Emmanuel Foudrot / Reuters Supporters of Marine Le Pen react after early results in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Lyon, France, April 23, 2017.

A Historic But Unsurprising Election In France

Why It Was a Long Time in Coming

The first round of the French presidential elections on Sunday has been considered a rejection of the mainstream parties, and a surprising victory for the two political “outsiders” who will move onto a second round in May: the centrist Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! (Onward!) and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front. The New York Times, for example, called it “a full-throated rebuke of the mainstream parties” and The Economist warned that the “first-round result could also presage the break-up of the French party system.” Although the results certainly indicate a historical ousting of the Socialist and Republican Parties, which have been governing France for most of the past 50 years, the results were hardly unexpected, and the two leading candidates are not political outsiders. 

For starters, the results fell in line with poll predictions. Macron received his 24 percent share of the vote and Le Pen took home 21.5 percent, which is consistent with the National Front’s performance since 2012, although six points lower than the party’s score in the regional elections in 2015. The collapse of both established governing parties, mostly by self-inflicted wounds, is also nothing new. What appears to have happened is that declining voter confidence was fueled by the astonishing incompetence of two successive presidents and party leaders: Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and François Hollande on the left. The presidential primaries mobilized a predictably small number of activists and voters, and produced candidates that were so weak or wounded that they undermined, rather than built the confidence of the larger electorates in each case. The Socialist Party’s Benoît Hamon secured only 6.4 percent of the vote, and François Fillon, who came in third place and was originally the Republican front-runner, spent his campaign embroiled in a scandal.

The dominant political parties were certainly the big losers, but the winning candidates in the first round are not political outsiders, at least not of the kind seen in the United States. Both Macron and Le Pen, in different ways, are products of the political system. Macron is a consummate insider.  He was a senior member of the Élysée staff during the first two years of the Holland presidency, and then he served as minister of the economy until he resigned to run for the presidency.  In addition, he followed the classic elite route to political power in France, from his education at Sciences Po and the École Nationale d’Administration, to an appointment as inspecteur des finances publiques (a high level administrator). Le Pen, too, is neither a new face nor an outsider.  Her political career has been wholly within the National Front, a party that has been a serious electoral contender since the 1990s, even if its role has been largely as part of the opposition.  She has been a local and then a regional councilor for almost 20 years, and was elected to the European Parliament in 2004. 

Finally, the “system” has not been overthrown. Although the established political parties may be down, they are by no means out. There is little doubt that Macron will win the presidency on May 7, but he will not be able to govern without a prime minister supported by a working majority in Parliament. Those elections will be held in June and will involve 577 constituencies. The greatest challenge for the new president will be to rally support for the legislative vote, which will be difficult to do without party networks. To a surprising extent, politics in this centralized state remain local, and Macron will have to find a way to develop more extensive party cooperation. Macron already has the support of some important leaders of the Socialist Party, as well as a growing group of candidates from his own movement, but he will have to gain the support of a broad group of regional Socialist leaders to construct a presidential coalition. In all likelihood, this would mean the appointment of a Socialist prime minister.  

The National Front has never been able to win more than three seats in the current electoral system, and the parliamentary representation will not grow until it can gain the cooperation of the established right.  The defeat of Le Pen in the presidential election, and the probable containment of the National Front in the legislative elections that follow will not, however, mean the end of the challenge that it poses.  The National Front’s electorate is large, and has been growing. It is the largest working class party in France, and has attracted a growing number of young voters. It has not been diminished by its limited electoral success, at least in the short run. As it has in the past, the National Front will continue to influence the political agenda of both the government and the opposition.  No doubt it will continue to act as a polarizing force in French politics, and to mobilize opposition to immigration and to the European project.

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