Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, or "Onwards!," in Paris, France, February 23, 2017.
Christian Hartmann / Reuters

The French presidential elections of 2017 are the most remarkable in the Fifth Republic’s recent history. For the first time since Charles de Gaulle won the inaugural presidential race in 1965, no major party candidate will make it to the second (and definitive) round of voting, to be held on May 7. The two frontrunners are leaders of political parties that have never before participated in government at the national level.

Marine Le Pen has led the radical-right National Front since 2015, when she replaced her father after a short but bitter struggle. Since then, she has stabilized her position within the party while focusing on two issues: opposition to immigration and to the European Union. These issues have attracted loyal and growing electoral support, but the extreme positioning of the party has also limited its ability to attract voters from other political parties. Further, the National Front has had little success in forming coalition alliances with more traditional parties of the center-right. Therefore, despite growing electoral support since its founding in 1972, the party has won only a handful of local elections, has participated in but a few regional governments, and has never been considered for inclusion in any national government. Although the National Front has long been a real electoral rival for the “established” parties of the right and the left, it has never been a serious party of government. Nevertheless, it has influenced the political agenda, particularly on questions of migration.

The best shot that the National Front has had at actually governing has always been the presidency, which is filled through a direct election unfiltered by an electoral college or parliamentary majorities. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, came in second in the first round of the presidential election, just edging out the sitting Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin; but Le Pen was defeated in the second round by Jacques Chirac, who received the support of all the other major parties. This election is different, however. Marine Le Pen, the leading candidate, is a steady five-to-six percentage points ahead of her nearest rival. François Fillon, the official candidate of the Republican Party—formerly Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement party—is embroiled in allegations of misuse of public funds and is losing the support of his own party. And the official candidate of the governing Socialist Party, Benoit Hamon, no longer appears to be a serious contender. Indeed, the elections are now out of the hands of the political parties that have governed France since the early years of the Fifth Republic.

Emmanuel Macron, the center-left contender who is likely to face off against Le Pen in the second round, is currently benefiting from a rift in the governing Socialist Party, under which he served as the economy minister. In this regard, he is like Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (the leader of a small centrist party and also a former economy minister) who in 1974 took advantage of a split in the Gaullist party, initiated by Chirac, to found the Federation of the Independent Republicans and win the presidency. Macron seems poised to gain the support of at least some senior Socialist Party leaders.

For the moment, Macron is benefiting from the implosion of Fillon’s campaign. The race could still change if the Republican Party succeeds in replacing Fillon (who won its primary election), but that seems unlikely, since he appears to have made a decision to run against the “elites” of his own party. Facing an intensifying judicial investigation of corruption, he has attacked the “unelected” judges, “lynch” journalists, and “plotting” leaders of his own party, who he says are all against him.

It is likely that, faced with Marine Le Pen of the National Front, whose electoral support is now far stronger than that of her father 15 years ago, politicians from both the Socialist and the Republican parties will begin to move more openly toward Macron. Still, among the backbenchers of both major parties, the former Socialist economy minister is regarded with great distrust. Although compared with any of France’s other major institution, the public’s trust in political parties is the lowest at eight percent, no candidate since de Gaulle has ever won a presidential election without the support of a major party. Moreover, French voters tend to be loyal to their party.

However, this election could change all that. Both leading candidates have built strong electoral machines. Over many years, the National Front has expanded its network of local and regional officials, as well as committed volunteers. Macron’s movement now claims more than 200,000 registered members, recruited in less than a year, and far more than the demoralized Socialist Party. Both of these candidates are well-armed rebels within the French political system.

There are certainly stark differences between the programs that the two presented in February. As Le Pen laid out in her campaign manifesto, globalization is at the root of France’s problems:

The “globalist” choice, on one hand, represented by all of my competitors, that seeks to destroy our grand social and economic equilibriums, seeks the abolition of all economic and physical frontiers, and that always seeks more immigration and less cohesion among the French people. The patriotic choice, on the other hand that I represent in this election places the defense of the nation and of the people at the heart of every public decision, and … above all seeks the protection of our national identity, our independence, the unity of the French people, social justice and prosperity for all.

Macron, meanwhile, sees the country’s troubles as a symptom of political malaise and has expressed an impatience with the political establishment (encapsulated by his new party’s name, En Marche!, or “Onward!”):

For more than 30 years…we have not been able to deal either with mass unemployment or with problems of integration. New radical transformations have shaken our lives and our certainties. But withdrawal behind our own frontiers or the refusal to see the world as it is or to reform France in spite of itself, are not solutions. They ignore its profound resilience and the sense of our destiny.

Macron sees Europe as a key advantage, and as the most effective means of protecting France, both militarily and economically. Indeed, he seeks to construct a more economically powerful Europe that will create jobs and defend strategic economic sectors. Le Pen, on the other hand, advocates holding a referendum on France’s membership in the EU, from which she would like to pull out, and withdrawing from the NATO integrated military command. Macron does not mention immigration once in his program, although he does call for more rapid decisions on demands for asylum. Not surprisingly, for Le Pen, immigration is front and center, and her proposals appear to challenge both French court decisions and long-standing treaty obligations. She calls for a vast reduction in immigration by abolishing family unification, any form of birthright citizenship, and revocation of the right to demand asylum on French soil.

On the other hand, both programs more or less agree on the need for more robust state action to promote national unity and integration. Both candidates associate French secularism, or laïcité, with security and the restoration of state authority. Although Macron seeks to assure quicker decision-making on immigration, he is also very clear that those denied asylum will be rapidly deported. Both candidates call for a more favorable business environment and reduced taxes. Both advocate the promotion of core cultural values through the education system, as well as the promotion of the French language. Both support an increase in the number of police and armed forces.

At the same time, both programs are socially liberal, and pledge to strengthen the welfare state. Both, for example, support greater access to benefits and for maintaining the 35-hour work week, rather than extending it to 39 hours, as Fillon has proposed. Each candidate has dealt with the rights of women but from different perspectives. Macron is strongly committed to defending both wage equality and to fighting against all forms of harassment. Le Pen has also promised to fight for wage equality, but also vowed to defend women against Islamic fundamentalism. Neither program deals with balancing the national budget, and only Macron refers vaguely to “budgetary responsibility.”

However, the fundamental question is whether either of these candidates will be able to govern if elected. Because neither speaks for a major governing party, there is almost no chance that their parties would be able to command a majority in the National Assembly after the legislative elections in June 2017. In the past, when the president’s party has not been able to do so, he has “cohabited” with the prime minister. During the three instances in which this happened, the president was not without influence, but the prime minister led the government. The Giscard presidency (1974–81) is an instructive example of what may happen after this year’s elections. Giscard depended on a coalition of the right in the National Assembly, most of whom were Gaullists led first by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and then by Prime Minister Raymond Barre. The result was a government of rivals that required constant negotiation.

If the polls are correct, and Macron wins the presidency, one possible outcome after the legislative elections this June could be a coalition of En Marche loyalists and Socialists, with a Socialist prime minister. However, if the National Front manages to make significant gains in the legislative elections (which it has never done before), and the Republicans win a large number of seats in the second round, the center-left coalition may require at least the tacit support of the Republican right in order to govern. Under this arrangement, governing power would probably still remain with the president, but he would be weakened by the lack of a stable presidential majority. And in such a case, it’s not clear how “onward” Macron could truly move his country.

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