On April 23, Marine Le Pen, of the right-wing Front National, and Emmanuel Macron, head of his fledgling party En Marche!, won the first round of the French Presidential election and moved on to the final round, to be held on May 7. They defeated Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party, François Fillon of center-right Les Républicains, and the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise [sic], among other candidates. Staff writer Christopher Russo sat down with History Professor David Bell to talk about it.
CR: So the polls so far show that Macron has a substantial lead over Le Pen. Is it safe to assume he is going to win?
DB: “Yeah, I mean, the polls show him way ahead. The so-called “republican front” that formed in 2002 to defeat her father has pretty much formed again. People from across the political spectrum are backing him. She has had a pretty hard ceiling that is well under 50%, so I would find it quite shocking if she won at this point. Of course, even with what happened in the United States, [Trump] was never as far behind in the polls as she is.”
CR: France has suffered some of the worst terror attacks in the West in recent memory and the Front National has played a pretty big role in politics for a long time, but it looks like Le Pen is going to lose. Why is the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic, populist going to lose in France, when those sorts of candidates won in the UK, the US, and elsewhere in Europe?
DB: Well, that’s a good question. First, to start out, I think in some ways the factors that drove Trump and Brexit are very much the same factors that have driven the FN for a long time. Deindustrialization, anger at entrenched elites, the supposed threat of immigration and terrorism, fears of globalization, and all of these things, but I think that in France there are a couple of differences. Trump was somebody who appeared really within a major party. In Britain Brexit had quite a bit of support in the Tory party, the leader of the Labor party was very lukewarm indeed in calling for Britain to remain in the EU. There had been lots of people within the major parties that had been calling for Brexit for a long time. Again, in the US you had Trump sort of come out of nowhere but take control of one of our two major parties. In France, they have a word, cantonner, almost a quarantine to fence off somebody. Le Pen and the FN have been fenced off for a long time. So they have been growing, and it’s been distressing, but they’ve been growing at a fairly steady and regular pace. In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen got about 18% of the vote and in the regional elections 18 months ago Marie Le Pen got about 28% in the second round. She might not do much better than that. Another thing about the National Front is that it’s always really been a party built around the leader. She has tried to de-demonize it, “dédiaboliser”, but you only have to scratch the surface of their cadres and you hit neo-Nazis pretty quickly. I think this shocks and scares people. So I think for all these reasons, absent of a really shocking upset, she really doesn’t have a chance of winning.
CR: Assuming that Le Pen does lose, do you think this is the high water mark for her and her platform? Or do you think she’ll remain important going forward?
DB: I wish I knew. I think that of course part of this depends on things out of the control of any French government, like terrorist attacks, some of these attacks, they have very good intelligence in some respects, but some of these attacks by “lone wolves” are very difficult to hold off. There are economic factors that go well beyond France. Within France it depends on how well Macron’s government does. I think he has a very difficult road. He could very well end up failing as miserably as Francois Hollande. Now in that case if there’s yet another government which is seen as failing, if the paralysis is continuing, then that could really feed her and push much higher. As I said, I think the chance of her winning this year is pretty tiny, but five years from now, ten years from now, who knows.
CR: Given Mélenchon’s success and Hollande and the Socialist Party’s abysmal approval ratings, what do you think the future of the left is going to look like in France?
DB: Well that’s a good question as well. Mélenchon did quite well this year, much better than he did five years ago. I think he himself will remain a fairly major figure on the scene. I think it will be hard to build a united left without him, but it will be hard to build a united left with him, because he’s a sort of divisive figure, his populism turns a lot of people off, his anti-Europe rhetoric turns a lot of people off, particularly the more university-educated side of the left. And so I think where the left goes from here is very difficult. It depends partly on Macron and how far to the left he governs. Macron says how he loves Scandinavian social democracy, and he says in some ways he wants to move in what is loosely called a neoliberal direction; in other ways he says he insists on building in working retraining, protections, things like that. Certainly in American terms he’s a cultural liberal, in terms of his stances on immigration, immigrant communities, sexual freedom, things like that. If he really ends up governing as a moderate to right wing socialist it’s possible that Mélenchon ends up getting marginalized; if he ends up governing more to the center right, there’s a challenge for the left of how to form a serious opposition.
CR: If you add up the support for Mélenchon and Le Pen, you have 40% of voters who are supporting Eurosceptic candidates, candidates who want to leave the EU. What does this mean for France’s relationship with the EU going forward? What’s the significance of that?
DB: Difficult, difficult. France has been hemmed in by the Eurozone in particular, much more so than by the European Union per se, but by the conditions of entering the Eurozone, the need to keep the budget deficit to within 3% of GDP, things like that. Macron says he wants to renegotiate the conditions of France’s membership in the Eurozone to the extent that he can do that. He will probably have a good working relationship with Merkel, or with whoever ends up in control in Germany, so he might be able to do that, but at the same time, I think there’s been a lot of skepticism about the European project in France for a long time. In 2005 when the European Union presented the new “constitution,” which was really more of a 500 page long treaty, the French voted it down in a referendum. I think that there has always been boilerplate talk of European construction, but I really don’t see how European construction gets any further at this point; I don’t see them entering into any new degree of unity or creating new institutions or even allowing new members to join. I see Europe standing still or even moving backwards at this point, and I think the French vote as you point to will simply confirm that.
CR: Do the demographic or geographic patterns of support for Le Pen parallel or differ from the patterns we saw with Donald Trump in the US election?
DB: In some ways they’re very similar. The classic Le Pen voter is the French equivalent of the classic Trump voter – older, white, working class, often feeling let down by economic changes, threatened by immigrants. There’s no Fox News in France, so maybe they don’t get indoctrinated to quite the same extent they do in the US. I haven’t seen the actual data yet from the first round of the election, but the polling showed there is a great deal of support for Le Pen among younger voters. That’s a major demographic difference with the US. I think there are a lot of young people who are clearly fed up with the situation. Anti-Europe rhetoric appeals to a certain group of young people in France. The anger at the economic stagnation which has left youth unemployment desperately high in France also has driven young people to Le Pen, so there are differences, yes.
CR: Both candidates are well outside political norms in France. What does this shakeup show about French popular sentiment and how can we expect the rejection of political norms to affect the future of French politics? To what extent is this part of a greater anti-establishment trend in politics in the West?
DB: I think there are two things going on here – on the one hand, it’s obviously part of an anti-establishment trend, the same thing with see with Trump, Brexit, various Eastern European figures and so on. At the same time, it’s a very traditional French pattern to be sort of anti-politics in this way. In French political culture there has always been a particularly high suspicion of politics as usual, of party politics. They do not have anything like a stable party system; what they have had is nearly at the brink of collapse and there has always been a temptation in French political culture, going back all the way even before Napoleon Bonaparte, for somebody to emerge as the figure who is above politics. People don’t realise that to be a centrist in French politics, and Macron is called a centrist, is very different from being a centrist in American politics. In American politics it usually implies a readiness to dive into the decision making process, to look for compromise between the different sides, to do a lot of deal making. In France it really means to rise above the political fray, to be a symbol not only of unity but of national harmony. General de Gaulle was the classic figure of this sort. He hated the rough and tumble of daily political life, and I think Macron is trying to pose in much the very same way. I think the fact that this Republican Front has formed to support him and that all the figures from across the spectrum are supporting him simply adds to his ability to pose as this sort of unifying figure. While there is a sort of anti-establishment impetus here that is very much part of broader Western trends, this is a classic French pattern.
CR: Do you have any other comments or concluding thoughts you’d like to say?
DB: It’s a really interesting period right now, and somewhat of a dangerous period. The first thing that is going to happen as soon as Macron wins is that he’s going to have to fight a parliamentary election in June. There’s a big question of how he does this. Does he simply try to put the Socialist Party back together again under his leadership, calling it something else? French political parties change their name all the time; they change their broad parameters all the time. Or does he really try to play off this “centrist” rhetoric and really build something genuinely new? He said he wants to do this, that he wants to run for the legislative elections on the basis of this movement he formed for his own election, En Marche, which means on the move, and he said he wants to bring in new faces who are new to politics. Can he actually do this? Will these people have an incentive to side with him and vote for him without any kind of party discipline if they’re actually elected? If he doesn’t get a majority this way, can he cobble together a majority from the other, smaller centrists groupings, from the ecologists, from at least part of the socialist party? A lot of the Socialist Party loathes him, detests him. Mélenchon will not support him certainly, people who like Mélenchon won’t support him. A lot of the people who supported Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, will not support him. I think he has a very narrow window. He has to hope that by the sheer triumph of his election, assuming it is a triumph, by his charisma, his youthfulness, his fresh facedness, that he can really bring about a change (I won’t call it a revolution) in French politics. If he doesn’t do that, I think the chances are very high—given what his actual policy prescriptions are, which are really not that different from what Hollande tried and miserably failed to do for the most part over the past five years—that within a couple of years he looks tarnished and tattered and beaten, and people are more fed up than ever, and that’s my worry, because then, under those circumstances, the 40% could easily turn into over 50%, and then we have a real crisis.
David Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions in the Department of History. His academic research focuses on the the political culture of the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution. He also frequently writes on modern French politics and regularly contributes to publications including The Nation and Dissent Magazine.