Uncertainty Within the French Election: Le Pen's Appeal to the Anti-Establishment

BY PETER MILLS French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen gives a campaign speech in Lyon on February 5, 2017. (Jeff Pachoud/AFP)

On Sunday, April 23, French voters will go to the polls to decide their next president. Normally, this would be unremarkable, but given the wave of far-right movements currently sweeping many countries around the world, this election will potentially serve as a bellwether to the political climate not just in France, but in Europe as a whole.

There are four candidates who stand a reasonable chance of being elected: Benoit Hamon of the ruling Socialist Party; the anti-establishment Emmanuel Macron; Francois Fillon of the center-right Republican Party; and Marine Le Pen of the National Front, a populist far-right movement. Because of France’s two-round voting system, which requires a candidate for president to receive 50 percent plus one of the vote, conventional wisdom has discounted the possibility of Marine Le Pen getting elected. Despite the fact that Marine Le Pen presently polls ahead of the other candidates, the conventional wisdom states that the establishment will close ranks and support each other in order to deprive her of the presidency, which was done in the past to prevent her father, Jean-Marie Pen, the founder of the National Front, from becoming president.

Fillon was the initial front runner and stood a good chance of making it to the presidency, but he is now mired in a corruption scandal involving payment of public funds to his wife. Although he has technically not broken any laws, such tales of perceived corruption play directly against his narrative as an honest country-side gentleman. Instead, the allegations once again characterize the National Front as a corrupt, out-of-touch, and unaccountable party that has failed the country.

Prior to this corruption scandal, Fillon had been a frontrunner and stood a good chance of making it to the second round and therefore beat Marine Le Pen for the presidency. However, with his candidacy now in doubt, French stock and bond markets have begun reacting with increasing concern. Falling bond prices on French 10-year bonds indicate a lack of confidence in the future, and the VSTOXX, an index which tracks volatility in the euro, shows prices rising significantly in April, the month of the election. This renewed uncertainty in the markets is the first indication that Marine Le Pen’s path to the presidency is perhaps not as impossible as the conventional wisdom suggests.

There are two scenarios that could see Marine Le Pen elected to the presidency in France. In the first scenario, Le Pen makes it to the second round as expected and faces off against Hamon or Fillon. While most expect the establishment to coalesce around whoever faces off against Le Pen, it is also possible that she may have unexpected avenues of support. There are even indications that she may have support amongst some members of France’s Muslim community, despite her islamophobic rhetoric, for which she was put on trial in 2015 after she compared muslim prayers to the Nazi occupation. That disenfranchised groups would rather vote for Le Pen rather than a more typical candidate like Fillon or Hamon speaks volumes, even though Le Pen may encourage further marginalization of Muslims. This is completely contrary to conventional wisdom, but it shows that once again the ruling elites have failed to consider the living conditions and ideals of the people that make up these far-right movements.

At the same time, if Macron, another anti-establishment candidate who has generated a large amount of support, fails to make it to the second round, many of his supporters may defect to Le Pen. Again, conventional wisdom discounts this by pointing out that many of their positions are contradictory. Macron is a Europhile who desires greater integration of the European Union. In addition, Macron has advocated for a variety of labor and other economic reforms in France in order to restore competitiveness and the economy. But what both Macron and Le Pen share is in being outside the normal left-right political spectrum; both see themselves as railing against the center-left center-right establishment political parties. So although Le Pen advocates for the precise opposite policies: a reclamation of French sovereignty and an exit from the euro; she may attract more supporters from Macron than would otherwise be expected. Many believe that this nationalism will lead to a breakup and dissolution of the European Union, and given Le Pen’s comparisons of the European Union to the Soviet Union, this is not far from what she desires.

Francois Hollande, the outgoing president from the Socialist Party, is leaving office with the lowest approval ratings in history at below 5%, and a corruption scandal has debilitated Fillon’s candidacy. As there is  widespread disdain for center-left and center-right establishment parties among the French public, it is quite possible this election will come down to an anti-establishment candidate from the far-right or far-left versus more of the same policies in the form of Hamon or Fillon. In this case, as in the election of Donald Trump, it is quite possible that Marine Le Pen may be able to mobilize greater than anticipated levels of support. If the current political dynamic has shifted from the classical left-right paradigm to a new one of nationalism versus globalism, then Le Pen stands to do well as France remains one of the most skeptical countries on globalism in the world.

However, if Macron and Le Pen face each other in the second round of voting, then the election may prove unique, in that both candidates would be running against the establishment. Thus, the level of public debate may focus more on the far-right’s ideas and on the nature of nationalism and globalism. It is clear that at some point the issues and problems of globalism brought up by Le Pen and Macron must be reconciled in some fashion. However, the merits and disadvantages of globalism cannot be debated so long as anti-establishment candidates are able to retreat behind the easy tactic of bashing “the elites” and blaming deep-rooted problems on recent immigration.

In a typical year, the fact that Le Pen is still a long shot from the presidency would be comforting, but the past few years have been anything but typical. The year 2016 showed us that the unexpected is perhaps more likely to occur than we may expect. At the same time, there remains hope that, if both Macron and Le Pen face each other, they may avoid the specter of bashing the establishment and move into genuine debate about what this new paradigm of nationalism and globalism actually means.