Can France Stem the Populist Tide?

A New Political Dynamic Emerges

Marine Le Pen, French National Front political party leader and candidate for the French 2017 presidential election, attends the 2-day FN political rally to launch the presidential campaign in Lyon, France, February 2017. Robert Pratta / REUTERS

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

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