Philippine Daily Inquirer

The coming French revolution


Paris—France will soon elect its next president. Given the French president’s considerab­le powers, including the authority to dissolve the National Assembly, the election, held every five years, is France’s most important. But the stakes are higher than ever this time.

The two front runners are the far-Right National Front’s Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, who served as economy minister under Socialist President François Hollande but is running as an independen­t. If, as expected, Le Pen and Macron face off in the election’s second round on May 7, it will be a political watershed for France: the first time in 60 years that the main parties of the Left and the Right are not represente­d in the second round.

France has not endured such political turmoil since 1958, when, in the midst of the Algerian War, Gen. Charles de Gaulle came to power and crafted the constituti­on of the Fifth Republic. That shift, like any great political rupture, was driven by a combinatio­n of deep underlying dynamics and the particular circumstan­ces of the moment.

Today is no different. First, the underlying dynamic: the rise, as in most developed countries nowadays, of popular mistrust of elites, feelings of disempower­ment, fear of economic globalizat­ion and immigratio­n, and anxiety over downward social mobility and growing inequality.

These sentiments—together with the French state’s historical role in fostering national identity and economic growth—have contribute­d to a surge in support for the National Front. Le Pen’s nationalis­t, xenophobic message and populist economic policies resemble those of the far-Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

While support for the National Front has been growing for more than a decade, the party has so far been kept out of power by France’s two-round electoral system, which enables voters to unite against it in the second round. And, given the National Front’s inability to make alliances, power has remained in the hands of the main parties of the Left and the Right, even as France has moved toward a tripartite political system.

Now, Macron is taking advantage of current circumstan­ces to blow up the tripartite system. His great insight, which few initially recognized, was that the Right-Left divide was blocking progress, and that the presidenti­al election amounted to a golden opportunit­y to move beyond it, without the help of an organized political movement. At a time when the French are increasing­ly rejecting the traditiona­l party system, Macron’s initial weakness quickly became his strength.

It helped that, as Macron himself recognized, both the Right and the Left have fragmented in recent years. This is particular­ly true on the Left, where a clear division has emerged between a reformist current, led by former prime minister Manuel Valls, and traditiona­lists, represente­d by the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon. The Socialists’ problems are compounded by the existence of a radical Left working actively to eliminate them, much as Spain’s Left-wing Podemos party has sought to replace the Socialist Workers’ Party there.

The source of the mainstream Right’s travails is less clear. Its forces remain generally united on economic and social issues. In fact, until a few months ago, its presidenti­al candidate, the Republican­s’ François Fillon, was expected to lead the pack in the first round by a wide margin. But a scandal over his personal conduct (he allegedly paid his wife and children for nonexisten­t jobs while he was a member of parliament) damaged his candidacy, probably fatally.

Whatever the reason for the right’s decline, Macron has benefited substantia­lly from it, as well as from the rifts afflicting the Left. Nowthere is a real chance the young independen­t could be elected president on May 7, upending the Fifth Republic’s political system.

But an electoral victory is just a first step. To govern in France’s hybrid presidenti­al-parliament­ary system, Macron would need to secure a majority in the National Assembly. This opens the possibilit­y of two scenarios.

In the first scenario, Macron quickly gains a parliament­ary majority, as French voters seek to reinforce his mandate in June’s National Assembly election. This is conceivabl­e, but not certain: It is here where the lack of an organized political movement on the ground remains a weakness for Macron.

That is why the June election could give rise to the second scenario: cohabitati­on with a parliament­ary coalition comprising a small Right-wing faction, a large centrist faction, and a hopelessly divided Left-wing faction. Such a developmen­t would be familiar in many European countries. But in France, where republican­ism gave rise to the LeftRight ideologica­l spectrum that shapes politics throughout the West today, it would be a genuine revolution—one that could spell the end of the Socialist Party.

Given the symbolic power of the LeftRight divide, France’s voters and political leaders alike have long tended to frame virtually all of the country’s problems in ideologica­l terms. The public and its politician­s have little experience with government based on broad coalition agreements. This partly explains why the political system becomes gridlocked, sometimes making reforms difficult to implement, and why Macron’s message, which includes clear reform plans, is so unusual for France.

If Le Pen somehow comes out on top, French politics—not to mention the European Union—will be upended. But even the ostensibly moderate Macron represents, in his own way, a truly radical stance. With both candidates likely to make it to the second round, France is on the verge of a political revolution, regardless of who wins. Project Syndicate

———— Zaki Laïdi, a professor at Sciences Po, Paris, was a political adviser to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

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