The upcoming French elections have been held by some media, such as the Economist, as a turning-point in Western politics, with the two major parties that have alternated at the head of the state since the start of the fifth republic in 1958 predicted to lose to one of the three underogs: Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Emmanuel Macron.
The striking element, common to the success that these three campaigns have had so far, is an intense criticism of the French political landscape. Marine Le Pen, just like her father, has always thrived by criticizing French politics for being a system in the hands of an establishment, coining the phrase “UMPS” to describe how the UMP (rebranded The Republicans last year) and the Socialist Party kept alternating in power, with very little difference in the decisions that they took. It is however unlikely that she would win, given the strong support for a ‘popular front’ against the FN that is shared by the left, the centre and a portion of the right.
However, the idea that the right and the left have become two sides of a same coin has deeply permeated the French electorate. Indeed, since Mitterrand had to abandon his Keynesian program two years into his presidency to turn to a much more pragmatic austerity phase from 1983 onwards, both socialists and republicans have had very similar approaches to economic policy, embodied by the El Khomri law presented by the Hollande government supporting a neo-liberal simplification of the employment-related legislation. It is important to note that the article was passed by decree by the government, despite massive popular uprisings and parliamentary opposition.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the product of this disappearance of a properly militant left. He proposed to indebt the country by up to 100 billion in order to finance initiatives in new technologies and sustainable development, as well as stated, in a highly contradictory manner, that he would refuse to pay back the debt that France incurred over the years from international financial institutions. Finally, his will to cap the revenues of the highest earners to twenty times the salary of the worst paid employee clearly shows that he pictures himself as the renewal of the left, of its true values and its militantism. It thus seems that Mélenchon has been gaining in momentum to the point of having a non-negligible probability of reaching the second round of the presidential elections, as a consequence of branding himself a more genuine socialist.
In this landscape, Macron can be seen as the embodiment of the centrist liberalism that has guided French politics for 60 years. However, there are two sides to his campaign. The first is that of the liberal ex-minister, with a history of dealing with the patronal elites. The second side is almost populist: he inscribed himself in the popular opposition to the idea of a political class. He has proudly held his experience as a private banker as a sign that he has been in touch with the reality, and the structure of his new movement, En Marche, is based on popular support and aims at presenting people with no former political experience to most local elections. The fact that Macron did not even have a programme a few weeks ago shows that he wants to be elected as this central, liberal pragmatist.
This election has shown a polarisation of French politics, as well as increasing levels of populism, leading some people like Mélenchon to argue that a whole new political system, a Sixth Republic, is necessary. It is highly probable that the next French Parliament, elected in June, will have to prove its ability to work despite the absence of clear cut majority. This entails that career politicians will have to actually participate in a democratic debate rather than playing the political game of perpetual virtue-signalling conflict between opposition and majority,. The Nuit Debout initiative, inciting Parisians to debate together on the streets, has shown that a significant portion of the French population feels like the people themselves should be placed back at the centre of democracy, which is impossible under the current constitution. Quite paradoxically, this election, highly influenced by the deep and increasingly well perceived problems of the Fifth Republic, may be the one that saves it by giving it an opportunity to reform itself. Populist movements have clearly signalled that the French people has had enough of its elites. Some things never change.