Whither France? Einaudi Center experts react to French elections

After a contentious campaign, French voters went to the polls on April 23 and chose two non-traditional candidates to face off against each other in May 7 elections. The winners were Emmanuel Macron, a former businessman and finance minister with no formal party affiliation, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. Neither received more than 24 percent of the vote, and two others, François Fillon (center-right) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (far left) had nearly 20 percent. We asked Einaudi Center-affiliated experts for their reactions. 

Christopher Way

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this election is how unsurprising the result was. Given the twists and turns of the campaign, a last-minute terrorist attack, and the historic inaccuracy of French polls, it is a remarkable that the four top candidates ended up within a point of their polling averages. Now with the first round out of the way, the second round will be a yawner – it is hard to see any path to victory for Le Pen.

Hopefully this result puts to rest some wrong ideas about populist right parties in Europe. First, they simply do not outperform their polls. Le Pen slightly under-performed her polls. Similarly unremarkable performances were turned in by right parties in recent elections in the Netherlands, Finland, and Bulgaria – and UKIP is barely registering in polls for the upcoming British elections. There simply are no "shy" or "hidden" populist right voters. The populist right is not surging in Europe.

The big under-reported story of this election is that the next president will lack strong party support in the French National Assembly. Unless something unexpected happens in the Assembly elections in June, the new president will have a difficult path forward to get legislation passed in a parliament controlled by other parties. This could easily lead to a period of political paralysis, which could in turn foster further dissatisfaction in the French electorate. If this happens, the unraveling of the party system seen in this election could accelerate by the time of the next one. 

Christopher Way is an associate professor of government and director of the Cornell Institute for European Studies.

Mabel Berezin

Mabel Berezin

First, the election signaled the end of the political competitiveness of institutionalized French politics. This is the first time in recent French electoral history that neither of the established political parties – Socialists or Republicans – made it into the second round. This wasn’t completely out of the blue, however. In the 2012 election, the two extremes, Le Pen and Mélenchon, attracted more total votes than either Socialist Francois Hollande or Republican Nicholas Sarkozy.

Second, the tension between globalism and nationalism is finally out in the open. Macron is the quintessential cosmopolitan globalist. He is the candidate that the rest of Europe wants and is supported by the educated mobile young who pursue opportunities in a global arena. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, is a committed nationalist. She wants to tighten borders against terrorists and illegal immigrants, is fervently anti-European Union and preaches a form of “economic protectionism.” She is the candidate of the rust belts of France as well as the rural areas. If Marine Le Pen were elected President of France, the EU would be seriously weakened as well as NATO.

But, I’d contend that Marine Le Pen is not going to win – at least not in 2017. The National Front has significant negative baggage of xenophobia and anti-Semitism attached to it. Normalizing the party will take more than a few years.

Social inequality is the big question facing all European politicians. Macron, if elected, will need to find ways to provide opportunities not only for the educated but also for those youth who are truly left behind by globalization and see no future. The next two weeks are going to be fascinating political theater that will lay bare the major social, economic, and cultural fissures in France and Europe.

Both Macron and Le Pen, the outsider candidates, are charismatic figures with prodigious amounts of political talent. Even if Le Pen loses, she is not leaving the French political scene anytime soon. Populism in France and in Europe will be with us well into the future.

Mabel Berezin is professor of sociology and author of Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security and Populism in the New Europe and Europe Without Borders.

Anna Leander

The results of this first round show at least three interesting things about the slide towards nationalist populism (on the left and right) in France.

First, it is less massive than many hoped or feared. Le Pen’s campaigners were disappointed. They got less than they hoped for and only 5 percent of the Parisian vote.

Second, the digital campaigning used by the populists did not pay off. Mélenchon’s use of holograms was just a curiosity, while the online game FiscalKombat developed by his campaign caused irritation. It excluded Le Pen from the cast of oligarchs to be “shaken” and portrayed banker Macron’s nose as big and crooked.

Third, the results nonetheless confirm the dire straits the established democratic practices are in. The existing political parties are imploding. The winners lead “movements” propagating “alternatives” to traditional politics. These alternatives are unclear about everything except their positing against the existing institutions. The question is whether this necessarily means they are for nationalist populism.

Anna Leander is a visiting scholar at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. A citizen of France, she is a professor of international political sociology at universities in Brazil and Denmark.

Stefano Guzzini

Opinion polls were correct. No surprise. Yet, what will happen in the parliamentary elections that follow the second round?

Except for Le Pen, the present vote is a poor indicator of actual party strength. Many voters, left and right, cast their ballot not for their preferred candidate or party, but for the one most likely to beat Le Pen in the second round. Without this vote utile, En Marche, the movement for Macron, will be trailing in districts where traditional party allegiances resurface. With whom will he align?

Mélenchon got many socialist votes who can return “home.” Where will which party desist? The major risk is a weak and/or heterogeneous majority, moreover not supporting the president. It is most likely that whoever wins the presidential election is going to lose the parliamentary one. The president may well be the head of state, but without a presidential majority in Parliament, the prime minister is the actual head of government.

Stefano Guzzini, a visiting scholar at the Reppy Institute, studies international theory, security, foreign policy, and theories of power. He edited the book The Return of Geopolitics in Europe?