This article was originally published in Juncture, the journal published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. This article was published in the spring issue of 2017 (Volume 23, Issue 4).
On the 22nd January 2012, the then Socialist Party candidate for the presidential elections in France, François Hollande, delivered what many believe was his election-winning speech. Speaking from a venue in Seine St Denis, a poor urban conurbation north of Paris given an edgy chic in the late 1990s by the French rap group, Nique Ta Mère (F*#* Your Mother), Hollande lurched to the left. “My real enemy is finance” declared a politician considered generally to be on the right of the Socialist Party.
Hollande’s speech that evening cemented his journey towards the French presidency. However, in a curious book published last year under the title of A President Should Not Say That, Hollande recounts how the speech was so nearly derailed by a shoe thrown at him by one of the thousands of people crowded into the hall. The shoe landed in front of him and slid towards his lectern. The television cameras missed it and the incident was not picked up by the press. Had it hit me, remarks Hollande, I would probably have lost the presidential election.
This story captures in a dramatic fashion the fragility that has come to characterize mainstream political figures in France. With their popularity always in the balance, politicians feel as if they are stepping on egg shells. This is why they hide behind empty slogans and stock phrases, derision and opprobrium never very far away. Hollande’s presidency always had a quality of the improbable about it. His victory owed more to the strength of anti-Sarkozy feeling than support for his own program. The more leftwing elements of this program – such as the proposal to tax at 75% earnings over a million Euros – were gimmicks, conjured up on the hoof by his closest advisers and quietly shelved after Hollande’s victory. Though Nicolas Sarkozy’s win in 2007 had much greater momentum than Hollande’s in 2012, a similar dynamic was at work. Sarkozy chose to celebrate at a notoriously swanky Parisian restaurant on the Champs Elysée, Le Fouquet’s, and then to holiday off the coast of Malta on a yacht owned by Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s wealthiest industrialists and close friend of the newly-elected president. Throughout his presidency, Sarkozy was never able to shake-off the impression that he was obsessed with money. The soubriquet, ‘le Président bling-bling’, stuck with him throughout his five years in office.
The weak authority of France’s political class did not develop overnight and the causes are many. One is the drifting away of parties from their traditional social base. The French Socialists, for example, pretend to stand for the country’s blue collar workers but they have long been an urban, bourgeois and middle class party. The very idea of an identifiable social base has been challenged by deindustrialization and the emergence of chronic unemployment amongst French youth. Whereas in Britain supporters of the UK Independence Party have typically been retired ex-Conservative voters, in France a core part of the National Front’s vote today comes from the young. The political divide between rural and urban voters, softened greatly by the ‘Golden Age’ of French capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s, has opened up once again with National Front supporters concentrated in rural and semi-rural areas. Even for the National Front, however, there is no real core vote: since 2002 its support has undergone multiple changes including feminization, proletarianisation and secularization.
There has also been a waning of the ideologies that once underpinned the left and the right in France. Mitterrand’s embrace of the European Single Act in the mid-1980s put an end to the left’s hostility to the market but without proposing any new ideology or vision for the left. The French right has conventionally been viewed through the lens of the French Revolution and associated with three different traditions – counter-revolutionary, liberal and Bonapartist. However useful that may have been to understand the likes of de Gaulle or Giscard d’Estaing, it does little to explain the appeal of Marine Le Pen whose recent electoral gains have been concentrated in communities that traditionally voted on the left. And as commentators have remarked, François Fillon’s campaign is an odd collection of all of these right-wing traditions, without capturing any in particular.
The weakness of the political mainstream has become a structuring element of French political life. Without an identifiable social base or any coherent set of ideas, mainstream parties are adrift from society and fail to command much authority, At this point in a presidential election, a duel should emerge between the candidates of the left and the right: Mitterrand/Chirac, Chirac/Jospin, Sarkozy/Royal, Hollande/Sarkozy. In 2002, the failure of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, to get into the second round run-off was an electoral earthquake and experienced as such. No such duel is looking likely in this election. The two candidates leading in the polls are campaigning on a platform of ‘neither left nor right’ (Marine Le Pen) and ‘both left and right’ (Emmanuel Macron).
Of these two candidates, the most enigmatic is Macron. A relative newcomer to French politics, and someone who has never held elected office, Macron has become a darling of the French media. He represents the acceptable face of anti-system politics: young, progressive and pro-European. He has even been cited by those despairing about Brexit and Donald Trump as the savior of the global liberal order.
This desire for something new has been present for some time in France. In the 2007 campaign, Ségolène Royal – the Socialist Party candidate who was snubbed and maligned by the party’s chauvinist elite – established her own movement, Desirs d’Avenir. This went nowhere after Royal’s defeat but Macron is picking up where she left off. Macron’s movement – En Marche – is mainly an electoral platform but is part of the splintering and fragmentation of political organization in France seen also in its more radial cousin, the Nuit Debout movement that filled the Place de la République in Paris for a few months last year. Macron’s main weakness is his program: after weeks of grandiose speeches but no real policies, En Marche has gone into policy overdrive, churning out endless proposals that seem disjointed and ad hoc.
If Macron is a revolutionary in search of an idea, Marine Le Pen is quite the opposite. The ideas are there and some of them have not changed much since the party was first founded by her father, Jean-Marie, in 1972. The National Front’s program is an arduous read made up of 144 propositions that cover most aspects of public life. Whilst Le Pen has been a vocal defender of ‘Frexit’ – France’s exit from the European Union – her program states that France will seek to renegotiate its place in the EU and then put the results of this renegotiation to a popular vote, much the same approach taken by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. In contrast to Macron, Le Pen is in many ways the quintessential political ‘insider’; she is, after all, running a party set up by her father. Her challenge to the system is in part ideological: she vituperates the political establishment for having given up on ‘the people’ and opposes her nationalist solutions to the ‘globalist’ policies which she believes have failed France. Le Pen is also threatening to disrupt one of the only unifying forces of French politics that remain: the desire to keep the National Front out of power. This goal has contained the powerful disintegrative tendencies at the heart of French political life, at least until today.
Anti-system candidates are currently leading in France’s presidential campaign. There will be some who welcome Macron as a centrist and a unifier, as many did with Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria’s presidential election late last year. This misses how much of an outsider Macron is, and how unconventional and unexpected his victory would be for the politics of the Fifth Republic. Macron may yet fall into third or fourth place as his competitors pile on the pressure but at present he is neck-and-neck with François Fillon for the coveted second place in the first round ballot.
A Macron victory, just like a Le Pen victory, would represent the collapse of the political mainstream in France and its traditional system of parties. It is unlikely that French politics would revert back to its traditional patterns and rituals. François Hollande was saved in 2012 by the few meters that separated his lectern from the shoe that was thrown at him. Mainstream candidates may not be as lucky in 2017.
 Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme (2016) Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… (Paris: Stock) p18.
 Pascal Perrineau (2014) La France Au Front (Paris: Fayard) p38.
 Rene Remond (1982) Les Droites en France (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne)
 ‘Le discours de François Fillon à la loupe’, Le Monde, 16 December 2016.
 For the Chirac/Jospin run off in 1995, Chirac’s place in the second round was a surprise as the candidate on the right expected to get through was Edouard Balladur. However, what was not in doubt was that there would be a left/right run off in the second round.