France’s next President
28 Apr 2016|

In a little more than a year, the French will vote to elect their new president. It is, of course, far too early to make any predictions. If ‘one week is a long time in politics,’ as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is reported to have said, then a year is an eternity. And yet, given the high stakes of the outcome for France and Europe, a first assessment should be attempted.

If opinion polls are to be believed, France’s next president will not be François Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy, the two most recent holders of the office. Hollande is the incumbent, but his performance has been disappointing on nearly all fronts, especially when it comes to tackling unemployment. Sarkozy’s chances are crippled by his unsavory character.

The French president under the Fifth Republic is, in British terms, both monarch and prime minister. He holds symbolic as well as real powers. Sarkozy failed, above all, to incarnate the Republic with dignity; Hollande has failed in the realms of both incarnation and action. To put it bluntly, a man who was simply ‘too much’ was succeeded by one that was just ‘not enough.’ As a result of this tandem, badly needed structural reforms have been left undone or were implemented only when it was too late.

The impact on Europe has been no less disappointing. Not since the end of François Mitterrand’s term in 1995 has there been a French president that is a match for a German chancellor. The resulting disequilibrium—not enough France, and thus too much Germany—has been one of the major political problems facing the European Union.

It is hard not to attribute the divergence in the two countries’ fortunes to the leadership they have experienced. In Germany, the reform-minded Gerhard Schröder was succeeded by the courageous Angela Merkel. In France, by contrast, Jacques Chirac’s globally passive leadership was followed by Sarkozy’s energetic but ultimately disappointing single term in office and Hollande’s irresolute, lackluster leadership.

The majority of French voters believe that next year’s election will be their last chance to regain control of their country’s destiny, rekindle its influence in Europe, and forge a new sense of direction. The disagreement—as in the United States—is over what form the change should take. A dramatic division has emerged between reformists and radicals, between those who want to make deep changes from within the system and those—

on both the extreme right and the extreme left—who want to change the system from the outside.

The political atmosphere is dominated by two major developments. On one hand, Hollande’s Socialist Party seems on the verge of political annihilation, much like the Republican Party in the US. On the other hand, the far-right National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, are enjoying a steady rise; polls give the party one-third popular support, the highest in the country, making it very likely that Le Pen will reach the second round of the presidential election.

Fortunately, there seems to be a limit to the National Front’s level of support. Whatever electoral strengths Le Pen in France or Donald Trump in the US may have, they will almost surely fail in their quests for their countries’ highest offices. Populism may be on the rise, and elites may be deeply unpopular. But unless something terrible happens—such as a series of spectacular terrorist attacks—sanity will prevail on both sides of the Atlantic.

So what does sanity look like in today’s France? Aside from Le Pen, the two most popular figures on the right and the left are, respectively, the oldest and youngest potential candidates: Alain Juppé, who served as Prime Minister under Chirac, and Emmanuel Macron, Hollande’s Minister of Economy, Industry, and Digital Affairs.

Juppé’s ratings in opinion polls have been remarkably steady, and Macron’s have been surprisingly high. It is easy to conclude that a significant majority of French voters would welcome a ticket with both of them on it—the wise, experienced man with gravitas as President and his much younger colleague as Prime Minister. Indeed, the pair would constitute a formidable cross-generational, cross-party team that might finally be able to implement much-needed reforms.

To be sure, a German-style grand coalition would not be in line with how politics is usually practiced in France, which is accustomed to a rigid left-right divide. Moreover, both men have rejected the idea of joining forces. But in politics, anything is possible.

Macron’s youth is a weakness, and he lacks the support of a party machine. Popularity is not the same thing as real political support, especially if your ambition is to rock the boat.

Juppé’s liabilities are very different. He is more adept at exercising power than he is at obtaining it. His natural shyness makes him seem distant, not unlike Hillary Clinton in the US. But he also has a unique advantage. Given his age—he will be 72 next year—he intends to run for one mandate only and does not have to think about his reelection. France may have already found its next president.