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Transatlantic Take

French Elections: What Happened, What is Next

April 24, 2017

The 2017 elections represent a paradox: while the primaries were won by the most left-wing (Hamon) and the most right-wing (Fillon) candidates, it paradoxically opened a unique political space for the center represented by Macron. After Brexit and Trump, the French presidential first round shows that a centrist, pro-European, outward-looking candidate can still attract a large number of voters. Macron is a gamble, while Le Pen is a danger for France, Europe and the world.

The winners of the first round 

  • In less than a year, Emmanuel Macron has managed to create a political movement — En Marche! — and translate his own popularity into an electoral momentum, which may lead him to win the presidential elections. In a country where established parties are very powerful and where youth is not traditionally an asset, this is particularly worth noting.
  • For Macron, the goal is now to confirm his ability to unite different factions of French politics for the second round, and prepare the parliamentary elections. While he appears certain of winning against Le Pen (the first polls present a clear victory 63-37 percent for Macron), the struggle to get the majority at the National Assembly could be particularly challenging. See Martin Quencez’s latest Transatlantic Take on the parliamentary elections.
  • Le Pen has two reasons to be satisfied today: she can be relieved to simply have passed to the second round, as a defeat could have been very damaging for her party. And she received more votes than ever in the history of the Front National (7.7 million votes, while the best score of the Front National in a national election was in 2015 with 6.8 million votes).
  • But there is also a slight disappointment for Marine Le Pen, who was leading the poll for months, and is finally behind Macron. She "only" increased her score by 3.5 points in 5 years (17.9 percent in 2012, and 21.4 percent in 2017)
  • François Fillon (19 percent) and Benoit Hamon (6 percent) have declared that they would vote for Macron in the second round. Mélenchon has so far refused to take a side between the two. None of the other candidates in the first round called to vote for Le Pen in the second round.

General implications for French politics

  • This is a very damaging result for the two mainstream parties. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the mainstream right is not in the second round, and it is only the third time that the Socialist Party does not pass the first round. Together in 2017, the two mainstream parties represent around 26 percent of the voters. In 2012, they represented 56 percent of the votes of the first round.
  • As a result, they may split in the coming months if the opposition between the progressive En Marche! and the nationalist Front National becomes the new dividing line of the French political landscape. 
  • The rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who, like Macron, created his movement La France Insoumise just a year ago, represents another important lesson from this first round. The far left candidacy of Mélenchon, with his propositions to change the French constitution and renegotiation of the EU treaties, has become the main force in the French left.  
  • Discussions about the parliamentary elections have already started. For the mainstream right, the challenge is to remain united in order to become the first political force at the National Assembly in June. For the mainstream left, the tension will be between the party of Mélenchon, which can legitimately claim to lead the left today and which is against any form of coalition with Macron and the center-right, and the center-left (still represented by the Socialist Party), which may be interested in making a deal with Macron to participate in a coalition.

Important points

  • This is the first time that a presidential election has taken place under a state of emergency. The terrorist threat and the attack on the Champs Elysées have not, however, boosted the FN and center-right party, as many commentators had predicated. Macron’s inexperience in dealing with security matters has not been an obstacle either for those who voted for him.
  • This is the first time that four candidates are so close in the first round. This may reveal a new partition of the French political landscape, between four movements (far right, right, center, and left) of similar size.
  • The polls were particularly accurate, as the final results correspond almost exactly to what was expected. There has been no surprise, despite the high-level of hesitation in a large share of the electorate, and despite the terrorist attack, which was meant to create an emotional reaction from the voters. 
  • With almost 80 percent turnout (similar to 2007 and 2012), the first round was a democratic success. The poor level of the campaign, which was marked by several scandals and a terrorist attack, did not discourage the population from going to vote. 

What comes next

These are historic elections because they signal the end of political parties and the rise of independents, based on an individual pledge and program, not those that come from a party. The emancipation from mainstream political parties has become a guarantee of both moral and political credibility and innovation. The main divergences between candidates and among voters are not based on a right-left divide, but rather on a pro-European/anti-European, pro-globalization/anti-globalization, and urban/rural divide.

Both Macron and Le Pen present themselves as the only “alternative to the alternance,” both expressing dissatisfaction with the political status quo, but defending radically different visions for French economic and social model, and France’s role in Europe and the world. Europe and the approach to globalization will be the most debated issues between Macron and Le Pen, in the run up to the second round. Macron will have to show that he is able to present a coherent political vision, which satisfies voters of both the center-right and the center-left. The challenge for him will also be to show that he is not a continuation of President Hollande’s policies (Hollandisme Bis), but that he will succeed to surround himself with new faces and propose an alternative policy and vision, in a divided French society. Macron’s capacity to build and win a parliamentary majority in the June legislative elections, will be absolutely key if he wants to be able to govern and avoid a “cohabitation” scenario. He can succeed by rallying center-right and center-left parliamentarians who are willing to join his En Marche! movement. We can anticipate this rallying trend to accelerate in the days to come.