The outsiders’ race for the Elysee Palace
31 Mar 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Steve Shupe.

The French presidential election due on 23 April has failed to ignite much interest in the English language media, even though it represents a major political upheaval, with establishment candidates such as Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé, and Manuel Valls not even making it past the primaries.

There are now four main candidates. Under French law, when there is no clear winner, only the two leading vote-winners proceed to the second round scheduled for 7 May.

The latest polls indicate that Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National (FN) and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! (On the Move) are likely to make it to the run-off. As things stand, Le Pen is ahead in the polls for the first round, but is substantially behind Macron in the second.

Francois Fillon, representing the right-of-centre Les Republicains, is under formal investigation over corruption allegations. He is accused of paying his wife, who is also under formal investigation, and two adult children close to a million euros for work they allegedly never undertook. The socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, dubbed the French Bernie Sanders, is a more radical leftist than Francois Hollande but there are serious questions as to whether the French electorate is ready for someone who wants to legalise cannabis and phase out nuclear energy.

A win by Marine Le Pen could trigger more instability in Europe and further afield. Her appeal flows from her simple, anti-elite slogans which resonate with many French people who feel abandoned by what they see as a corrupt elite. Le Pen is an avowed nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim candidate who is anti-EU and praises Brexit, arguing that the UK’s June 23, 2016 vote was a vote for “border control, re-industrialisation, economic patriotism, intelligent protectionism.” She has raised the prospects of a Frexit and a French withdrawal from NATO.

Le Pen asserts that globalisation is undermining France, economically, socially and culturally. Her victory would bring about major changes to France, Europe and the world, as she would seek to implement policies which challenge the established order which she argues rests on ‘unregulated globalisation’—a reference to neoliberal economic policies, immigration and multiculturalism. Len Pen’s economic policies call for maintaining the 35-hour week, reducing taxes, allowing people to retire at 60, assuming control over France’s Central Bank, and introducing trade barriers as a way of supporting small businesses. She has moved away from calling on France to abandon the euro, opting instead to support a referendum as to whether France should remain in the EU.

Emmanuel Macron has galvanised French youth just as Barack Obama did in 2008. In 2014, Macron became Francois Hollande’s economic minister. That was his only experience in politics and he quit in 2016 promising to lead a ‘democratic revolution’ against a ‘vacuous’ political system. Within months, his party, En Marche! had more than 55,000 members who declare they knock on doors not to ‘sell’ Macronism, but to listen.

Macron is similar to other contemporary populist leaders in that his run for the presidency is his first attempt to win elected office. His campaign is driven by his claim that the French political system is controlled by complacent, corrupt politicians and a governing class that ignores the needs of the people. But Macron’s not a true outsider. He read philosophy and public affairs at Sciences Po and attended the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), France’s top civil service school, which has produced three presidents and six prime ministers.

Macron has also worked for the Rothschild investment bank. He appears to be pro-business, allowing young people to work longer than France’s 35-hour a week, as he argues that the nation’s economic model is unsustainable. This agenda resonates with many French people who are out of work and who believe that France’s post-war economic system has created deep inequalities by favouring mostly insiders, those with a permanent job contract and stable employment.

The French state accounts for 57% of France’s GDP. Unemployment is still stubbornly high at 10%, and a worrying 25% for France’s youth. This may help explain why a 2016 poll found the French to be the most pessimistic people on earth, with 81% of respondents saying the world was getting worse and only 3% seeing it as getting better. Interestingly, Macron has suggested that France should capitalise on Brexit by encouraging British business to move to France, which would require substantial revision of France’s economic and employment system. Infused within his policies is the cutting of 120,000 civil service jobs and investing €50bn in the economy.

The race by two outsiders for the Élysée Palace underlines that anti-establishment, populist movements have yet to run their course. Macron and Le Pen represent two very different futures for France and Europe. What unites them is their populism and anti-establishment sentiments fundamentally at odds with old orthodoxies.