A French Election Primer

by Daniel Hizgilov

The French election of 2017 has the potential to redefine Europe, Americans should be aware

On Sunday April 23nd, French citizens will vote in the first round of their presidential election. This is an election that could drastically change the way the European Union works and could spark a new political era in France. Understanding why this election and its implications for Europe are important requires a familiarity with the French electoral system and candidates.

France’s electoral system is designed to facilitate a run-off election. Unlike the two party system in the United States, which limits the viable presidential choices to the winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries, France’s system permits a slew of parties and their candidates to participate. Over the years, some parties shift in and out of popularity, making for an interesting electoral landscape. In the first round, candidates from each of the parties compete to see who can get to 50.1% outright. If no one does, as is usually the case, the top two vote getters will participate in a second round where the winner of the popular vote becomes the new president. This system has traditionally been a moderating force on French politics, as a wall of moderate voters tends to show up and vote for the least unliked of the two candidates. Notably, this happened in the second round of the 2002 election when voters came out for the unpopular Jaques Chirac against the even more unpopular Jean-Marie Le Pen to push him to a landslide 78% of the vote.

Before segwaying into a discussion of the candidates, it is important to point out that democracy in France is a much more fickle creature than in the United States. While the U.S. boasts the longest continuous democratic-republcian government in the West, France is on it’s Fifth republic; an end result of the overthrow of the French Monarchy in the 1790s which facilitated an unstable two centuries of struggle between autocratic and republican leadership. Notable French autocrats since the 1790s include Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XVIII, Louis Philippe I, Charles X, and Napoleon III, all reigning after the fall of various republican governments. Democracy is not a constant feature of France’s politics.

Now on to the candidates. Four notable names have a legitimate chance at winning the election and they are:

Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!)

Marcon, the candidate of the center-left En Marche! party has been labelled the tenuous frontrunner by European and American media since January. Having served as the Minister of the Economy, Finance, and Industry, Marcron has the experience to appeal to a broad base of voters who may otherwise be uniformed, but also comes with the baggage of an extensive corporate and financial background. Although he touts his socialist credentials and fancies himself a social democrat, the once member of the French Socialist party, pushed the neo-liberal policies of Bill Clinton as a model for the party to follow. Macron seems to sit in an odd place where he isn’t really a socialist, and isn’t really a classical liberal. He inhabits a gray area that makes him similar to Hillary Clinton in the U.S. election; a candidate with no real political core who seems to be in it for the glory.

Some of Marcron’s policy proposals include free markets, free trade, strong pro-EU foreign policy, and support of the open-door immigration policies of Gemany’s Angela Merkel.

Marine Le Pen (National Front)

Le Pen has been the most covered and criticized candidate of all in this election. The daughter of the uber-controversial Jean-Marie Le Pen and the new leader of the National Front, a party that traditionally represented France’s extreme right, she has both cleaned up the party’s image and message. Gone is the overt ethno-nationalism of her father, replaced by a civic nationalism that appeals to a much broader portion of France’s population. Le Pen has been riding the wave of nationalist resurgence in Europe that has come as a reactionary movement against the rise of terrorism, and the spread of conservative Islam and Islamism among Europe’s poorly integrated Muslim communities. Her platform is designed around restoring French sovereignty in European politics and resonates with the French who incidentally invented European nationalism. She has been likened to De Gaulle in her pro-France rhetoric although De Gaulle was certainly pro-integration into the European Communities. What’s interesting is that she seems to straddle the line between liberal and conservative in France, as she focuses her rhetoric on universal human rights and protecting Western liberal values.

Le Pen’s policy proposals include a French exit from the European Union, more stringent immigration policy, regulations against Islamist rhetoric, anti-terrorism, lower taxes, trade protectionism, meritocracy and pro-assimilationism towards all communities in France.

Francois Fillon (The Republicans)

Fillon, the candidate of the well-established Republican party in France, was positioned to be the voice of conservatives, that is until he ended up embroiled in a scandal involving him paying his wife with government money for a job she never did. Despite the scandal, Fillon, once the frontrunner, continues to stay in the race polling third behind Macron and Le Pen. Fillon represents France’s conservative brand well, having served as prime minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy and having an extensive background in other government posts. French conservatives differ from American conservatives on a variety of issues including social spending and environmental policy.

Fillon’s policy ideas include tackling France’s ballooning national debt, reducing the size of the bureaucracy, and tackling Islamist totalitarianism in France, although he fails to describe how he would do so.

Jean-Luc Melenchon (Unsubmissive France)

The wildcard in this race is the fiery and radical Melenchon. Melenchon presents himself as a socialist republican and materialist; to put it simply he’s a neo-Marxist. He burst onto the scene in the first presidential debate where he captivated the audience with his passionate performance. He rose from obscurity into fourth place after that, polling just behind Fillon and still rising. He has been involved in Marxist politics in France for a long time and has radical policy proposals to boot.

Menchon’s policy proposals include the mass redistribution of wealth, and 100% income tax on French nationals earning 360000 Euros or more a year, reduction of presidential powers, legalization of cannabis, a French exit from the European Union, withdrawal from NATO, and trade protectionism.

Source: wikimedia commons

What does all of this mean going forward? Prominent pollsters like Nate Silver argue that the election is far too close to call. Any of these four could end up in the second round and any of them could win. Considering the wave of anti-EU sentiment and the fact that 230 people have been killed in France in the last two years as a result of ISIS inspired terror attacks, Le Pen has a strong chance at advancing to the second round just on the issues that she chose to focus her campaign on. Her campaign has been appealing to female voters with its anti-hijab, anti-subjugation of women rhetoric as well, spitting in the face of analysts who have called her party a “party of men.” Le Pen is no far right uber-nationalist. She projects a message of sovereignty and argues in favor of the liberal values that those on the very far right detest.

The point you should take away from all of this, is that this election is as up in the air as any in French history. Expect surprises so that you aren’t shocked when something the media never thought possible happens.