Inundated with U.S. political news, and hearing rumors that the far-right is gaining momentum across Europe, I thought I’d take the time to explain how the French presidential election is shaping up. Why should we care what happens in France? It turns out that this election is quite important because, like Brexit, it could have a significant impact on the future of the European Union. I will try to be brief and describe France’s political upheaval as concisely as possible, but this is going to take more than one post. Today, I give a bit of background information and explain, at least partially, the reasons behind the far-right’s increasing popularity.
The French electoral system is quite a bit different than ours. They do not have an electoral college. Their election season is much shorter. And, the number of candidates is much greater. At this point, 10 different political parties have put forth a candidate for the election this spring, and more can still enter the race. With so many contenders, a French presidential election is usually held in two rounds because to become president, you must receive a majority of the popular vote. The first round is scheduled for April 23. If no candidate receives a majority, a second round between the top two vote earners will be held on May 7.
As in the U.S., many French citizens are tired of political insiders who have spent decades in public office. The current president, François Hollande from the socialist party, is terribly unpopular and withdrew from the race early last month. He is the first president since WWII to not run for a second term. Hollande’s predecessor, Nickolas Sarkozy, a conservative, lost to Hollande in 2012 and planned to run in 2017. As head of the UMP party (which last spring changed its name to the Republicans), many expected Sarkozy to become the Republican candidate. However, a series of controversies and accusations of wrong-doing led to Sarkozy’s primary loss to François Fillon. Fillon, interestingly enough, served as Sarkozy’s prime minister.
Here in the U.S., perhaps the most widely known French presidential candidate is Marine Le Pen. Le Pen is a populist and leader of the National Front party. Her platform is considered far-right as it focuses on stopping immigration from non-European countries and withdrawing from the European Union. However, after a somewhat surprising series of events, Le Pen has allied herself with members of the far-left. I’ve summarized my take on the recent events that led to this development below.
Adding Fuel to the Populist Fire
Last summer, in the face of opposition from the French legislature, the French Prime Minister, Manuel Vals, used special powers to push through a new labor law. This law, designed and proposed by Hollande’s Minister of Labor, reduces the number of France’s seemingly endless job protections. Under pressure to boost the country’s slow economic growth, Hollande’s administration had ceded to free-market orthodoxy, giving employers more freedoms. Chief among the new liberties was the right to lay off workers in the face of short-term economic difficulties.
French leftists, who had supported Hollande, were outraged and many protests followed the bill’s introduction last spring. More than a million people signed a petition against the legislation before Prime Minister Vals forced it through. As in the United States, France has seen many of its manufacturing facilities close down in recent decades. Working-class voters have typically supported the French Socialist and Communist parties. However, like U.S. workers, they are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the policies of the left. Enter the National Front.
National Front Expected to Make Round Two of French Presidential Election
Like President Trump, Marine Le Pen has argued that immigrants are stealing jobs from French citizens. She wants to beef up border security and blames the country’s high unemployment rate among young people, in part, on immigrants. When the new labor law went into effect, Le Pen joined with France’s leftist leaders and condemned the law as “social regression”. Suddenly, the far-right is pulling voters from the far-left and for the first time, many expect that the National Front will have enough votes to enter the second round of the election.
If this happens, those that oppose globalization and immigration think Le Pen has a good chance of winning the French presidential election. After the unexpected outcomes of the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, political parties on both the left and right are feeling threatened. In the past, however, voters from both sides of the political spectrum have often formed alliances to defeat a more extreme candidate in the second round. Many will be watching to see if the wave of populism, that has been sweeping the west, continues or if more traditional attitudes prevail.