Vidya Ram

A battle of worldviews in France

Vidya Ram | Updated on March 09, 2018



The French elections, to begin later this month, highlight the complexities inherent in the so-called rise of populism

It is less than a month till the French presidential elections kick off, with the first round set to take place on April 23, with a second round set for May 7 — the second major national European election to take place this year. It is seen as particularly significant as a test for the appeal of populism, nationalism and the far right, which have had a mixed track record over the past year.

While the Brexit referendum and the US election seemed to signal the rise of a new form of populism, the Dutch election last month muddied the waters somewhat.

The mainstream, centre-right VVD party of Mark Rutte successfully prevailed over the far right leader Geert Wilders, in a development that was seen as an example of how the far right could influence the agenda but often not make significant political headway. The re-run of the Austrian presidential elections late last year, where the far right candidate was defeated by an independent, former Green, sent a similar signal.

The flavour in France

The run-up to the French elections shares many similarities with other recent electoral contests: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right National Front has like the US President attempted to run her campaign along an anti-globalisation, anti-establishment platform (ironic, given that she comes from the political establishment, being the daughter of the party’s former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen). Like Trump, she has drawn support both from the establishment, as well as those who have felt marginalised by mainstream politics (there are high levels of unemployment particularly among the under 25 and the economy has seen tepid growth in recent years).

Like him, she has also recently faced questions regarding funding from Russia, and potential political influence from there too. As with Wilders, she is both fiercely anti-Islam, and anti-Europe, pledging to hold a referendum on France’s membership of the EU, and often wading into the debate in other countries — most recently telling the BBC that the EU would attempt to make the Brexit divorce as “painful as possible” because they didn’t want the domino effect, but that they wouldn’t succeed in doing so.

As in Britain where the traditional mainstream left party, Labour, has seen the election of a distinctly left wing “rebel” as its leader, the French Socialist party (of President Francois Hollande) has opted for a left-wing candidate, Benoit Hamon too, firmly rejecting the centrist Manuel Valls. Hamon has been compared to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn for his radical policy proposals, which include the introduction of a universal basic income, a reduction in the 35-hour working week to 32 hours, and the reversal of many of the reforms to the labour market brought in by Hollande.

Drop-outs from the race

The unpopularity of Hollande, however, has continued to weigh on the party, as has infighting within it: some Socialist Party candidates, including Valls, are now supporting Emmanuel Macron, the charismatic, independent candidate now leading in the polls. Complicating matters even further for the left, is the independent candidate who stands even further to the left of Hamon: Jean-Luc Melenchon, who speaks of the “era of the people,” and a citizens’ revolution as well as “eco socialism.” Calls from some on the left for either Hamon or Melenchon to drop out of the race in order to provide a united voice have to date been disregarded.

French politics, as is its way, has many twists of its own: Francois Fillon, the centre right Republican candidate, whose hard position on issues such as immigration and Islam had initially been seen as a potential strong front against Le Pen (it was a tough immigration strategy that helped Dutch Rutte beat Wilders), has seen his fortunes dwindle into electoral oblivion.

This was on account of allegations involving the misuse of public funds to pay his wife for work that was allegedly never carried out. His wife has been put under formal investigation over embezzlement relating to the scandal, as has Fillon himself. He has refused to step out of the electoral campaign, however, insisting the scandal is just an attempt to tarnish his reputation, and destroy his electoral chances.

Strong contenders

The concatenation of circumstances has left just two plausible contenders in the race: Macron and Le Pen, both from outside the mainstream political system, though Le Pen’s party has had moderate success (in 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen won the first round of the presidential poll, but lost heavily in the second).

The success of 39-year-old Macron and his “En Marche!” (Let’s Go!) movement is particularly striking. In many ways Macron is a very mainstream, ‘safe’ figure —a former investment banker at Rothschild, who had a stint as an economic minister under Hollande, who is being welcomed by the business and financial community, has appealed to young people with his new style of politics; this attempts to peg itself as neither left or right.

He has said in past that he is “of the left” but is open to the ideas of the right, and has prioritised fiscal prudence, as well as lowering corporation tax, alongside widening the reach of welfare benefits, and environmentally-friendly growth.

However, he has had unpredictable moments, taking on the hugely controversial issue of France’s colonial legacy. In February he warned that the country had to face up to its dark history in Algeria, including the “crimes against humanity” that had been committed in the country, and called for an apology to be made to those who had been hurt.

While some condemned him as a traitor, the fact that it has done little to dent his popularity suggests that many may agree with him on this issue.

The latest poll suggests that Macron is in the lead to win the first round of the electoral contest, and surveys by the likes of Bloomberg suggest that is the expectation (and hope) of the financial community in Paris too. Recent polls on French membership of the EU have also suggested renewed support for remaining in the union.

Nevertheless, as recent polls and referendums from the US to India have found, results can be unpredictable, particularly when very different worldviews are being pitted against each other. What the build-up to the French election clearly demonstrates, however, is that the so-called global populist uprising is far from simple, often highly dependent on the configuration of specific domestic circumstances, and is far from inevitable.

Published on March 31, 2017

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