French Presidential Election 2017: Macron v Le Pen – De Gaulle’s Last Stand

Centrist europhile Emmanuel Macron (24%, En Marche!)  and staunch eurosceptic Marine Le Pen (21.3%, National Front) have beaten off establishment candidates François Fillon (20%, The Republicans), Benoît Hamon (6.4%, Socialist Party), and a hard-leftist challenge from Jean-Luc Melenchon (19.6%, Unsubmissive France) into the second round of voting in the 2017 French Presidential Election. This has created an extraordinary match-up between two extremely different candidates. This election will prove tremendously significant in determining the direction France will take over the next five years and beyond, with wide repercussions for Europe.


Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen

The Logistics

France’s majoritarian electoral system is entrenched in Article 7 of their constitution, its processes founded from the Referendum on the Direct Election of the President of the French Republic in 1962. As no candidate achieved an overall majority in the first round, Macron and Le Pen will stand-off in a final round to be held on Sunday 7th May. Although no candidate has received the overwhelming support of the country, this two-round system has allowed an array of candidates a fair chance of reaching the final run-off, with less than 5% between the 1st and 4th placed candidate. This has provided democratic pluralism, and a sense that the final two candidates will be the two most popular. This is in direct contrast with the winner-takes-all US Presidential System. In 2016, the Electoral College provided the electorate with two widely disliked candidates, with alternatives having all but no chance of winning. Trump the victor paradoxically gained 46.1% of the vote to Clinton’s 48.2% (an analysis of the flaws of the US Electoral College can be found here). The French head-to-head will guarantee the elected President will carry the mandate of at least 50% of the electorate, and thus has arguably much higher democratic legitimacy. Contrasts with US two-party dominance, synonymous with the influence of status, money and super-PACs, can also be found France’s Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA). This has strictly enforced equal broadcasting time for all candidates since the campaign officially started on the 10th April. This has arguably allowed the likes of outsider Melenchon to rise in the polls, largely a result of his popular performances in the official debates. In 2016, the superiority of the US Democratic and Republican candidates left outsider alternatives with little media recognition, culminating in only a 5.7% showing for third-parties/independents, creating the very narrow debate which has been eclipsed by French pluralism.

The Fifth Republic

This election has already been one of firsts, on 1st December 2016, incumbent president François Hollande of the Socialist Party (PS) declared on 1 December 2016 that he would not seek re-election in light of low approval ratings. He became the first incumbent president not to stand for a second term since the Fifth Republic was established in 1958. It was also the first by which the nominees of the main parties were selected through open primaries (although their candidates didn’t prove to be election-winners). Since the first French revolution of 1789 there had been a succession of short-lived regimes: a Directoire, a consulate, two empires, two monarchies, and five republics, as well as the Vichy regime during World War II. Democratic stability was found through the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, who founded the Fifth Republic of 1958, with its executive dominance arguably used to entrench his own position at the epitome of French politics (he held the presidency until 1968). The former general, who had led the French resistance in World War II, had come out of retirement to craft a new constitution on the backdrop of a successful French military takeover in colonial Algeria, which threatened a cascade of coups across the empire. It gave the president enhanced powers at the expense of the unstable legislature which had resulted in 16 prime ministers in 12 years during the immobilisme 1946-1958 Third Republic, (however it was not until 1962 until a constitutional amendment gave the people the power to elect their leader). A break from Parliamentary rule, the new president would appoint the Prime Minister, in tune with the make-up of Parliament, who would lead the bicameral legislature to which they also have the power to dissolve. Furthermore, they have power over the armed forces and nuclear armoury as commander-in-chief, plus the ability to call referendums on constitutional change. No more than 24 amendments have altered this constitution, affecting two-thirds of its articles, this has given it longevity in a country used to governmental overhaul. The 5th Republic also sustained itself through the adaptation of its traditional political economy, rooted in 17th century Colbertism, the principle that the wealth and economy of France should serve the state. A sense of economic nationalism gives dirigisme (directive state intervention) a prominence in French politics, where the incoming President will be expected to steer France’s economic growth. Moreover, Jacobinism leans to a centralised French state. Although a degree of decentralisation has left these principles less relevant today that 1958, with the new President unlikely to hold the influence of Charles De Gaulle.

A French president has become powerful though their ability to exploit the constitution’s ambiguity. For example, Article 5, establishes the president’s role as ‘arbitrator’, and ‘encourages the perception that the president is above the political process but at the same time it can also legitimise almost any intervention that the president might wish to make’ (Elgie 1999, p. 76). De Gaulle entrenched presidential dominance during his time in office, sacking the Prime Minister Debre, who was critical of his deviation from the constitution, in April 1962 in favour of Pompidou, an ardent accepter of his intervention. De Gaulle saw his regime as a ‘popular monarchy’, a mediation between the people and France, a ‘Bonapartist’, using referenda to progate an sense of ‘popular sovereignty’. He had a distain for the apparent partrification of the legislature, despite his reliance on the UNR for a majority political base. The presidentialism of France was a convention that lasted until 1986, whereby the president sought to gain a coalition of support in the Assemblee Nationale and hence the president’s electoral platform became a blueprint for a subordinate government.


Image result for president charles de gaulle

Charles De Gaulle – President of France 1959-69

On the other hand, the president has not expanded his power over the past 50 or so years. The balance of Parliament in the 1970s and 1980s has seen the president’s influence vary, and a string of cohabitations (a different party in the presidency and legislature) after 1986 reduced the president powers. In the instance of cohabitation, the Prime Minister becomes the de-facto executive and the president is reduced to a ceremonial role. For example 1986-88 Socialist President François Mitterrand contended with conservative Jacques Chirac as prime minister, then Édouard Balladur 1993-95. After being elevated to the highest office, Chirac’s role was ironically curbed by Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, 1997-2002.

In, 2002, however, it seemed the dominance of the executive resurged, as the elections of the two branches aligned through five-year parliaments and five-year presidencies, and a coattail effect ensued. However, the poor relations between President Sarkozy and his own party in parliament tainted this somewhat. The lack of party representation for the two sparring candidates in this election, however, will inevitably signal a new age to the Presidency almost impossible to predict. Macron has no representation in the legislature, owing to his independent platform, although he plans to field candidates in all 577 constituencies and transform his electoral movement En Marche! into a parliamentary force. Le Pen’s National Front has only one representative in the National Assembly and two senators. This unprecedented scenario suggests a weak president with their parties having an extremely low political base. However, it appears that Macron has the upper hand in his prospective ability to form a broad socialist-centrist alliance. Furthermore, its hard to imagine the centre-right Republicans, divided since the bitter primary race and Fillon’s fake-jobs scandal, forming a coalition with the National Front.

Emmanuel Macron

Once an outsider, now the frontrunner, liberal Macron has never held elected office. However, presenting him as an anti-establishment candidate would be extremely misguided. Macron is a graduate from the elite National School of Administration, which boasts three French presidents, and a former Rothschild investment banker. An ex-member of the Socialists, he went on to advise President Hollande and then work for Prime Minister Manuel Valls as minister of economics. A proud centrist, who has since described himself as “neither left nor right”, who angered left-wing socialists with reforms including allowing shops to open more often on Sundays and deregulating industry. Policies include a unified pension system, reducing the deficit through laying off 120,000 public sector workers, slashing corporation tax from 33% to 25% with a renegotiation of the 35-hour week, investing €50bn in improving skills and renewable energy, plus crucially strengthening ties with the EU. His youth seeks to reenergise those apathetic to the status quo and garner votes from those fearful of a Le Pen presidency, but ultimately will serve to retain a pro-EU neoliberal economic agenda and not drastically alter France’s path, with the backing of head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. The lack of a left-wing alternative in this election will force those on the left to vote reluctantly for Macron to defeat the far-right.

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen represents the rejection of the pro-Europe, liberal status-quo. She has all-but gained the endorsement of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and seeks to appeal the far-right National Front to the wider electorate. She follows the ideological footsteps of her father, but pragmatically expelled him in 2015 to lose the allegations of racism and Holocaust-denial, and become an alternative for French conservatives. An experienced lawyer, since 2004 she has been an MEP in the institution she detests – the European Union, and would return to the franc and hold a referendum on France’s membership of this. Policies also include an expulsion of all illegal immigrants and limiting intake of legals to 10,000, after a temporary suspension of all immigration. Furthermore, by closing extremist mosques, banning Muslim headscarves and veils, a priority to nationals in social housing and a tariff of 35% on imports from relocated firms her nationalist narrative is clear. Contrary to Macron she will assure the 35-hour week, and also reduce the retirement age to 60. Le Pen is clearly the change candidate, albeit in a lurch to the right, and will face the wrath of European liberalism in her quest to change France in her vision. A feat which will be difficult to overcome. Whether she has truly distanced the party, and herself, from its fascist roots remains to be seen.

It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else…

…almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

George Orwell: What is Fascism

The Frexit Referendum (or just a Macron shoe-in)

A principal issue of this election will be on France’s membership of the European Union. With the final two candidates having such opposing visions of France’s future, this election with hence serve as a de-facto referendum, intertwined with the many other issues French citizens will vote on. However, it would appear that the direction of France is all but determined, with Macron invariably the president-elect of France. Mrs Le Pen simply does not have the numbers to win this election. Her current support base stands at 21.3%, meaning that she will have to convince all conservative supporters to sing her tune, perhaps alongside a chunk of the Melenchon supporters who share her euroscepticism. Considering that conservative Fillon has already endorsed Macron as part of a anti-fascist block, and the likelihood that he will be able to command the support of most centre-left voters in the absence of a leftist candidate, Le Pen is up against it. This situation also arose in 2002, where almost all parties called for a vote against Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, with incumbent Chirac consequently going down as achieving the biggest landslide in a French presidential election, surpassing Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in 1848, with 82.2% of the vote, despite being described by many as a ‘crook’ due to corruption scandals arisen from his time as Mayor of Paris. The election in France is worlds away from that of the US election last year, where Donald Trump emerged through the use of the Republican Party machine. Thus, there’s little to see Le Pen’s call to French “patriots” convert to electoral success. Although, her fortunes were assisted somewhat by the terror attack last week, even a major catastrophe like that would seem not enough to turn the race on its head.

However the election pans out, this French election has put the US to shame. Their claim to be the world’s oldest democracy has again been disgraced as for the 5th time the winning candidate was elected only by legality, losing the popular vote. This is not to present France as a model democracy. For one, the power held by the President compared to the weak legislature has resulted in feeble checks and balances in contrast to its Western counterparts. For two, the first round voting structure can split voting blocs and disadvantage candidates, evident in the fact that principle leftists Hamon and Melenchon together commanded almost 26% of the vote, which if united would have more than ensured left-wing representation in the second round. Furthermore, the Socialist candidate Jospin in 2002 was avoidably excluded from the second round by support for splintered left-wing candidates that took away votes. The only way to avoid this would be the implementation of Alternative Vote (AV), a preferential system which would allow citizens to cast their ballots without fear of tactical imbalances.

Nevertheless, France has been through much constitutional upheaval over the years, and the sentiment of democracy fought since the revolutions since the 19th century has produced a much fairer system in electing a president. French citizens have an indispensable choice to make on the 7th May, but in my eyes the result is all but certain.

For further context, The French Revolution: The Bloodied Key to Modern Politics is a must read.

Ben Clift (2008) The Fifth Republic at Fifty: The Changing Face of French Politics and Political Economy, Modern & Contemporary France, 16:4, 383-398, DOI: 10.1080/09639480802413322


2 thoughts on “French Presidential Election 2017: Macron v Le Pen – De Gaulle’s Last Stand

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