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The upcoming French presidential election offers a primer on the turbulent politics of our times. We are witnessing the collapse of the traditional divide between left and right, as well as the parties associated with it. In its place, a new opposition is emerging between nationalist populism on one hand and liberal technocracy on the other. At stake is the very model of society—and democracy—that has been dominant in the West since the end of the Cold War.
French politics in the past few decades has been characterized by a relatively stable alternation in power between a center-right party (recently renamed the Republicans), standing for market liberalization and traditional social values, and its center-left rival (the Socialist Party), which stands for more social welfare and economic redistribution. While these two parties disagreed on the degree of state intervention in the economy, there was a basic consensus on the welfare-state model as well as on France’s commitment to European integration and multilateralism in international affairs.
Today, these parties are but shadows of their former selves. Facing historically low approval ratings, the incumbent Socialist president, François Hollande, decided not to seek re-election. His former prime minister, Manuel Valls, lost in the primaries against the outsider Benoît Hamon, whose signature proposal for a universal basic income succeeded in mobilizing support from the far left of the party’s base but seems to have little chance of being taken seriously by the broader electorate.
On the Republican side, the primaries were won by another initial outsider, François Fillon, who also proposed a radicalized version of the party’s traditional platform. His recipe for a “shock therapy” of market liberalization, coupled with a flaunted religious conservatism, proved attractive to a rump of the party’s base, but is seen as an obstacle in obtaining the support of the more centrist electorate needed to win in the general election.
Moreover, Fillon’s campaign has recently been beset by allegations he hired his wife as a fictitious aide while serving as a member of parliament. By reaffirming his belonging to a political class that is widely perceived as corrupt and self-referential, this scandal may even deal a death-blow to his campaign. It is not clear, however, who could step up to replace him now, after the primaries have been held.
Either way, it is striking that the leaders of the two parties that once dominated French politics are now both predicted to be excluded from the second round of the presidential election. Even together, they are polling less than 35 percent of the electorate at the first round. The real struggle for power is elsewhere.
The first main contender is the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, who has consistently led the polls for the past few months. In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, several commentators have likened her anti-establishment rhetoric and flaunted social and economic protectionism to that of Donald Trump: a comparison she has herself invited in the hope of turning it into an electoral advantage. Less remarked, though, is the way her political platform scrambles traditional political categories and distinctions.
The National Front is typically described as a far-right party. But whereas its economic nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric do indeed borrow from traditional right-wing discourse, Le Pen has also emerged as the candidate most prominently defending the welfare state and the interests of the working class. For instance, she has proposed a tax on imports that would be used to fund a direct cash subsidy to those in the lowest income brackets and also promised to launch a massive project of “re-industrialization” of the national economy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her most solid support comes from areas that were previously dominated by the Communist Party.
The other main contender is Emmanuel Macron. Previously a banker at Rothschild, he briefly served as economics minister under François Hollande before leaving the government in August 2016 to found his own movement called En Marche! Its trademark claim is to be “neither left nor right wing” but rather “doubly liberal” in both social and economic affairs.
Macron’s youth and dynamism—as well as his pro-European and not-so-anti-immigration stance—have quickly made him a darling of the country’s mainstream as well as the international press. But Macron’s policy proposals have been singularly vague and, without an established party machine to back him, it is unclear from where he would draw his support within the legislative bodies, were he to succeed in winning the presidency.
Until now, the most striking thing about Macron’s candidacy has been his capacity to somehow combine an anti-establishment appeal stemming from his novelty and youth with the technocratic credentials coming from his experience as a high-profile banker. The question remains, however, whether it will be possible to continue running as an outsider while essentially standing for a perpetuation of the status quo.
A confrontation between Le Pen and Macron in the second round would mark a new age in French—and European—politics. Despite the notable differences between them, there are also some striking points of convergence. First and foremost is that both claim to be “neither left nor right wing”: a slogan they have in fact both been using explicitly to mark their separation from the established political class (in spite of the facts that Le Pen has been a professional politician for most of her adult life and that Macron was a prominent member of the incumbent government).
Despite the notable differences between Le Pen and Macron, there are also some striking points of convergence.
Second, both Le Pen and Macron claim to have a direct relationship with the electorate, in which the traditional institutions of political mediation between the electors and their representatives—i.e. political parties and the media—are presented as obsolete. This is reflected in the fact that both are more or less identified with their political machines. Marine Le Pen inherited the leadership of her party from her father through a dynastic logic that now pitches her niece as her main successor. Macron created his own movement through his own charisma (and business network). In neither case can the question of “internal democracy” even really be posed.
Finally, perhaps the most salient element of convergence between Le Pen and Macron is the way in which they have attempted to name the new political divide that will replace the categories of left and right. At the launch of her campaign on Sunday in Lyon, Le Pen claimed that the key political struggle of the future is that between the partisans of a “rootless globalization” on one hand and “patriots” on the other. At a simultaneous counter-rally in the same city, Macron explained that En Marche! stands for “progress” against “conservatism” and “reaction.”
What Le Pen means by “rootless globalization” is more or less what Macron means by “progress.” That is, a form of social and economic liberalism that strives for increased openness in society: openness to trade, to immigration, as well as to a multiplicity of different moral and religious standards. Conversely, what Le Pen means by “patriotism” is not far from what Macron means by “conservatism” and “reaction”: A form of social and economic protectionism that represents the ‘outside’ as a threat to domestic industry, and therefore jobs, but also to national identity, religion, and culture.
At stake in this confrontation is the social and economic model that has been dominant in the West since the end of the Cold War, based precisely on the gamble that the benefits of openness could compensate for the loss of established mechanisms of social and economic protection. As political scientist Hanspeter Kriesi has recently shown, however, this gamble—the gamble of globalization—produces both “winners” and “losers.”
There is therefore a concrete conflict of interests underlying the contemporary struggle between nationalist populism on one hand and liberal technocracy on the other. In order to prevent this from degenerating into a zero-sum game that would strain the democratic fabric of Western societies, it is urgent to find new ways of bridging the social fissure that globalization has produced, either by making openness more inclusive, or protection less exclusive.