Four-Way Presidential Campaign Tests the Strength of French Democracy

With populists Left and Right threatening to storm the Élysée, can the center hold?

Pierpaolo Barbieri

Not so long ago, it appeared that ever-more-advanced polling techniques would soon render every election a snoozer: Models would tell us well in advance who would vote and how, taking drama out of the equation. Such was the case in 2012, when Nate Silver and his Five Thirty Eight team called every single state in the U.S. presidential election.

Not five years later, the idea that polling science could be perfected seems quaint. The comforting faith in polls gave way to the suspended disbelief of London elites as results came in from Sunderland on the long night last June when Brexit materialized, and to Silver’s own wildly shifting predictions the night Donald J. Trump won the White House in November. Outcomes are once again in doubt, which means elections have been made fun again.

This year’s French presidential campaign has never been boring. For starters, the primaries of both established parties — the storied Socialists and the Gaullist UMP, now somewhat oddly rebranded “Republicans” — led to the selection of extreme non-consensus candidates. On the right, the clean-cut Thatcherite François Fillon beat shoe-in centrist Alain Juppé and former president Nicolas Sarkozy. On the left, Benoît Hamon — a man who argues for the taxation of robots — beat sitting president François Hollande’s centered, centrist prime minister, Manuel Valls.

Hamon and Fillon, as the standard-bearers for France’s two major parties, were supposed to be the biggest challengers to the woman who had led the race since polling first began in 2013: Marine Le Pen. After inheriting the Front National from her fascistic father, the younger, populist Le Pen has been busy “de-diabolizing” the party, moving it to the left economically while maintaining its extreme-right positions on Europe and immigration. This direction became only more accented in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, hence the accounts of Socialist strongholds now voting Front National.

But Le Pen’s problem was the same one her father always faced: the second round of French elections is designed to prevent a fragmented field from leading to a populist victory by mandating that the winner takes more than 50 percent of the vote. With disapproval consistently over 50 percent, Le Pen loses badly in almost every conceivable scenario — “almost” being the operative word.

Although the Anglo-American press has been veritably Le Pen–obsessed, with outlets in Britain writing more articles on her than their Gallic peers, she has led not a single runoff poll in the whole campaign. She was projected to lose against Juppé and then Fillon when they led the polls, and now she is projected to lose to the election’s third man, Emmanuel Macron.

Like Le Pen, Macron is running as an outsider, having left the Socialist party to form his own eponymous “movement,” EM. (His initials nominally stand for “En Marche!”) Over the last four months, Macron’s campaign has gathered momentum as front-runner Fillon nose-dived in polls amid corruption allegations that tainted his wife, his children, his expensive suits, and his real-estate holdings.

Macron is running on a pro-European, anti-populist platform that calls for the French welfare state to be preserved even as pro-market economic reforms, including the loosening of France’s notoriously strict labor laws, are implemented. Though sometimes weak on foreign policy, he is very strong on the question of Europe, arguing clearly that the EU needs monetary reform rather than mere monetary accommodation to be sustainable, and calling for a serious conversation about deeper integration of European finances and defense (incidentally the two of the pillars of the early American republic). His best speech on these ideas was delivered, of all places, in Berlin.

Without arguing for Fillon’s Thatcherite revolution, Macron promises a new take on “third way” supply-side reforms at a time when social democracy looks to be in decline everywhere else, from the United States to Britain, Spain, Greece, Germany, and even Italy. Aggregate polling puts him in the second round, where he is predicted to beat the other likely candidates by a considerable margin.

Over the last 40 years, second-round polls have tended to tighten, but never topple. And yet, after two long televised debates, a fourth man has risen over the last few weeks: Jean Luc Mélenchon, who is to the extreme left what Le Pen is to the extreme right — the Bernie Sanders to France’s wannabe Trump.

Not unlike Le Pen, Mélenchon and his upstart party, La France Insoumise (literally, “Unsubmissive France”), have made “la finance” and the elite the main enemy of their campaign. Given such rhetoric, it is rather unsurprising that his platform is about as realistic as Sanders’s: He calls for the immediate dismantling of the Gaullist Fifth Republic, to be replaced by a Sixth Republic “for the people”; a 100 percent tax rate on incomes over 20 times the median; the “freeing of France from finance”; and a unilateral withdrawal from NATO. His position on Europe is at best contradictory and at worst confused: He wants to change the charter of the European Central Bank to allow it to lend directly to member states and “leave current treaties” while still somehow preserving the European Union. 

One suspects, in other words, that Mélenchon would not fare quite as well as Macron in Berlin. The trouble is that he appears to be faring quite well in France. With an impressive online operation rivaled on the European left only by that of Italy’s savvy 5 Star Movement, Mélenchon has gone viral. He is now the preferred candidate of the 18–25 demographic, many of whom follow his weekly YouTube fireside chats and dial thousands of potential supporters daily in a gameified twist on the tedium of electioneering. Though his rise has so far seemed to come mainly at the expense of the uninspiring Hamon, he is no longer all that far behind the front-runners.

After Hollande’s disastrous experiment with a 75 percent marginal tax rate at the beginning of his presidency, the French elite has been losing sleep over Mélenchon’s proposed 100 percent tax rate. Of course, enraging the rich has only helped him with his base, and that is what his critics miss: The main threat represented by his ascendancy is political rather than financial, given his expressed admiration for left-wing Latin American populists such as Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales.

In the post-Marxist tradition of philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Chávez, Morales, and their ilk have tended to deem republican checks and balances incompatible with a “volonté generale” of the disenfranchised. This populist logic may have justified their work in behalf of the poor, but it also underpinned their authoritarian lust for power and the egregious corruption of their cliques. Mélenchon is so closely identified with Chavismo in the public imagination that he felt the need to clarify this week that he does not want to “make France into Cuba.” Yet, all protestations to the contrary, his lofty plans for a Sixth Republic “free from finance” and elites are eerily reminiscent of Chávez’s own illiberal “democratization” of Venezuela. It takes real gall to argue for Venezuelan-style socialism in France at the same time that Venezuela itself is collapsing amid food shortages and the gutting of its democratic institutions.

With less than a week to go, then, the atomized French presidential field has four plausible candidates: Le Pen, Fillon, Macron and Mélenchon. Although both Le Pen and Mélenchon would lack a legislative majority to implement their extreme platforms, there are now politically viable populists on both the extreme left and the extreme right. And their populism is worryingly popular, making this election a nail-biter to the bitter end. The so-called Republican pact — the age-old unspoken agreement whereby centrist parties band together to prevent the victory of a fascistic candidate, especially one with the surname Le Pen, in the run-off — can fend off one of them in the second round, but not both.


This piece appeared in The National Review