French presidential election: The crisis of the political establishment and the desire for political change

April 23, 2017 - by Oliver Schmidtke, Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria

A sigh of relief is palpable in Europe after the first round of the French presidential election: While the Front National leader Marine Le Pen advances, as expected, to the runoff election on May 7th, she will face Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist candidate who is widely seen as the contender most likely to beat Le Pen in the second round.

Yet, the strong performance of Macron and the likely defeat of the Front National leader in the runoff election is anything but business as usual. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic since 1958, none of the candidates of the mainstream parties has entered the final round of the presidential race. Their contestants struggled respectively with serious corruption allegations (Republican François Villon) and with the legacy of the highly unpopular Socialist president François Hollande (Socialist Benoît Hamon). The first round of the presidential election was an anti-establishment vote driven by a deep desire for the fundamental renewal of politics. The fourth placed candidate, the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, owes his strong showing to similar sentiments. If Emmanuel Macron were elected president in two weeks, he would preside in the Élysée Palace without the backing of any party. His organization En Marche! is not a party and does not have any seats in the French Parliament. In this respect, a Macron presidency would pose entirely new challenges to how the country is governed. The presidential election and the legislative elections in June will change French politics and most likely the French political system in far-reaching and largely unpredictable ways. 

On May 7th, the French electorate will face a blunt choice with two fundamentally opposing visions for the future of the country. Le Pen’s nationalistic, Islamophobic program evokes the vision of France outside of the Euro zone and possibly the European Union as well as a country in which migrants are no longer welcome and diversity is perceived as a genuine threat to French national identity. In contrast, Macron advocates for a pro-European, cosmopolitan vision with a strong commitment to international trade and transatlantic cooperation (including CETA). In his own words, Macron promises to be a president of “patriots” against the “nationalist threat”. The runoff election in early May will show whether Macron's rhetorically powerful, albeit elusive promise of hope and change will prove appealing enough to steal the political thunder from nationalist populism. 

 

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