On April 23, France completed the first round of its presidential elections. The French Electoral system uses a runoff structure, in which the two leading candidates face off if neither receives over 50% of the vote. The second round will be held on May 7. The contenders in that election will be Marine Le Pen of the National Front party and Emmanuel Macron of the En Marche party (variously translated as “On the March” or “Forward!”).
Le Pen, who won 21.3% of the first-round vote, is a far-right, populist, and anti-immigration candidate. Her party, the National Front, was founded by her father, and proposes a mix of authoritarian, protectionist, and nationalist policies: limited immigration, opposition to free trade, sharp law-and-order policies. Le Pen is also a leading opponent of Islamic immigration and integration in Europe, and is a sharp critic of the European Union.
Macron, who won 24.3% of the first-round vote, is a centrist. He previously served in the government of current President Francois Hollande, but resigned last fall to found En Marche and launch his bid for the Presidency. Macron contrasts sharply with Le Pen, favoring strong international ties, including the EU and NATO, and promoting a welcoming policy toward immigrants. Since advancing to the second round, Le Pen has stepped down from leadership of the party
Notably, neither candidate hails from one of France’s establishment political parties. While the National Front has existed since 1972, it holds few seats at any level of government; En Marche, having only existed since last year, holds none. In that respect, the French election continues the pattern of voter discontent with long-standing political structures that we’ve witnessed among Western democracies over the last few years. It also explains one of the losing candidates, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who earned 19.58% of the vote as a former Socialist whose populist rhetoric and opposition to the EU echoed Le Pen from a leftist position. Together, Melenchon and Le Pen cleared 40% of the vote; clearly, populist discontent is alive and well in French politics.
But the election also demonstrates a counter-movement. Note that, combined, Le Pen and Macron only earned 45.6% of the vote; a full half of French voters wanted somebody else, and close to half of those somebody-else votes went to an establishment-party candidate: Republican Francois Fillon (20.01%) or Socialist Benoit Hamon (6.36%). And now that the first round is complete, both Fillon and Hamon have urged their supporters to support Macron over Le Pen; Melenchon has declined to do so.
Polling indicates Macron is a favorite to win the run-off, and the endorsements of Fillon and Hamon further cement his lead. He is in a strong position assuming he can hold their share of the vote, woo some of Melenchon’s voters, and pick up voters from the smattering other, smaller candidates. Hamon, who is hardly a political ally of Macron, summed up the situation facing French voters best when he endorsed Macron and said “there is a clear distinction to be made between a political enemy and an enemy of the Republic. This is deadly serious now.”
There is history to be examined here, too. The founder of the National Front, Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round of the Presidential election in 2002, earning 16.86% of the vote, just behind Jacques Chirac’s 19.88. But in the second round, Chirac crushed Le Pen, earning over 80% of the vote. The French electorate of the time was willing to vote their conscience and let an extremist out of the first round, but thoroughly repudiated him in the second. If polling holds, a similar pattern may be playing out this year.
The French electionc demonstrated both the power of the populist, anti-establishment, and nationalist movements sweeping the West, and the power of the electorate to rebuke them. Macron has a compelling lead, and the polling so far has been accurate; barring an enormous surprise in the next two weeks, he is likely to win. But the strength of Le Pen’s performance in the second round will set the stage for the strength of her party going forward, both in the June parliamentary elections and for future contests. France is likely to reject right-wing populist for President; it remains to be seen how thoroughly they’ll reject right-wing populism as a movement.