A Vote for Change – Some Critical Thoughts Before the Second Round of the French Presidential Elections

“All’s Well That Ends Well”

              -William Shakespeare

After the first round of elections in France on April 23, 2017, I would like to give a short overview of the results, the candidates and the outcomes.

The Results

The first round’s winner, Emmanuel Macron, achieved 24 percent with his political movement En Marche!. He and the second placed Marine Le Pen/Le Front National (21,3%) are the candidates for the second round, taking place next Sunday.

The other candidates from the first round were François Fillon/Les Républicains (20%) and Benoît Hamon/Parti Socialiste (6,4%), both representing the two biggest parties in France. Another quite successful first-round candidate was the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon/La France insoumise with 19,6 percent.

After the final TV debate, and a very confrontational week, various polls for the votes on Sunday predict Macron winning with about 50 percent and Marine Le Pen around 35 to 40 percent.

After the U.S. elections and the referendum in Great Britain (‘Brexit’) last year, polls seemed to be unable to forecast the results from public votes. Similar to the Dutch elections in March 2017, polls for the first round in France have been almost correct again. However, for the second round there are still doubts. Unknown variables are for example voters from the far-left: Mélenchon gave no advice for supporters on how to vote. On the one hand, his voters are in some points, like their criticism of the EU, closer to Marine Le Pen and the Front National than to the pro-EU Macron. On the other hand, current polls have shown that Mélenchon’s supporters, like many Socialists, deny voting at all. Lastly, as seen in many other European elections, a high number of French voters are still undecided if they will vote and for whom.

The Presidential election is before the elections of the lower house of the French parliament (Assemblée Nationale) in June. This might be the biggest obstacle for Marcon, who is missing a party. He worked as Minister of Economic Affairs for the Socialist party under Hollande and left the party after several disputes concerning reforming the social sector and the administrative decision to withdraw the French citizenship of accused terrorists. Last year, Macron set up his movement En Marche! (On the Move) which is self-proclaimed as neither right nor left. As elected president, he would need the support of the established parties.

The Old and New Candidates

In this second section, I would like to present my interpretations of the election, both after the first round and before the second vote.

First of all, the result is the symptom caused by the crisis of the French party system and the misbalance between the French population and their political elite. The strength of Macron and Le Pen is related to the weakness of both established parties. First and foremost, the low rates for the Socialist party are resulting from a vast disillusion after Hollande’s presidential term. And second, the Republicans lost many supporters after scandals, both big and small, lastly and best known is Fillon’s ‘Penelopegate’ during the electoral campaign. This left a gap for new, fresh candidates aside the so-called establishment, a paradoxical impression both candidates have in common. Macron has never run for an election before and Marine Le Pen has never held a ministerial or French parliament post before. From this position, Macron and Le Pen share similar positions by claiming to be against the established system and not belonging to the political elites. This is only partly true as Marine Le Pen has been the leader of the Front National for six years and Macron held a ministerial post before. Additionally, Marine Le Pen’s father is the founder of the FN, and like Macron she went to one of the elite schools and universities in France. Therefore, the whole election campaign also reflects a struggle of credibility.

As Le Pen and Macron are claiming to be ‘against the system’, their answers on how to manage French problems, like the high (youth) unemployment rate or security issues after the terrorist attacks, are fundamentally different. After all, discussions are not about concrete solutions, but about being for or against the European Union, immigration or solely for or against Marine Le Pen/the FN. This strong polarisation reflects current trends in the U.S. and European election campaigns.

The Outlook

Regardless of who will win the election on Sunday, the new president will be faced with a divided society. Next to the countless national problems, Macron or Le Pen would need to reunite and reconcile the divided society and overcome social rifts between the working class and intellectuals, the youth and aged and the poorer rural and richer urban parts of the country. As the vote on Sunday shows the end of power sharing between the established parties (Socialists and Republicans), many intellectuals are also talking about the end of the fifth republic.

In Germany, I read the hopeful interpretation that if Marine Le Pen will ‘lose’ the elections, like Geert Wilders lost in the Netherlands, this will demonstrate the end of the success of right- wing parties in European countries. In my view, this is a rather optimist position. Even if Marine Le Pen does not win and if Wilders had not lost the highest position in two important European countries, right-wing parties like the FN or Wilder’s Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid) are still established actors and manage to shape the public discussion on a wide range of topics. In France, parties of the radical poles of the political spectrum, on the far right and far left, have gained, together, over 40 percent of the votes, as they have many parallels in common – especially in rejecting the European Union. Therefore, one should be rather concerned about the overall political landscape in Europe, also with regard to the German elections in September 2017.

Disclaimer: The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.

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Anna Mühlhausen completed her M.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies in October 2015 at University of Magdeburg, focusing on negotiations with violent groups and reconciliation processes after terrorist violence. She holds a B.A. degree in Political Science and History from University of Kassel. Since December 2016 she is part of the Brandt School's admin team and is responsible for planning the MPP Curriculum.