The results of today’s elections will mark the beginning of a new era in French politics. The two parties that have dominated the country’s political scene for the past century suffered humiliating losses in the first round, and must now depend on new parties for entry into the governing coalition and for a majority in the National Assembly.
The “political earthquake” that shook France in the past year “will shift all political alliances in France,” says Noelle Lenoir, a constitutional expert and former member of the Constitutional Council. “People do not believe that these parties can deliver on prosperity anymore, and it is difficult to convince them of the opposite,” she told Balkanist.
Today’s second round marks the first time that neither the Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste) nor the Republican Party (Parti Republicain) will have one of their candidates in the race since the establishment of France’s current president-dominated system in 1958. These two parties – PS on the left and PR on the right – were the axes or polarities that influenced policy debates in France for most of the Fifth Republic, France’s current system of government established by Charles de Gaulle when a volatile parliamentary system plagued by lack of consensus and “petty partisanship” put the cohesion of the Republic at risk.
Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to win today, is a political newcomer – his “En Marche” movement, rising from the internal conflicts of PS, was established only a year ago on a decidedly centrist platform. He will face off against the “boogeyman” of French politics, the radically right-wing Front National, whose candidate, Marine Le Pen has managed to elbow out the PS and PR in many regions in France where they held uncontested dominance for decades.
“In many ways, Emmanuel Macron was lucky. He has competence, personality and a lot of good luck,” says Laurence Parisot, of the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP), a French polling company. “Napoleon said: I need generals that are lucky. And Macron is lucky that the old parties are in such bad shape.”
A Fractured Party
Although both political giants will come out of these elections as significantly weaker parties, the Socialists suffered a much heavier blow and will most likely see their party lose many members to Macron’s future governing coalition or birth entirely new parties. The official candidate of the Socialists, Benoit Hamon, finished fifth, behind two former Socialists, Macron and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the latter a far-left candidate who also formed a new movement, France Unsubmissive (La France insoumise).
Even Hamon, who won the party primaries and became the official candidate running for the Socialists in this election, is among the dissidents within the PS. He came out as the leader of “Les Frondeurs” or “slingers” within the Socialist party – a group who was “slinging” criticism at President Hollande once it became clear that the left-wing platform that Hollande ran on in the 2012 elections was actually closer to a centrist agenda. Hamon’s Frondeurs are expected to break away from the Socialist Party at some point, according to sources within its leadership, and possibly form a coalition with Europe Ecologie – the Green Party.
It is expected that the party will also lose a lot of traditional Socialist members to the future president’s majority coalition. “En Marche” advisers have said that Macron will require those wanting to become part of his governing coalition to publicly show support for his platform – even if they are officially running in the National Assembly elections as members of PS.
“In terms of regaining the prestige and the support the Socialist Party once had in the French elections — frankly in the short term it is impossible,” says Jean-Louis Bianco, a high-ranking member of the PS. “This is first of all because of the results of the presidential elections and because the socialist and social-democratic line has not been popular as of late — and the socialist party itself has not defined its line within the party.”
Ironically, the last time France saw an election without a Socialist party candidate in the second round was when Le Pen “père” the father of Marine, Jean-Marie, ran in the 2002 elections and got into the second round, losing to Jacques Chirac who ran in the conservative RPR or Rally for the Republic.
A “Right-Wing” Election Without the Right
For an election characterized by the dominance of the political right, it is additionally humiliating for the Republicans not to have a candidate of their own in the decisive second round. Republican candidate Francois Fillon, who got off to a strong start, suffered political death once rumors surfaced of a scandal involving his wife Penelope. The influential Le Canard enchaine, a satirical weekly newspaper, published an article alleging that Fillon had hired his wife as a “fictitious” assistant, with a salary of 500,000€ over eight years. Fillon and the Republicans never recovered.
“We were attacked everywhere, especially in the media, about the Penelope story,” Pierre Lequiller, a longtime Republican MP from the region of Versailles, told Balkanist. “When we went in the markets and in the metros to give out fliers and we were harassed.”
“Fillon’s platform was a courageous one and he planned to undertake many reforms – even some people on the left said this. But nobody heard about his proposals because the media only spoke about the Penelope story. It was difficult to defend the project because people asked a lot of questions about other things,” says Lequiller.
Macron will need the Republican party MPs to form a majority in the National Assembly, and he will have the hurt egos of the Republicans to consider when asking them to join his ranks. “Republicans who will work with Macron will have to face a confused electorate. He has to seduce the Republicans. We will work with him in principle, but he also needs to work with us and be ready for compromise,” says Lequiller. “Macron needs to be wary of young candidates attacking young candidates.”
France’s Nationalist Front?
One of the reasons these elections have garnered so much international interest is due to the strong showing of Front National, the radical right party which has seen steady growth in the polls over the years by claiming it will rid France of its “ills”, mainly by targeting immigrants, the Socialist agenda and by supporting a strong anti-EU agenda.
Front National has existed for much longer than Macron’s En Marche, and many have “found solace” in Le Pen’s divisive rhetoric which places “France First” at a time when the electorate is facing massive economic difficulties, especially in France’s rural heartland.
Arnaud Rousseau, the president of the main French farming union in Seine-et-Marne (FDSEA), says that he has seen this happen to his farmers. “They are in a state of deep despair, and no one has provided solutions for them so far. They believe that she might at least prevent us from importing too much and thus provide less competition for our products,” he says.
“When you are in despair, you don’t think rationally anymore. You act emotionally. You don’t even listen to arguments,” he concludes.
The sense of despair among French farmers has long been a topic of discussion in France. The suicide rate amongst French farmers is 20 percent higher than across France as a whole, with almost 600 French farmers committing suicide each year, according to activists within the industry.
“When you are a farmer and you see that you can’t make a turnaround and you lose everything and you face this moment of failure, your only sense of pride is to commit suicide. The area I am in charge of is slightly more successful, so you don’t have this as much – we had two last year. But yes, this is true and it is absolutely horrible,” says Rousseau. Rosseau says he will not vote for Le Pen, but that he is not sure that Macron can solve the problems of the farmers. “I won’t give him a blank cheque – he needs to show that he understands our plight as well.”
Many have turned a blind eye to Front National’s hate-filled rhetoric and anti-Semitic past, and now see them as defenders of “French honor” after a long line of “weak candidates” from the establishment parties. Aymeric Durox, who is also from the region of Seine-et-Marne and a candidate for the French assembly for Front National, says he turned to Le Pen after he was disappointed with both the right and the left.
“I was a big supporter of Jean-Pierre Chevenement in 2002, a left politician. He loved Napoleon, I loved him and his career. He was someone who stood up to other French politicians. However, he only got 2 percent in the presidential elections,” says Durox. “Then I came across Sarkozy, who was a great communicator, a campaign beast. He reminded me of De Gaulle in his speeches.”
However, he believes that Sarkozy curbed under EU pressure. “When Sarkozy adopted the Lisbon Treaty I thought he was violating the sovereignty of the French people and I felt politically abandoned. A friend of mine told me that what I was looking for I could find in Front National and that’s when I joined them.”
Durox is confident that Le Pen is the only candidate that has the interests of the French people in mind – so much so that he created l’Antenne locale du Collectif Racine, a movement of teachers who share the ideas of Marine Le Pen – he too is a history teacher.
Cover photo credit: Lorie Shaull/flickr/some rights reserved