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 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.
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