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Expert Comment: French Presidential Elections, Round Two

Dr Michael Holmes from our Department of History and Politics is currently a Research Fellow in the European School of Politics at l'Université Catholique de Lille, funded by the regional council of Hauts-de-France. He discusses what is in store for the the next round of French elections. 

So now we know: the second round of the French presidential election will feature the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the extreme right leader Marine Le Pen. The early indications are that Macron is better placed to pull in the votes needed to win, although it is far from guaranteed.

What are the lessons that emerged from the first round of voting on Sunday 23rd? First of all, it showed the decline of the two big established parties. The Republicans and the Socialists together took a little over a quarter of the vote between them; almost 3 in 4 French voters chose to support someone from outside the two parties that have dominated French politics for decades.

Second, this shows the growing polarisation of politics in France. The extreme right Front National secured their best-ever result, with Le Pen winning over 21% of the vote and coming first in 47 out of the departments. The radical left also grew significantly, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon winning almost 20% of the vote. Indeed, it could be argued that had the left-wing socialist candidate Benoît Hamon stepped aside, most or all of his vote would have gone to Mélenchon, and we might have been looking at a final run-off not between Macron and Le Pen but between Macron and Mélenchon.

So, what happens next? The second round of voting takes place on Sunday 7 May. In the meantime, both remaining candidates will work to woo the voters of the defeated rivals. Macron has already gained the support of Hamon and of the Republican’s François Fillon. However, while Mélenchon clearly detests Le Pen’s extreme right stance, he has also refused to endorse Macron. And Le Pen has already played a pitch for Mélenchon’s voters.

Even so, Macron seems better placed to attract voters. Remember, in 2002 the run-off was between Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, and the centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac. Chirac won with a huge majority, as voters from right and left chose to vote not in support of Chirac but against Le Pen. This will not be such a strong phenomenon on this occasion – the younger Le Pen has tried to detoxify the image of the FN, but there is still an air of extremism about the party.

But this is still far from the end of the process. In September, French voters do it all again – they vote in parliamentary elections. While the Presidency is a strong position, the President must work with parliament. But neither Macron nor Le Pen has a parliamentary backing at present. The FN only have two seats at present, and while this is likely to rise, it is very hard to see them achieving anywhere remotely near a working parliamentary majority. This would make for a very unstable and bitter government in the unlikely event of a Le Pen victory.

Macron, meanwhile, left the Socialist party to set up his own movement, En Marche. Once again, it remains to be seen how he will turn that into a vehicle for the parliamentary elections. The Socialists are deeply divided, so while he would probably draw the centre-left to him, the more radical left – which did well in the presidential vote – would find it hard to support him. And the Republicans will also see the parliamentary election as an opportunity to limit Macron rather than to back him.

The constitution of the French Fifth Republic was intended to give the country clear leadership, but the current position suggests that if anything the elections in 2017 are going to leave France with a rather murky mixture of presidential and parliamentary power. A number of the candidates, notably Mélenchon and Hamon from the left, talked about renewing French politics and launching the ‘Sixth French Republic’. Perhaps they are right: the country does need to re-design its political systems.

Published on 20/03/2018