French Elections: Macron vs Le Pen

The three weeks since my last post on France’s upcoming Presidential elections has seen the campaign essentially narrowed down to two candidates: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Francois Fillon’s campaign has all but collapsed, with many of his senior campaign staff leaving and many members of his party withdrawing their support. The Fillon scandal has also left the Republican party itself in pieces, tearing itself apart as new faces seek to emerge from the rubble. The Hollande presidency left the Socialist party in shambles, and now the Fillon candidacy has reduced the Republicans to the same state. None of France’s main parties are leading this race, or even that close. This is truly unprecedented. Even Donald Trump won with the backing of an establishment party.

Nearly three weeks ago, in my last post on the French election, I spoke of the “Republican Front” phenomenon in France. I feel the need to explain it more clearly. France has a two round electoral system, and has long featured strong parties with “extreme” views. The “Republican Front” boils down to a system of tactical voting. When faced with an establishment politician versus a “fringe” politician, voters always chose the establishment, whether right or left. A Socialist would vote for the center-right rather than a Communist, while a right-wing voter would turn Socialist rather than vote for the National Front. Since Marine Le Pen took over the helm of the party in 2011, the National Front has seen its vote share surge. It is now frequently polling at two to three times the level it had before Marine Le Pen, but has still struggled to translate that support into political power because the “Republican Front” has held. But the “Republican Front” assumes that the NF faces an establishment politician, and France’s establishment is in tatters. With both leading candidates being outsiders, can we really expect the “Republican Front” to hold? With this in mind, lets look a little closer at the two front runners.

Just a few days ago, Emmanuel Macron unveiled his policy manifesto. It shines details on his unconventional left-right political fusion. The main features are pro-business reforms, cuts in public spending, more European integration, and re-invigoration of social programs (i.e. education, community programs, etc.). While his plan has individual features that appeal to all groups it has nothing that speaks to everyone, no unifying theme. The key question is, is there enough that appeals to both right and left to convince voters to look past what they don’t like? Or, is there too much that they disagree with to get them to vote for what they do like? Again, Macron’s lack of a party hurts him here. A policy heavy campaign requires large amounts of logistical infrastructure to explain the proposals to individual voters. Otherwise, you open yourself to having your policies explained to voters by the opposition. As Macron is the main obstacle to the Socialists and Republicans earning a spot in the second round, it is expected that they will focus their attacks on his campaign. This in turn will make it difficult for Macron to hope to win establishment endorsements for the second round.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, has a strong party organization with a nationwide presence to frame the race on its own terms. Many in Europe are increasingly fed up with the heavy hand of Brussels, and France is no exception. Many feel left behind by globalization, and the National Front promises relief. Whereas Macron’s campaign rests on policy, Le Pen’s rests on an idea: make France great again. It is, admittedly, an enticing idea. The promise of a renewal of French pride and prowess finds many supporters in the birthplace of nationalism. But is it enough to convince voters to look past the party’s troubled history? How successful has Marine Le Pen’s “detoxification” really been? With the erosion of the “Republican Front,” we may soon find out.

France’s election, whatever the result, promises to be unprecedented. The establishment is in tatters, and Macron and Le Pen battle over the remains. Both have hurdles to overcome, and opportunities to exploit. The “official” campaign season has not yet begun, when candidates are promised equal media coverage, and already the race has largely been reduced to two candidates. On a final note about polling, it is common in France for people to “hide” their support for the National Front leading to the party under-performing in polls. With this in mind, Le Pen’s current lead in the polls is even more impressive. Of course, it is also a sign that her party has yet to fully shake off the taboo surrounding it.

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