By Adithya Sivakumar
There’s no way a country would flip its entire trajectory, right?
Sounds like a certain election in 2016, doesn’t it? Call it surprising, but these thoughts not only echoed in the minds of the population of the United States, but also the population of France, as they both went to the polls to elect a new President. However, even with striking similarities, the two elections led to two drastically different outcomes. So the obvious question is, why?
Talk of the 2017 French election began gaining steam in late 2016, in part marked by incumbent President Francois Hollande’s decision to not seek reelection. Hollande was hobbled by a dismal four percent approval rating and numerous terrorist attacks that had marred his term, and many people in France itched for a change, one that would seemingly set the country on the right track.
Initially, there were four candidates who served a serious chance of becoming President. They included Francois Fillon, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen, and Emmanuel Macron. Surprisingly, only Fillon, who beat out former President Nicolas Sarkozy for his candidacy on a socially conservative and economically liberal platform, was the only member of the political establishment out of this four. In a world steeped by anti-establishment sentiment, all the other three were steeped with solid bases of support, all with radically different ideas on how to lead France. Fillon did lead polls for a while, but this lead soon dropped after he and his wife were put under investigation for embezzling state funds by creating fake jobs, leaving the door open to the other upstart candidates to take control.
Melenchon served as the far-left candidate, promising renegotiation with the EU, an attack on bankers, and goals Socialist President Hollande could never accomplish. Similar to the United States’ Bernie Sanders, Melenchon did build up a bastion of support among the youth of France, but was widely feared by financial institutions, as they feared “economic disaster” if he was elected.
Le Pen, on other hand, represented the other side of French politics: the far right. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, and leads the National Front. Under the elder Le Pen’s leadership, the party was widely known as the one that promoted xenophobia and Holocaust denial, largely due to the leader himself. Marine Le Pen eventually got her father kicked out of the party after repeated remarks about characterizing gas chambers as a “detail of history.” After taking over, the younger Le Pen has attempted to rehabilitate the party’s image, proving largely successful, although many core points of the party have remained the same. In response to various terrorist attacks that have hit the nation, Le Pen has proposed strict controls on immigration, including the expelling of all undocumented immigrants and the removal of free education for these immigrants’ children. Additionally, the politics of her party largely place the citizens of France first, largely above those of immigrants, including making jobs, housing, or areas of public provisions go to French individuals first, rather than immigrants, an idea seen as unconstitutional by many. Inspired by Brexit, the candidate also has promised a referendum for France to leave the European Union. Most in relevance to the United States, Le Pen believed she had a chance after the surprise election of Donald Trump, indicating a new shift in global politics. Polls gave her the lead after Fillon’s fallout, but this was soon taken over by independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Macron is unique in that he formed his own party after serving as an economic minister in Hollande’s government. Frustrated by the lack of progress in his time in government, Macron painted himself as the center-left candidate, promising deregulation and reform to the business industry. Although potentially perceived in countries like the United States as normal, Macron’s proposals to increase the working week beyond 35 hours for younger workers as well as the opportunity to open businesses on Sunday were widely ridiculed by the left and working-class individuals. However, these proposals also have made Macron more palatable for businesses, and his strong support of the EU has also proved successful in wooing individuals from the left and right. Additionally, he has supported working with an array of world leaders, including Donald Trump and the leaders of Russia and Syria to promote peace, and promoted law and order initiatives to fight the ISIS attacks that have plagued the nation.
The first round of the presidential primaries clearly demonstrated rejection of the status quo, as Macron took 23.7% and Le Pen took 21.7%, while Fillon and Melenchon each took 19.5% of the vote. Since no candidate received a majority, Macron and Le Pen fought each other in the runoff. At this point, the rest of the world cautiously placed its eyes on the French Republic, worried about another Trump-esque victory or a Brexit, results they had slowly become accustomed to in 2016. Many defeated candidates, such as Fillon and the Socialist Party’s Benoit Hamon, pledged support to Macron, wishing to stave off the possibility of Le Pen taking power. Oddly enough, Melenchon’s supporters largely rejected voting for Macron, as even though the candidate said he would not vote for Le Pen, he also did not profess support for Macron either, echoing a similar situation in the United States after Bernie Sanders did not initially support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President.
In a further ode to the United States’ election, a massive email hack was conducted on Macron two days before elections, leading to the release of documents about the internal workings of his campaign, leading to speculation that Russian sources were yet again attempting to influence the democratic process of a country. However, since campaigning on the day before an election in France is illegal, talks about the hacks were largely kept silent, and the effect on the election was likely not large.
On May 7, the day of reckoning came. Was France to become another follower of populism, or an adherer to the status quo? Its people gave a resounding answer: 66% voted for Macron, and 34% voted for Le Pen. This outcome confused many, as France appeared to have the same markers for a populist victory as the United Kingdom and the United States: fear of outsiders, economic uncertainty. So what changed?
France’s history was largely seen as a catalyst for rejecting Le Pen. As much as Marine Le Pen attempted to detoxify her party’s image, the history of her father and his statements brought a lot of weight for the people of France, especially one that had suffered through the far-right regime of Vichy in World War II. Additionally, in relation to the United States, one factor that may have been different was that of voter turnout. In the primaries, a slight dip in turnout led to 77% eligible individuals voting, while 53.5% voted in the 2016 United States Presidential Elections. A higher participatory rate may have led to more individuals, those more in favor of a France that ran more center than left or right, to influence the decision.
Although France stuck to EU integration, it is important to acknowledge the gravity of Macron’s win. Traditional parties now have to acknowledge they have to change their message to not only play to the same bases they have for decades, but rather reach out to broader swathes of the populace. Macron may move on making big moves in the business sector, but 34% of the country feels ignored, necessitating action on his part to make them feel acknowledged, while also assuring them that business reforms and EU integration do not pose a threat, but may actually lead to an opportunity.