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After Brexit and Trump, the French election surprise(s)

The 2017 presidential election is already the biggest political rollercoaster since the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Presidential election candidate and founder of the political movement 'En Marche!' Emmanuel Macron (Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)
Presidential election candidate and founder of the political movement 'En Marche!' Emmanuel Macron (Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)
Published 26 Mar 2017   Follow @BrunoTertrais

As one of my friends put it, 'You don’t seriously think that we French were going to leave to the Americans the monopoly of electoral surprises, do you?'.

Indeed, whoever wins on 7 May (two weeks after the 23 April first round of voting), the 2017 presidential election is already the biggest political rollercoaster since the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958. It began with the unanticipated decision by the highly unpopular President François Hollande not to seek a second term – an unprecedented choice. Then came the victory of traditional conservative François Fillon at the primaries of the right and the centre, when everyone had been expecting another former prime minister, the moderate Alain Juppé, to come out on top. This was followed by the selection of a relatively minor figure of the Socialist Party, Benoît Hamon, as the candidate of the traditional left. All bets were off – and that was even before the Fillon scandal erupted. The former prime minister is now under formal investigation for allegedly having, inter alia, favoured his wife and children for parliamentary jobs, something which badly damaged the white knight image he was keen to project.    

All this explains why Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year old former investment banker, is currently on track to become the next French president. Macron is arguably the biggest surprise in French politics in decades. He broke all the 'laws' of Fifth Republic politics, such as 'when one is at the centre, one disappears' (because of the two-round election system), 'you cannot win the election without a traditional political party' (he created his En Marche! movement – not a formal party – last August), and 'it takes about 10 years to make a credible presidential candidate' (90% of the public had never heard of Macron before he became economy minister in 2014).

How did this happen? The short answer is that Macron is the right person at the right place at the right time.

Despite its electoral system, France is not a highly polarised country from a sociological standpoint. But instead of positioning himself 'at the centre', Macron successfully claims to be 'neither on the right nor on the left'. As his campaign momentum grew, his only potential challenger – centrist François Bayrou – joined him, which gave a further boost to his candidacy. 

Some say he was lucky since he would not be in such a good position if Hollande had not given up and if the primaries had not been won by Fillon and Hamon. But others point out Macron’s ambition was precisely one of the reasons behind Hollande’s renunciation, and that French primaries – which were for the first time conducted both by the left and right – are dominated by the most highly motivated voters, thus giving a premium to candidates who are distant from the centre of gravity of French politics.

Macron benefits from a perfect planetary alignment, but he also makes the best of it. He is able to play three cards simultaneously: that of a young and modern candidate; that of a liberal and pro-business candidate; and that of an 'anti-system' candidate. On this last point, his success is the upside of a general phenomenon in Western politics: that is, voters who proclaim 'we’re fed up with the system'. It is no coincidence that four former presidents and prime ministers (Sarkozy, Hollande, Valls, Juppé) were ejected from the game and that a fourth (Fillon) is unlikely to win the presidency. Fillon, who embodies the traditional, mostly Christian, right (something many of his supporters claim is the best way to rally potential Le Pen voters), is now a very weak candidate.       

What is also surprising is that the French are no longer surprised by the fact that Marine Le Pen is likely to make it to the second round of the elections. Although no poll at the time of writing shows her as the ultimate victor, she has the most solid base of all candidates. The probability of her victory is not marginal.

Thus at this point in time, by far the two likeliest scenarios are a Macron presidency and a Le Pen presidency. But what happens next is hard to predict, because neither would easily get a parliamentary majority.

Since 1981, parliamentary elections have been organised immediately after the presidential ones, allowing for a bandwagoning effect and a coincidence between the presidential and parliamentary majorities – important in France’s system. But in order to get an absolute majority in the National Assembly, Le Pen would need no less than 287 new MPs elected by majority voting (she can count only on two today), while Macron would not need many fewer, since only a few dozen MPs have openly rallied behind him at this point. To be sure, many from the traditional parties would rally behind the winner, but reaching a majority would still be a feat, especially for Le Pen. A likely scenario is thus some form of 'presidential majority' coalition at the National Assembly. This might be enough since the French system is heavily geared towards stability (one needs 289 votes to topple a government). But it adds another element of unpredictability in the way France will be governed in the coming five years.

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