Change in the Fifth Republic: France’s Tumultuous Election Season
Have you ever wondered what an election would have looked like if Kellyanne Conway could form a coherent thought? If Marco Rubio had been more Thatcher-esque? If Alexander Hamilton decided to run for President instead of dueling Aaron Burr? If Bernie Sanders was young and had an inexplicable penchant for smirking? Or, perhaps, if Vermin Supreme were a legitimate candidate? If you have, look no further than the presidential election currently unfolding in France, where five major candidates are fighting to secure a place in the second-round runoff election.
Looming over these candidates as they jockey for support are an array of issues that would give even Charles de Gaulle pause. A combination of massive discontent—about immigrants, about unemployment, about the inefficacy of the political ruling class— and pessimistic malaise is sweeping the nation, and 81% of French people believe that the world is becoming a worse place. Meanwhile, concerns like the unstable, perhaps even crumbling EU, economic malaise, terrorism, and the neverending refugee crisis are buffeting France from the outside. No matter who is elected, this election will shape the fate of France, of Europe, and of the liberal, globalist world order that has held for the past sixty years.
But despite these high stakes, despite the vast repercussions this election will have, the election thus far has looked less like West Wing and more like Parks and Recreation. There’ve been gaffes, unfortunate promises, incompetent staffers, tense interactions between prospective and actual candidates, and astonishing numbers of corruption scandals. The polls have swung back and forth between candidates, with no candidate holding the lead for more than a few weeks. One candidate, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche, blew his lead by criticizing France’s policy during the Algerian War. Another, François Fillon of the Republicans, lost his lead after a satirical magazine revealed that he’d helped his wife embezzle hundreds of thousands of Euros. A third, Marine Le Pen, is currently slipping in the polls because of her ongoing corruption scandal.
Of these three, Le Pen has been best able to weather the storm of criticism. Somehow, her combination of blanket denials of responsibility, refusal to cooperate with investigators, and constant accusations of political targeting have touched something in her voters and convinced them to stay behind her. Even after she received summons a judge, she still barely managed to retain a lead. It probably doesn’t hurt that her ideals are similar to Pegida in Germany, the Brexiters in the UK, and Trump in the US. Pledging to provide a combination of barriers against the outside world, such as immigration restrictions, refugee refusals, and leaving the EU, and social welfare, she has diagnosed the forces of the outside world as the problem and more French support for the French as the cure.
Only percentage points behind Le Pen, fighting for the other spot in the run-off are the former front-runners, Fillon and Macron. Fillon, despite suffering from a scandal entirely identical (in principle) Le Pen’s, has fallen far lower in the polls than she has because of it. From a cynical point of view, this is probably because he caved and told the truth about what happened, instead of desperately lying and trying to cover it up. While that is likely to be true to some degree, his close ties to the establishment and active hypocrisy probably have had more of an effect. As a former prime minister, he was intimately involved with the government, creating and overseeing many of the policies that have put France in the bind it’s in today, it would be odd if he weren’t. Even his party, the Republicans, who have an ideology similar to that of the American Republican Party, and one of the two parties that have dominated French politics for the past few decades, is the establishment. And then, of course, there are the interviews that have surfaced, which both directly contradict the claims he’s made about the scandal.
Macron, by contrast, is completely clean. He didn’t even enter politics until 2014, much less have a corruption scandal. Up until this year, he had never run for office, and his political party, En Marche, didn’t exist before this election cycle. According to Macron, En Marche isn’t a political party in the conventional sense. Rather, it’s a centrist movement founded this past year, claims to transcend partisan ideology, looking to completely redefine French society by synthesizing and improving on the best ideas of the right and left. This French Alexander Hamilton fell to his current position in the polls because he said that the French had committed war crimes in Algeria, which angered conservatives, and the silence of Francois Bayrou, another centrist candidate who was considering running for president.
Far behind these three frontrunners are the remains of the left. Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Socialist Party and Left Party, respectively, have had to struggle with the massive unpopularity of the current Socialist government, as well as their lack of appeal to centrist voters, while competing with one another for the same political base. Their back and forth has included proposals for progressively more expensive programs, including a $290 billion dollar stimulus to a program of Universal Basic Income, legalization of marijuana, and environmental reform. As this French Bernie Sanders and a former Trotskyite fight to prove who’s the better leftist, their efforts have split the left, leaving neither of them a chance at becoming president.
Right after the start of the election, before the scandals started erupting, it looked as if history would repeat itself. With the votes of the left splintered between infighting parties, the run-off election was taken by an insurgent, rightist leader of the Front National and the center-right, establishment Republicans. In a further coincidental twist of fate, the Front National candidates in both of these instances are related. In 2002, it was Jean-Marie Le Pen. This year, it’s Marine Le Pen. In 2002, Chirac, the Republican candidate who had struggled with allegations of corruption, won due to a “clothespin vote,” where voters turned a blind eye and chose an experienced, moderate and decently corrupt candidate over a far-right candidate. Polling projected that something similar would happen this year with Marine Le Pen as well.
This year, however, it’s not entirely the same. Not only have there been corruption scandals on both sides, but there is also a consolidated third option. And it’s not some third party for whom French voters can hold their nose and tolerate for five years; it’s the closest thing to Obama the French have seen. Of the three leading candidates, Macron is probably in the best position. His earlier gaffe has been drowned out by the twin corruption scandals, and the current ongoing police investigations of those scandals. With a steady drumbeat of raids, searches, and court summons filling the news, his issues appear more irrelevant by the day. Not only that, but he’s received a series of critical endorsements, as he’s used his transpartisan appeal to draw voters disillusioned with the ineffectiveness and incoherence of the left or with the corruption of the right.
This year it’s different. Not only have there been corruption scandals on both sides, but there is also a consolidated third option. And it’s not some third party for whom French voters can hold their nose and tolerate for five years; it’s the closest thing to Obama the French have seen. Of the three leading candidates, Macron is probably in the best position. His earlier gaffe has been drowned out by the twin corruption scandals, and the current ongoing police investigations of those scandals. With a steady drumbeat of raids, searches, and court summons filling the news, his issues appear more irrelevant by the day. Not only that, but he’s received a series of critical endorsements from various political luminaries, including Bayrou, who voters had hoped would run a campaign of his own, and from Christophe Caresche, a Socialist lawmaker. As a result, he’s been steadily gaining, using his transpartisan appeal to draw voters disillusioned with the ineffectiveness and incoherence of the left or with the corruption of the right.
If Marine Le Pen wins, then there will be reason for worry. To paraphrase Goldfinger, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times is change. If France becomes the third major Western nation to give up on the globalist world that the West worked so hard to create and maintain, it will give the further appearance of inevitability to the other right-wing anti-globalist parties cropping up around Europe, from the Party for Freedom in the Netherland to the Alternative for Germany to Golden Dawn. Not only that, but if France falls to an inward-looking government, the European Union, of which France is both a critical and a founding member, will likely crumble from the lack of support. On the other hand, if Macron wins, his views indicate that he will look to strengthen France’s involvement in the European Union, streamline the immigration process, and generally embrace cultural change and technological development. Both candidates will make reforms, and both will likely make an effort to address the underlying issues France faces. The question is, after the election, will the new France be open, or closed?