In an article written 15 years ago, I described the 2002 presidential election as being a strange affair. The 2017 contest is turning out to be even stranger. In between the two elections, the electoral scenarios have shifted. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen won through to the second round against expectations, with almost 18% on the first round; massive republican mobilization saw incumbent President Jacques Chirac re-elected with a large majority (81.75%). In 2017, few commentators cast any doubt on the likely presence of Marine Le Pen on the second round, though predictions of a Le Pen victory are more prevalent in the foreign media than amongst French commentators. While the expectation that a left-right cleavage will produce a run-off between a Socialist and a Republican candidate has underpinned most presidential elections, such a scenario appears unlikely in 2017.
But it is difficult to keep tabs on this campaign and several scenarios remain open. There is no presidential frontrunner and no absolute certainty about which candidates will win through to the second round. As it evolves, an increasingly likely scenario is that of a run off between two anti-system candidates, Marine Le Pen, for the Front national and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! Both candidates have successfully positioned themselves as above party; somewhat paradoxically, the absence of primary elections in the case of these two candidates has strengthened the claim not to be dependent on party. As the campaign dust settles, there is at least the beginning of a programmatic debate. Macron and Le Pen represent distinct alternatives and choices in relation to an overarching cleavage that might be described as cosmopolitanism versus ethnicised national identity. It is a sign of the times that only one candidate – Emmanuel Macron – has explicitly engaged himself in defense of the European project, including a public commitment to bring France back within the criteria of the Maastricht stability pact. In early March, Macron finally presented his programme, after many weeks of delay and preparation. Macron’s mix of economic liberalism, social protection, political moderation and European integration recalls New Labour, with two decades delay, the principal difference being Macron’s lack of a robust party organisation. Marine Le Pen’s national populist programme, on the contrary, articulates the demand for closed frontiers, economic protection, national preference and the recovery of an (illusory) monetary sovereignty, with France eventually exiting the euro after a referendum. The two putative second round candidates at least represent clear alternative visions of the future based on differing positions on the national protection, European integration and globalization spectrum. It is difficult to say as much for Fillon, whose radical cutting edge of November 2016 has been blurred in the fog of the Penelopegate affair. And even Hamon, whose radical Universal Revenue idea dominated the latter stages of the PS primary, has been bogged down in interminable negotiations with potential partners (the Green candidate Jadot withdrawing in favour of Hamon, but J.-L. Melenchon steadfastly refusing, probably ensuring the defeat of the Socialist candidate on the first round).
As it is unfolding, the 2017 campaign potentially challenges three unwritten rules of presidential elections. First, that control of the party organisation ensures the presidential nomination; this hierarchy has been upset by the primaries, though paradoxically it remains valid for the two leading ‘anti-party’ candidates, Macron and Le Pen. The primary elections have overhauled party organizational (logics) and created winners whose appeal is deeper to the core partisan electorate than to the elusive median voter (Hamon, Fillon). Meanwhile the logics of the primaries extend far beyond the selection of the party’s candidate. As I write (7th March), Francois Fillon appeared to have weathered the storm, using the result of the LR primaries to fend off challenges to his candidacy. Fillon’s argument is not only that he was consecrated as champion of the Republicans in the primaries, but also that LR sympathizers voted for radical programmatic change. As Fillon pointed out, in his televised intervention on France 2 (5th March 2017), no-one can prevent him from standing as candidate (all the more in that he has already deposited the 500 signatories necessary to stand). In this case, the primary election provided a powerful shield, even against the investigating magistrates announcing the opening of a judicial investigation against Fillon and convoking the candidate to appear on 15th March. Just in case of doubt, Fillon played the People against the Party card, steadfastly refusing to stand down as candidate notwithstanding intense pressures and the desertion of a swathes of LR deputies and senators from the Fillon campaign team. Juppé’s announcement on 6th March that he would in no case be candidate removed one serious obstacle to Fillon’s survival. On the Socialist left, the lasting impact of the primary has been to create a gulf between the candidate and the mass of PS deputies, deeply anxious about their – slim – prospects of re-election within the PS label.
The second unwritten rule being challenged in 2017 is that the presidential election encourages a left-right bipolarization and a corresponding presidentialisation of the party system. This was always an excessively institutional argument; each presidential election has produced a rather different political configuration. In practice, the bipolar logic of the presidential election, as assumed to have shaped political and party competition throughout most of the Fifth Republic, appears increasingly out of kilter with the 3, 4 or 5 party reality. It might be objected that this has always been the case; the 2017 campaign needs to be placed it in its historical context. One consequences of fitting a three-, four- or five- party reality into the bipolar jacket is that the threshold levels for gaining access to the second round is lowered: to around 20%. Combined with the partisan logic of the primary elections, the first round logic of rallying core supporters is stronger than ever. Candidates give primacy to first round mobilisation over the anticipation of second round strategies in 2017 because the outcome of the first round was far less certain than in any other recent presidential race (except arguably 2002). The 2017 campaign revealed more starkly than ever before the paradox that the traditionally most-coveted institution – the presidency – is contested by at least three of the leading five candidates. This institutional disaffection is complicated in 2017 by the deep anti-party sentiment.
Third: is the 2017 challenging the view that the presidential election is the core decisive election on which French politics is centred? The 2017 presidential contest will be the 10th direct election of the Fifth Republic, sharing some similar traits with previous elections, but also having its own distinctive characteristics. One of the core assumptions is that the presidential election brings in its wake a comfortable majority for the victorious candidate in the subsequent legislative elections. This mechanical relationship might not function as assumed in 2017. In the event that either Macron or Le Pen are elected President, it must not be assumed that an overall parliamentary majority will be produced in the wake of their triumph. Macron recognised this last week, when he acknowledged that a first round electoral base of 25% would not provide the necessary legitimacy to underpin a single party majority. There is a very real possibility that the candidate who eventually emerges as President will not obtain an overall majority ‘in his or her name’, one of the principal Gaullist legacies of the Fifth Republic.