French Elections 2017: Looking Past the Hype

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The five main candidates – François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, Benoît Hamon -Editoweb

Alban Bargain-Villéger

On April 23 and May 7, 2017, French voters will be electing the eighth president of the Fifth Republic. In the last three months, much ink has been spilled over how decisive this year’s election will be. However, while this campaign has indeed been marked by several violent confrontations and scandalous revelations, its dynamics and the themes it addresses fall in line with previous political contests from 1958 onwards. Granted, some issues, like the environment, have gained in importance, and the apparent rise of a strong centre under Emmanuel Macron adds a new element. That being said, the media (in and outside of France) have overstated the uniqueness of the current campaign.

The following pages analyse three myths or half-truths that have been rife in the media ever since the first polls came out. First, this post puts in context the oft-repeated statement that the present campaign has been an exceptionally violent one. Second, I will address the red herring of the “return” of fascism and populism. The third section will focus on the supposed obsolescence of the Right-Left dichotomy championed by Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron – albeit for different reasons – and look at the widespread commonplace that Macron’s En marche! Movement would, if victorious, usher in a new era in French politics, which would henceforth be dominated by a strong “centre” party.

First, a brief overview of the recent history of French political institutions. Established by Charles de Gaulle – with the help of Michel Debré and other of his faithful followers – and approved by referendum in 1958, the Fifth Republic emerged out of the political turmoil caused by the Algerian War (1954-62) and of the institutional crisis plaguing the unstable Fourth Republic (1946-1958). Unlike its predecessor, the new constitution stipulates that the President is elected directly by universal suffrage – as opposed to being invested by the parliament. Due to this increased legitimacy, the Presidents of the Fifth Republic have had considerable leeway in the realms of foreign and military affairs. While the Prime Minister is still the head of government, he/she is appointed by the President, who can let him/her go at any time. In addition, as per article 12, the President can also disband the Chamber of Deputies (but not the Senate) at his discretion.

The Seven Presidents of the French Fifth Republic

Overall, then, the current regime has the advantage of being relatively stable. However, it is not particularly transparent, and rather complex compared with other liberal democratic traditions. In Canada, the possibility of minority rule counterbalances the mostly symbolic figure of the Governor General, and limits the risk of governmental instability. In France, as in many other European democracies, minority governments can only stay in power under special circumstances, as the highly polarized nature of politics makes it unlikely for the opposition to give a confidence vote to the party or coalition in power. This need for majority rule often results in coalition governments. As far as its legislative institutions are concerned, then, French political institutions are not that exceptional: they are based on a bicameral system involving constant communication between members of parliament and ministers – the President is not allowed to directly address the parliament, except (since 2008) when it is gathered in congress.

What is so special about French politics is that it rests on two simultaneous vectors of legitimacy – that of the President, elected for a five-year term, and that of the parliament (the Chamber of deputies, elected by direct suffrage every five years, and the Senate, elected indirectly every six years). This state of affairs can lead to a situation that might seem bizarre to a Canadian observer: a cohabitation. In this situation, where the presidential party is in the opposition in the Chamber of Deputies, the head of State is forced to choose a Prime Minister among the members of the new majority. Such a scenario was more likely to happen when the President was elected for a seven-year term. So far, the regime has known three cohabitations (1986-88, 1993-95, and 1997-2002). Today the risk of cohabitation has been greatly reduced, as Chirac’s 2000 reform shortened the presidential term to five years.

While cohabitation seems like a thing of the past, one should not forget that the presidential election will be followed by an equally important parliamentary election on June 11 and 18. It would appear at first that the probable elimination in the first round of the presidential election, of the two principal factions that have dominated the political arena since 1958, namely the Gaullists and the Socialists, would mark a turning point in French politics. Nonetheless, the opinion polls for the Chamber of Deputy election show a certain continuity in the Left-Right dichotomy. Indeed, as the ballot system is a riding-based one, the traditional parties will have an immense advantage over Macron’s En marche!, whose local organization is close to non-existent. Although Benoît Hamon’s PS (Parti socialiste) is currently riding in fifth position, the Socialists control many ridings, and only a handful of them are likely to support Macron. As for Les Républicains (which represents the traditional, conservative Right), they are likely to obtain a majority of the seats. At the end of the day, Macron’s success in the parliamentary elections will depend on his ability to negotiate ad hoc alliances with PS, Centre-Right and (possibly) some rightwing candidates.


One of the media’s most common criticisms concern the allegedly unprecedented level of aggression that has characterized the campaign so far. The scandal known as the “Penelopegate” (after Penelope Fillon, whose husband François Fillon was indicted on suspicion of fraud and of having fictitiously employed his wife), which contributed to the Republican candidate’s major dive in the polls, certainly pushed the former frontrunner and his entourage to opt for a more aggressive strategy. The more recent revelations that Marine Le Pen might have fictitiously employed several members of the Front national also kindled a wave of violent outbursts on both sides of the spectrum.

Nonetheless, this increase in rhetorical violence is not exactly exceptional. First, this campaign’s lack of substance has been overstated. For instance, François Fillon’s neoliberal, Thatcherian views, as well as the pros and cons of Benoît Hamon’s proposal to create a basic income guarantee have been debated at length. Secondly, several major candidates in the regime’s history have been suspected of breaking the law before and/or during an electoral campaign. In 1969, Charles de Gaulle’s former Prime Minister Georges Pompidou won the election despite a rumour that he and his wife Claude had been indirectly involved in the murder of Stevan Markovic, a Yugoslav gangster. According to gossip, Claude Pompidou, was being blackmailed by Markovic, who had supposedly taken pictures of her at an orgy. The scandal, which had emerged in October 1968, only began losing steam in the last weeks of the campaign, in June 1969. Finally, most campaigns have been ridden with fierce debates and, at times, changes of allegiance or betrayals, as in 1995, when the Prime Minister Édouard Balladur decided to run against his old friend and fellow party member Jacques Chirac. The latter eventually won the election and subsequently purged the party of those who had chosen to support Balladur – including Nicolas Sarkozy.

Another common observation is that “the thirties are back.”[1] The alleged return of fascism is a well-worn subject. The ghost of the 1930s has loomed large in the popular imagination and in academia since the end of the Second World War. Besides, today’s European far Right has recycled some of the themes championed by interwar quasi-fascist parties, as they are avowedly anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-liberal, ultranationalist organisations. Like their 1930s predecessors, they refuse to be labeled as part of the “extreme Right”, and reject the Left-Right dichotomy. However, the fact that the far Right is more popular than ever does not automatically mean that French people are more nationalistic or xenophobic than they used to be. Just as the FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs – Freedom Party of Austria) has moderated its openly anti-immigration views since Jörg Haider’s death, Marine Le Pen has striven to distance herself from the ultranationalist, racist, neoliberal features that characterized the Front national under her father’s leadership. Due to its leaders’ skillful use of various social media combined with more traditional communication strategies, the Front national seems to have managed to convince some that it has become a “republican” party, attached to an uncompromising, exclusionary understanding of secularism.

The fear of a return of fascism was already present in the 1970s, when anti-foreigner violence became more frequent in several parts of France. In fact, what became known as “ratonnades” (from the racial slur raton – “small rat”) had already begun in the early 1960s, with the killing of several hundred Algerians in Paris, some by police, in 1961. More frequent, albeit comparatively less bloody, the ratonnades of the 1970s, especially the 1973 Grasse and Marseille riots, also reminded some of the interwar period. Unfortunately, xenophobia, and racism have been prominent in French politics since at least the 1970s. Equally worrisome is the use, by some, of the Front national threat to stigmatize the “Left” in general, supposedly guilty of refusing to unite against the extreme Right. A return of the Popular Front (another creature of the 1930s) would not be such a bad idea, but what would unite the “Lefts” (from the Trotskyists to the right of the Socialist Party) if they came to power, except a common dislike of Marine Le Pen? In 1926, Léon Blum, the interwar leader of the SFIO (Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière – French Section of the Workers’ International, the ancestor of the PS) proposed a dual model: that of the conquest/exercise of power. While a united front against the FN would possibly result in a victory for the Left, irreconcilable differences within the latter would render the exercise of power difficult. Finally, as in chess, history rarely repeats itself in the exact same way. Although patterns do exist, predicting the future and its outcomes is nigh impossible.

This leads us to the third commonplace, namely the disappearance of the Right-Left spectrum. Although every election has had (usually centre or far-right) candidates claiming to be above partisan politics, this campaign is unique, in that Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, both of whom reject that cleavage, are likely to face each other in the second round. On the surface, one might surmise that 2017 will mark a sea change in French politics. Nonetheless, ideas do not simply disappear just by wishing them away. Here a quote by Émile-Auguste Chartier, also known as Alain, definitely applies to the current situation: “[w]hen I am being asked whether the rift between Right and Left parties, rightists and leftists, still makes sense, the first thought that comes to mind is that the person asking this question is certainly not a leftist.”[2] After demands for national unity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the idea of an interparty truce brought back memories of the illusory postwar alliance (1944-47) initially embodied by Charles de Gaulle, who opposed the primacy of partisan politics.[3] The disappearance of party politics and ideology is an illusion. The view, championed by Macron and Fillon alike, that only more or less radical organisations of the Left and the Right are “ideological” is quite emblematic of a concept that could be called the liberal swindle. The latter posits that liberalism is an ideology whose proponents have attempted to portray it as the only worldview that makes sense, and thus as a non-ideology, a principle located above the supposedly vulgar world of politics. Nonetheless, liberalism rests on easily identifiable core tenets – free trade, individual rights, [limited] freedom of thought, freedom to own property, etc. – which have been theorized by several thinkers, such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, among others. On the one hand, Marine Le Pen (by no means a liberal) rejects the Right-Left model on strategic grounds in order to conquer socioeconomically déclassé voters. Macron, on the other hand, falls in with the tradition of portraying liberalism as an unarguably moderate, non-violent, altruistic set of beliefs.

However, the debates have shown that the Right-Left dichotomy is alive and well. Although Macron’s En marche! may seem at first like a breath of fresh air in the political arena, a closer look at what it stands for (pro-big business measures, the flexibilisation of labour) positions it somewhere on the center-right of the spectrum. The fact that a wide variety of personalities support the movement, from former Communist Party leaders to prominent conservative figures, should not obscure the obvious British-style liberal makeup of Macron’s brainchild. Thus, the more the candidate clarifies his programme, the less pathbreaking it appears. As the late René Rémond would probably have opined, the presence of this new player confirms a certain continuity in French political dynamics. In Les Droites en France, Rémond established a taxonomy of the Rights since the nineteenth century. While this book has known several editions since its first publication in 1954, and although some of the arguments it advanced have been successfully challenged, Rémond’s “three Right” model still applies in some cases.

According to this taxonomy, ever since the beginning of the Restoration (1815), the political spectrum has known no more than three right-wing traditions: Legitimism, Orleanism, and Bonapartism.[4] While the Legitimists are the ancestors of today’s republican conservatives, the Orleanists favour a society modelled on British-style socioeconomic liberalism. As for the Bonapartists, they believe in the primacy of order, authority, the aura of a charismatic, paternalistic leader, allied with a moderately social fiber. Although these categories are fluid, Macron can be seen as a twenty-first century avatar of Orleanism. Although in some respects the Republican candidate Fillon also seems to embody some aspects of Orleanism, he stands for the socially conservative views usually associated with Legitimism. As for the Front national, it corresponds (even more so under Marine than under Jean-Marie) to the Bonapartist type. A similar exercise could be done with the Left, as many historians seem to agree on a four-pronged typology (anarchism, communism, socialism, radicalism – the latter now being a misnomer).[5] Unfortunately this will have to wait for another post.

Finally, the possible emergence of a pure centre party in France, along with a Nordic model of democracy based on consensus is highly unlikely, as every attempt to alter the confrontation-based model inherent to the French system has failed so far. Jean Lecanuet (in 1965), Raymond Barre (in 1988), and François Bayrou (in 2007 and 2012) never succeeded in drawing a wedge between Left and Right. Of course, some have mentioned the Valéry Giscard d’Estaing era, but his majority greatly depended on the Gaullists (who were by then unarguably on the Right). Giscard found himself in dire straits as soon as Chirac stepped down as Prime Minister and withdrew his support. The main question now is: if Macron becomes president (which is very likely), will he be able to command a solid majority in the wake of the parliamentary elections?

Alban Bargain-Villéger is currently a sessional faculty member at York University, where he specializes in modern European history. His current research project involves a comparative study of Arran, Borkum, and Groix, three small islands off the coasts of Scotland, France, and Germany, respectively.


[1] Alain Duhamel, “Marine Le Pen: Le retour aux années 1930,” Libération, March 31, 2011,

[2] Alain, “Propos de décembre 1930,” quoted in André Comte-Sponville, “Droite/Gauche,” Philosophie magazine, October 3, 2013,

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

[3] Charles de Gaulle, “Discours de Bayeux,” Institut national de l’audiovisuel (Ina), January 1, 1946,

[4] René Rémond, Les droites en France, (Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1982), 37 41.

[5] Jean-Jacques Becker and Gilles Candar, Histoire des gauches en France, Volume 1: L’héritage du XIXe siècle (Paris: La Découverte, 2004), 8.

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