for France and Europe, at a time of pressing challenges.

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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