On Sunday April 23, France went to the polls in its first round presidential election. Conspicuously absent from the horse race was the ruling Socialist Party, whose spectacularly unpopular leader, Francois Hollande, did not even bother to run for reelection. In his stead, the French public was treated to an entirely forgettable and pathetic performance by his successor Benoit Hamon, who finished with a dismal 6.4% of the vote, barely cracking 2 million votes nationwide.
The French people sent the political establishment and their parties a message of resounding rejection, only aided and abetted by the political patronage scandal of Republican candidate Francois Fillon, who gave a plum position to his wife, where she, by all reports, was grossly overpaid and underworked.
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From the ashes of the traditional establishment rise two movements: one old, one new. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front represents a blend of populism and nationalism with a healthy measure of anti-globalism. She has called for withdrawing France from the EU and the euro zone, questioned global trade deals, called for restoring France’s borders, and criticized financial elites. The National Front has been a thorn in the side of France’s political establishment for decades.
But the real surprise from the French election came from the center: former Minister of Economy and Finance Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist En Marche! movement emerges as the new rising star on the national stage. Macron has proved a shrewd political operator, accurately reading the collapse of France’s unpopular Socialist leadership, and masterfully navigating a moderate course in between the far-left policy proposals of Jean-Luc Melenchon and the traditional conservatism of Fillon’s Republicanism.
A former member of the Socialist Party, Macron has taken pains to clarify his current ideology. In August of 2016 he stated that, “honesty compels me to declare that I am not a socialist.” His platform might best be summed up as “pro free–market, pro-EU, pro-immigration,” positions in which he has staked diametrical opposition to his second round rival Le Pen.
Political commentators of late have attempted to analyze the French political scene within the context of the anti-elite, anti-globalist wave that has swept the world in recent years, epitomized by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Would it be fair to write a new play, with a new cast of French characters? Le Pen as Trump? Macron as Clinton? Melenchon as Sanders?
At first glance, one might note more similarities between Le Pen and Trump and Melenchon and Sanders. Macron, on the other hand, on a personal level, is a far cry from Clinton. While Macron represents change, a fresh new face, with new ideas, throwing off the mantle of the establishment, Clinton was fundamentally incapable of escaping a characterization of embodying the establishment: representing the status quo, a face all too familiar to the American public for more than three decades, who championed old ideas. Yes, Clinton was stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place.
The rock being Trump‘s appeal to working and middle class voters through his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The hard place being the newfound appeal of a formerly obscure socialist senator from Vermont who did not even belong to the Democratic Party, but was able to captivate the left-wing of the party by promising a significantly expanded role for government, and a challenge to the traditional power centers: Wall Street, banks, the military-industrial complex, the billionaire class, and special interest lobbyists.
Macron, on the other hand, is too young and unkown to suffer from Clinton malaise, and has the unique benefit of benefiting from the support of the political establishment (virtually the entire machinery of the Republicans and the Socialist Party) while not being held responsible by the French electorate for their failed policies.
He is in an enviable position: he gets establishment backing, with none of the anti-establishment backlash.
Could Marine Le Pen pull off a Trump-style upset? It’s possible, but not probable. As Adam Nossiter notes in the New York Times, if she is to pull off the unthinkable, it is more likely to be France’s far-left, which shares many of her anti-globalist, anti-EU, anti-elite sentiments, which propels her to an improbable victory.
Melenchon, for example, has yet to back Macron. In this respect, he does not correspond to his American counterpart Bernie Sanders, who quickly and graciously endorsed Clinton, despite noting their ideological differences. Melenchon’s professed despisal of the establishment is likely motivating his reticence in throwing his support behind Macron.
Just as some (the percentage is highly open to debate) Bernie Sanders supporters were instrumental in Trump’s improbable victory, it stands to reason that Melenchon supporters could be more likely than Fillon supporters in driving her to victory.
Sanders’ campaign was very much divided between the younger, more urban, more liberal ideologically driven voters who flocked to his campaign in droves, and the older, more suburban/rural, more economically driven voters, often white and working class, who often tilted his way, particularly in the West and Mid-West.
Le Pen’s improbable path to victory lies in forming a coalition of far-left and far-right voters who so disdain the establishment and the free-market pro-globalist orientation of Macron, that they would be willing to put aside key differences (say on immigration, gay rights, the environment) to vote for Le Pen.
While opinion polls currently show Macron with a healthy lead, in the wake of several earth-shattering surprises at the ballot box over the past two years, it is too early to count Le Pen out.