Tag Archives: French presidential elections 2017

France – Honeymoon legislative election returns a huge majority for President Macron. Of course it does!

On Sunday 11th June, the first round of the French legislative election was held. On Sunday 18th the second round took place. Given the results of the previous week, Sunday’s election provided few surprises. There were some notable individual results: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front national (FN), was elected, even if her party did badly overall; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the left party, La France Insoumise (LFI), was also returned and his party won enough seats to constitute a group in parliament, giving him speaking time; the former Socialist (PS) prime minister, Manuel Valls, was also returned, though only by a whisker and as a non-aligned candidate, indeed the Socialists had actively campaigned against him; Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who is a high-profile figure from the right-wing Les Républicains (LR) and who had been the victim of an attack in the street while campaigning during the week, an attack that left her unconscious for a while, was defeated. However, the main event was the huge majority won by President Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party. Winning just 28.2% of the votes cast in the first round seven days before, the party ended up with about 300 seats in the 577-seat legislature after the second round. With the support of its MoDem ally, which won about 4.2% of the vote at the first round, President Macron now has the support of over 350 deputies in the legislature. This nice figure from Laurent de Boissieu’s blog neatly captures the many different components of the new French Assembly, but also indicates the huge majority for LREM and MoDem.

How did this happen? After all, before the first round of the presidential campaign, between the two rounds, and immediately after Macron’s victory, there were fears or claims that his party would not win a legislative majority and that he would not be able to govern, dragging France back to the bad old days of the Fourth Republic. Worse still, there were those who thought that he would face a period of cohabitation.

This was not the worry of a few isolated individuals. After the first round of the legislative election, L’Express put up a nice montage of politicians who argued that cohabitation was inevitable. But it wasn’t just politicians. At a certain point, Twitter got in a total fuss about the likelihood of cohabitation, though that’s what Twitter does.

But not everyone was so worried. Matthew Shugart said that the idea there would be a period of cohabitation was “nonsense“. And modesty almost, but not quite, forbids me from noting that we adopted a similar argument here.

What we have witnessed is instructive from a political science point of view. There is a well developed literature on how the legislative party system is shaped by direct presidential elections. (Anyone wanting a copy of the article with the literature review should just e-mail me). To simplify only a little, this work shows that when legislative elections follow shortly after the direct election of a powerful president, they typically return a presidential majority. This is exactly what we saw in France in 2017. For sure, the general argument is probabilistic, not deterministic. But the association is strong. The probability is high. So, the academic work hasn’t just generated something amounting to a reasonable guess that a certain outcome would occur. It suggested that there was a very good chance that Macron would get at least a working majority. In the end, he won the support of a huge majority, bigger than most academics had expected. The literature, though, was basically right. Why?

Well, the academics who have investigated this topic have made their argument on the basis of a statistical relationship, but they have also identified certain causal mechanisms to explain why we should expect honeymoon legislative elections to return a presidential majority. These mechanisms are all very general. They don’t always easily apply to specific countries. That’s all we can expect in large-n studies. However, and at the risk of committing an egregious ecological fallacy, the France 2017 case illustrates how these causal mechanisms can play out under local-level conditions.

We know that presidential elections are often the catalyst for party system realignments. This has been true in France before, but the evidence that this was going to be a realigning election was present even before the presidential election had finished. The election was catastrophic for the PS. It was hopelessly split and faced a strong challenge to its left. Going into a honeymoon legislative election in such a weakened state did not bode well for the PS. The presidential election also generated splits within LR. There were those, like the former prime minister, Alain Juppé, who were willing to work with LREM in a future Assembly, whereas there were others who were not. Going into a honeymoon legislative election in such a divided state did not bode well for LR. The FN was also in trouble. Le Pen did well to get through to the second ballot of the presidential election, but she did not perform as well as expected. The party’s support had been slipping even prior to her disastrous presidential debate with Macron. In the end, she was decisively beaten at the second round. After the election, there were reports that Le Pen was exhausted; the party was demoralised; there were also splits within the FN, even though it had done historically well. So, going into a honeymoon legislative election in such a state did not bode well for the FN either. In other words, presidential elections upend party systems. We saw how this general idea played out specifically in France in 2017.

A similar point applies to abstention rates. We know that abstention rates are higher in honeymoon legislative elections relative to the presidential election. We also know that it is typically the voters of the parties that lost the presidential election who stay at home. So, even when the presidential election does not generate a party system realignment of the sort that we saw in France in 2017, we should still expect the new president’s party to be the biggest beneficiary of the higher abstention rate at the legislative election. Again, this is exactly what happened in France. But it’s what we would expect to have happened.

There was a further element too. Macron’s victory at the presidential victory was bigger than expected. Thus, he had momentum. Once in office, he also had some excellent photo opportunities, meeting European and world leaders, even upstaging Donald Trump in the handshake stakes. There were one or two relatively minor concerns with his government, but by and large he kept his presidential promises in terms of government formation. In other words, presidential elections give the victor the potential to act, well, presidentially. This presidential lustre can rub off on to the president’s party at the legislative election. This is exactly what happened. In other words, like other presidents in a similar context, Macron benefited at the legislative elections from being the newly-elected president.

Of course, there are always local, idiosyncratic conditions. The electoral system clearly exaggerated the gains for LREM. But LREM was particularly well placed to benefit from the system. As a centrist party, it could win the support of right-wing voters who wanted to keep out left-wing candidates in LREM/left second-round duels; it could win the support of left-wing voters who wanted to keep out LR candidates in LREM/LR duels; it could also win the support of pretty much everyone in LREM/FN duels. So, strategically, it was better placed than some parties in equivalent situations. This particularity helped to inflate its majority. Also, Macron was not a long-time incumbent who had just been re-elected. He was a new figure and for some he did generate an enthusiasm for a new form of politics. In France 2017, all these local conditions worked in favour of his party at the legislative election. In other cases, they might not be present, helping to ensure that the relationship between presidential elections and legislative elections is not deterministic.

We are encouraged to talk confidently about our work (that’s Twitter again!), even when we do not always have grounds to be as confident as all that. More than that, we only have to look at opinion polling to see that even in an area where there has been a huge amount of research, where the sample is very large, and where there is competition in the academic market, we can still get things wrong. So, we should be modest about what we claim and certainly what we predict. However, we were on strong grounds to claim that cohabitation was very unlikely in France in 2017. We have an idea about the general processes. The  local conditions were ripe. In short, politicians and Twitter didn’t need to get in such a fuss.

France – Of volcanoes and earthquakes: Looking back on the first round of the presidential election

The danger of hyperbole is bound to be present following the qualification for the second round of Emmanuel Macron (24.01%) and Marine Le Pen (21.30%) in the French presidential election. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, the candidate representing the mainstream republican Right (understood as comprising both the Gaullist and liberal-conservative traditions) did not win through to the second round; and while the Socialists failed in 1969 and 2002, the candidate they supported has also usually fought the run-off (in 1965, 1974, 1981, 1988, 1995, 2007 and 2012). Exit the two main governmental parties of the Fifth Republic – at least on a first superficial reading. While the parliamentary elections might reverse the fortunes of the main players, the absence of the governmental left and right from the second round is sufficiently remarkable to withstand the accusation of hyperbole. Already, in an earlier blog I argued that the unwritten rules of the Fifth Republic were being sharply called into question by the 2017 election . But this was nothing compared with the seismic shift of 23rd April. Though predicted by the polls, the exclusion of the candidates from the two historic governing parties of the Fifth Republic – Hamon for the Socialists and Fillon for LR – is likely to have major consequences. At the very least, it demonstrates a disaffection with party and the candidates designated by the primaries. Is this damage asymmetrical? Is the potential damage to the PS more existential than to the Republicans? It is still – just – too early to say. Both LR and PS are sorely divided, however and the construction of pro-Macron poles in each movement is likely (possibly producing formal schisms). The situation is further blurred by the strong performance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.66%) and his unwillingness openly to support the ‘globalist’ Macron against the nationalist Le Pen.

An earthquake? The metaphor is rather labored and has certainly been used frequently to refer to the FN, from the initial breakthrough in the 1984 European elections. A volcanic outburst might be more accurate. But what type of Volcanic eruption? A brutal Vesuvian eruption sweeping all aside in its wake? A Pompeii-style outburst, overwhelming, yet preserving remnants of the pre-existing order for the observance of posterity? A smouldering and spluttering Everest, ever-threatening to erupt, but contained within its mountain range? There is evidence to support each of these positions.

The first position implies a tabula rasa, a starting over again. This ambition is expressed by the En Marche! candidate, regularly repeated in the media. Rather paradoxically, this does not express itself for Macron in terms of a rejection of the Fifth Republic (there is no bombastic call for a 6th Republic, the project valued by Mélenchon and Hamon), but a reversion to one of the oldest traditions of the regime, in the form of the presidential rally. The references made by Macron himself to the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 were highly indicative of his ambition, but also of a certain political style that is presented as being compatible with an early interpretation of the Fifth Republic. En Marche! bears some similarities with the UNR of 1958: it frames itself both as cross-party (picking the best talents), and anti-party (the regime against the parties accused of undermining governmental authority and being self-serving); it places itself as being neither left nor right; it operates as a presidential rally to support an individual diagnosed as having exceptional qualities. The danger for the EM! candidate is that, once elected, he will dispose of few of the instruments to implement his political programme and will lack de Gaulle’s historic legitimacy. Converting the try will require a majority elected in the name of the President, a presidential majority. The failure to achieve this outcome will be lived as a failure- even though Macron has acknowledged that with a base of 24% he does not have a majority to govern then country by himself. Let it be said in passing that there is an unresolved tension: between the acknowledgement that 24% on the first round would not provide a sufficient base to construct a new presidential majority and that a reformist coalition would be necessary; and the refusal to allow joint membership (of EM! and the PS, for example) in the belief that EM! can provide the majority to support the President.

The Vesuvian eruption also implies a realigning election, in the sense of Pierre Martin, in the French version of realignment theory . A realigning election represents first a moment of rupture, a radical break with the old order that takes the form of a paradigm shift; this is then followed by a realignment around new issues, in all probability channeled by new political organisations. The first round of the 2017 presidential election has the appearances of a radical break; the traditional governmental parties (PS and LR) obtaining barely more than one-quarter of first round votes (26.29% to be exact), down from well over one-half (55.81%) in 2012. On the other hand, the electoral verdict in 2017 is not totally unexpected. Recent presidential contests have taught us to expect the unexpected. In 2002, the announced second-round contenders (Chirac and Jospin) did not, in fact, win through to contest the run-off. In 2007, the third candidate Bayrou almost broke the mould; but his 18.57% were not quite enough to swing the election. In 2012, Hollande was elected on a carefully constructed anti-Sarkozy ticket, which papered over the profound divisions within the PS and amongst the left in general that greatly harmed his presidency. Hollande’s deep unpopularity prevented the outgoing President from standing as a candidate for re-election, itself an unprecedented sign of political disaffection.

There is a good case that 2017 might represent a decisive break with the old order. The two second round contenders were well-positioned in terms of the two key defining features of the 2017 campaign: the rejection of existing parties (notwithstanding their effort to reinvent themselves via the primaries); and a clear position in terms of the progressive/nationalist cluster of issues. The 2017 provided stark evidence of the deep distrust for all the established political parties, which translated into the fact that only one in four electors voted for the candidates invested in the Socialist and Republican primaries. Three of the leading candidates embraced the populist appeal of rejecting party: Mélenchon, Macron and Le Pen. Mélenchon (19.66%) surfed on the rather populist, anti-party theme of la France insoumise – France’s radical, revolutionary tradition adapted to the digital age. The crisis of the Socialists was particularly acute during the 2012-2017 presidency; the first round sanctioned Benoit Hamon, one of the leaders of the frondeurs whose come -uppence took the form of a humiliating 6.3%. For LR, Fillon’s failure to win through to the second round (20.01%), after a campaign laid low by scandal, was not really a surprise.

The 2017 campaign also produced symbolic positioning in terms of boundaries, borders and space, centred around the cleavage between ‘mondialists’ and patriots, in the formulation of Marine Le Pen. Macron positioned himself as the only unreserved pro-European, the one candidate calling for closer European integration as an instrument to assist economic modernisation and promote social justice. While rejecting the accusation of being ‘naïve’, moreover, Macron insisted that France could not simply ignore the reality of economic globalization. Liberal in terms of social mores and respectful of plural French identities (hence more accommodating towards French citizens of immigrant origin), Macron also appeared as liberal in the economic sense in that he seeks to reform labour law, encourage business innovation and investment and make France fitter for purpose in embracing the challenges of economic globalisation. Marine Le Pen’s programme was almost exactly opposite: an ‘intelligent’ protectionism (taxation on imported goods), tough restrictions on immigration, and a referendum on future membership of the euro/EU. These positions were reflected in the respective electoral support bases of the two candidates: Macron leading in the metropolises (Paris, Toulouse, Rennes, Lyon); Le Pen ahead in la France péripherique . The centrality of the cosmopolitan/ nationalist cleavage cut across traditional lines of cleavage and blurred still further the boundaries between left and right. The positioning of J.-L Mélenchon is particularly significant in this respect; as a resolute opponent of Brussels and European integration, but also defender of diversity. Melenchon’s reluctance to call explicitly upon his electors to support Macron on the second round run-off was a further nail in the coffin of the Republican Front (the alliance against the FN) and, indirectly, the traditional logic of left-right bipolarization.

The second position – the Pompeii analogy – might be more accurate. The existing world has been overwhelmed, but vestiges remains in the ruins. Though seriously shaken and divided, the Republicans (LR) ought to live to fight another day. One of the paradoxes of the 2017 electoral series is that it might conceivably end with a new cohabitation, a LR premier called to head President Macron’s government after the parliamentary elections. For all of the anti-party rhetoric, EM! is shaping up as a presidential rally, rather than a structured movement. The difficulty in finding enough EM! assessors to man the voting booths on the second round on 7th May is one indicator of this, as is Macron’s refusal to publish the list of EM! Candidates before the presidential election. If Macron is serious about only candidates with the EM! label being able to contest the parliamentary election, he is likely to face serious obstacles from the other players: Mélenchon’s France insoumise, with or without the Communists; the PS, with or without Hamon (tempted by a realignment with the EELV) or Valls (tempted by Macron); the Republicans (LR), possibly shorn of pro-Macron reformist wing; and the FN (Marine Le Pen coming first in 216 or 566 constituencies in mainland France). In a five-space reality, few candidates will be elected on the first round, though the 12.5% of registered electors needed to progress to the second round will limit the number of triangular and quadripolar contests. In short, it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome of the parliamentary elections. This matters, because the 2017 parliamentary contest is unlikely to be a mere ‘confirmation election’, inclined by the institutional logic of the quinquennat to confirm the choice of the decisive presidential contest.

In a third interpretation, the volcano might produce tremors, but not fundamentally overhaul the existing partisan supply. The eventuality of a fourth cohabitation, with a resurgent LR imposing a government on the recently elected Macron, cannot be excluded. The return of the parties would be the ultimate turn to this strangest of election campaigns.

Emmanuel Macron: A Sign of the Times?

On the eve of the first televised debate between the presidential candidates, one of the core enigmas of the presidential campaign thus far is that of Emmanuel Macron. Who is Emmanuel Macron? The search for the ‘real’ Macron has preoccupied journalists, commentators, political satirists and (rival) politicians in recent weeks, in more or less good faith. Does Macron represent the tardive manifestation in France of Blairite Third Way, as suggested by Arnaud Parmentier in Le Monde ? Or, on the contrary, as the specialist of the French right Gilles Robert contends, is Macron a contemporary version of the liberal, Orleanist right Or, more crudely, the representative of international finance, as maliciously portrayed by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in a not so strange convergence? Or quite simply the continuation of the (failed) Hollande presidency, the favourite frame of the LR candidate Francois Fillon? Elucidation via comparison and analogy is heuristically useful, but a fuller comprehension logically requires more time: it is still too early to describe and diagnose the ‘real’ Macron.

Macron is not a totally unknown quantity, of course. As deputy General Secretary of the Presidential staff from 2012-14, Macron was a key figure in the background, exercising a reputedly strong influence in relation to the social liberal turn of the Hollande presidency (lowering taxes on business via the Business tax credit scheme [Crédit d’impôt pour la compétitivité et l’emploi – CICE] of 2013) and the Business Pact [Pacte de Responsabilité] of 2014). As Minister for the Economy, Industry and Digital Policy, Macron associated his name with a complex law that aimed comprehensively to modernize and liberalise the French economy; that most of its more controversial measures (especially in relation to the professions and work regulations) were abandoned or diluted was more a testament to the stout resistance of the Socialist frondeurs than evidence of half-hearted intent. In August 2016, Macron resigned from his position at the heart of the Hollande administration to launch the risky venture of building his political movement (En Marche!, launched in April 2016) and standing for the French presidential election. At the very least, he is a political entrepreneur and a risk-taker.

Focusing on the individual qualities of the potential candidate is a necessary (though not sufficient) exercise. Understanding Macron requires adopting, or at least adapting, a framework for studying political leadership. Most models of political leadership involve some combination of personal qualities, positional strengths and weaknesses, and the wider environmental and cultural constraints and opportunities that help shape political leadership. Though the object of our analysis is not (yet) President, understanding Macron requires a combination of three levels of analysis: micro (individual), the meso- (institution) and the macro (European, international economy). The political constellation and the interaction of these three levels arguably places Macron in a strong position to win through to the second round and eventually be elected President

The presidential office is contested by individuals who bring potentially different styles, visions, sets of beliefs and capacities to the office. Not all of the candidates seek to win election to the presidency, of course. Of the 11 candidates qualified to stand in the 2017 presidential election, two, perhaps three might be considered as having a realistic chance of being elected President. The division of the left between Jean Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon makes it unlikely that either the PS or the France insoumise candidate will win thorough to contest the second round; were Mélenchon to stand down in favour of Hamon that might change the situation and produce a genuinely exciting finish to the first round. But, at the time of writing, such an outcome seems unlikely. Of the three remaining ‘heavyweight’ candidates, no single poll has yet given Le Pen victory in the second round run-off, though most envisage her presence on the second round. In spite of recurrent difficulties, Fillon is still in the presidential race and has now definitively seen off an attempt to replace him as the LR candidate. The damage is likely to be lasting; but it is too early to write off Fillon for either the first or the second round. However, Macron currently appears to be benefiting from a favourable, though fragile, political constellation. Though there are obvious risks in his political positioning, does he articulate the micro-, meso- and macro- dimensions of successful political leadership better than the other candidates?

At the micro-level, we understand style to refer to the complex mix of preferences, beliefs, skills, values and practices of individuals in a potential leadership situation. There is an individual dimension to this; the leadership qualities of decisiveness, strength, resolution, risk-taking, vision and imagination are differentially distributed, irrespective of wider structural circumstances. Not even his fiercest adversary can contest the ability to take risks; giving up his position as Economy, Industry and Digital minister to launch himself into the risky venture of En Marche! demonstrated this. Resigning from the civil service (and reimbursing a substantial sum to the State) to be able to contest the campaign goes in the same direction. The personal style provides some substance to the demand for greater transparency. Does Macron embody the sign of the times? Quite possibly. He represents better than any other candidate the demand for a new generation. If elected President at 39 years old, Macron will be a few years younger than Tony Blair and around the same age as Matteo Renzi in Italy when he became premier. For all his efforts, however, the JDD-IFOP poll of 16-17th March suggests that public opinion remains somewhat unconvinced with Macron enterprise. His honesty is contested be more than half of respondents (52%, against 48%) but this might be read as a more general response to a question about the honesty of politicians. His presidential stature is rather more worrying. The survey suggest that opinion is sharply divided in relation to whether Macron has the stature to be President (48% for the proposition, 52% against), or whether he is capable of reforming the country (48% for the proposition, 52% against). The two potentially most difficult findings reflect a certain governmental inexperience: only 46% (against 54%) consider he is able to ensure the security of the population. And only 41% consider Macron to be close to the people; his background as a brilliant ENA graduate and his work for Rothschild leave the indelible image that Macron is a member of the French elite.

At the meso- level, Macron appears to have integrated and internalized the limitations of the presidential office: his recognition that, with 25% of the first round vote as a maximum, he would be unable (or unwise) to attempt to form a majority in his name was novel. Calling for a broader coalition of forces to support his action, and anticipating building a centre-oriented majority, bears reminiscences of President Giscard d’Estaing (1971-81). There are echoes of former President Giscard d’Estaing in other senses as well: a modernizing President who referred to the need to govern from the centre, in the name of two out of every three French citizens, yet whose activity was crippled by the lack of a firm parliamentary majority. Whether President Macron would be able to govern without a parliamentary majority (deprived of effective use of the pro-executive tools such as Article 49, clause 3 of the constitution since the 2008 constitutional reform ) remains to be seen.

Macron just might confound the bipolar logic of the Fifth Republic that has traditionally seen left and right contest the second round. His position is fairly close to that explicitly embraced by François Bayrou in 2002, 2007 and 2012 presidential elections (Bayrou logically rallying to support Macron). In 2007, Bayrou almost broke through to the second round, with 18.57%. One decade later, following two deeply unpopular presidential terms, Macron is on the cusp of going one better than Bayrou. Macron’s avowed disdain for party politics is both a strength and a weakness. Given the extent of the electorate’s professed distrust of political parties, such a message has an active appeal; Macron is rather more convincing than Fillon or Le Pen in this respect. The downside is the lack of a tested organization capable not only of mobilizing for an election, but providing a disciplined cadre of deputies to support presidential action thereafter. Not the least of the paradoxes is that Macron integrates the crisis of trust in parties into his own appeal. Escaping from the trap of the primaries, Macron is able to practice a form of triangulation (drawing on ideas from across the political spectrum) in a manner that it not available to his leading opponents, themselves bound by the logic of the primaries or well-established programmes. Macron’s eclectic programme, published in early March, was justified by the candidate in terms of actively mobilising citizens in its co-construction.

At the macro-level: Macron appears to have positioned himself clearly in relation to debates on globalization, modernization and economic reforms, in a manner that justifies Parmentier’s analysis that identifies broad continuities with the new Labour project of the late 1990s (economic reform married with social justice, a resolutely pro-European message, investment in education, emphasis on responsibilities and individual merit, challenging corporations that mar France’s economic success). Macron is the only candidate standing on an explicitly European integrationist ticket, calling for more effort to respect the terms of the Stability Pact and to adapt France’s economy. But how much of this is electoral rhetoric? Let us not forget that Macron was a highly interventionist Industry minister, notably in terms of frustrating the announced merger of SFR and Bouygues, or again interfering in operations of the Renault car maker (indeed, creating diplomatic pressures with Japan by raising the French State’s stake in the car maker). While Macron has a clear message in terms of economic reform, he is far less audible in terms of security responses or with respect to societal issues related to French identity and multiculturalism that play to the Fillon and Le Pen agendas. This might represent a risk; the other area of potential weakness relates to the funding of various promises such as the abolition of local taxes for most of the population, the introduction of a massive investment programme, the reintroduction of a form of national service and the introduction of new conditions for obtaining unemployment benefit.

The case of Macron raises the more general question of whether certain individuals are suited to certain types of setting. Does Macron represent the sign of the times, the candidate who embodies for many the qualities necessary to revive a stagnating polity and liberalise an under-performing economy? While the other main candidates mobilise their core electors for the first round, Macron is arguably alone able to articulate the potentially pivotal central space, an advantageous position in advance of the second round. Will he be able to withstand the rigours of the campaign that is starting at last to focus on the policy choices facing France and overcome the substantial first round barrier represented by Fillon? The waiting game is almost over.

A Strange Affair: The 2017 Presidential Election Campaign in France

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.

France – President Fillon: faute de mieux?

I was invited as an expert on the France 24 news programme last Friday (17th February).  As a guide to what I might prepare, I was told:  simply talk about the fronde.  Talk about Fillon, Hamon and the frondeurs. The use of the term the fronde has become ubiquitous.  Bearing a very loose link with its original meaning (the revolt of provincial parliaments and nobles against the centralizing pretensions of the French monarchy), it has been translated into a metaphor for resistance to an established  government (in the case of Valls from 2014-16) or even politicians (the case of Francois Fillon). Widely used to describe the rebellious group of Socialist MPs during the Hollande presidency, the term la fronde is now being employed to point to the stiff resistance of a number of Republican deputies – second fiddles close to Nicolas Sarkozy – to the prospect of Francois Fillon’s candidacy for the Republicans. Georges Fenech, Claude Goasguen, Nadine Morano and others justified their latest attempt to bar the route to Fillon with the argument that it is impossible to campaign for the candidate, that there is a deep lack of trust from Republican supporters throughout the country. A first attempt to force the LR candidate to stand down was crushed in Fillon’s press conference of 5th February; a second, more half-hearted effort was put down by Fillon on his return from La Réunion (a welcome three-day respite) a week later.

Faced with pressures from Sarkozy supporters, Fillon has decided to remain droit dans ses bottes, to resist the pressures pressing on him not to stand. This determination appears backed up by the latest surveys; the IFOP survey for the Journal de Dimanche (19/02/2017), for example, reports that 70% of likely Republican voters believe Fillon ought to maintain his candidacy for the Elysée. A core Republican electorate of 18-20% provides a solid base to encourage perseverance, though it is down from 28% in the immediate aftermath of the LR primaries.  As the deadline nears for filing the support of the minimum 500 signatures of elected officials, Fillon appears more than ever likely to tough it out and be a candidate. There is no serious Plan B. The 40-something generation is totally unable to agree on an alternative, while the Barons of the primary – Juppé and Sarkozy – have declared they will not contest Fillon. His determination to stand as candidate – even in the event of being called to trail, a break with his initial stance – is justified by Fillon with the argument that there is no possible alternative candidate.

Dampening la fronde required a contrite Fillon to pay a visit to erstwhile rival Nicolas Sarkozy, however, following which the LR candidate pledged to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years old, an old Sarkozy promise. The re-focusing of the campaign on security issues is a testament to the continuing influence of Sarkozy. In the context of riots in the suburbs, after a vicious police attack on the adolescent Théo and the violent response of a small minority of demonstrators, Fillon’s campaign has taken a security turn.

Meanwhile, the PS candidate Benoît Hamon – one of the leading frondeurs during the Valls premiership – is discovering the difficulties of reunifying a divided party, let alone a imposing himself as the uncontested champion of the left.  The aftermath of the primary retains a bitter taste. Few close to Valls have been involved in the Hamon campaign and the Macron temptation remains real, though there has been only limited movement towards Macron and En Marche ! (the main exception being the mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb, and most of his local party).  Hamon’s strongest argument is that of the useful vote; without a rallying of the main forces of the left behind his presidential bid, there is a real possibility that the left will be excluded from the second round. This logic is more or less accepted by Yannick Jadot, the candidate designated by Europe Ecologie les Verts, who organized an internal consultation which produced massive support (amongst voters in the EELV primary) for a rallying to Hamon as a Socialist candidate acceptable to the ecologists and their post-material and environmental agenda. But the key factor that might make a difference is that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon: the candidate standing in the name of la France soumise remains at around 10% of the electorate and is showing no inclination to stand down in favour of Hamon (whose likely electorate is stagnating at around 14-15%). Hence the direct appeal to Melenchon’s electors on the basis that Hamon is the only candidate who might prevent a run-off between Fillon and Le Pen – or between Macron and Le Pen (an equally sad state of affairs for some). The strategy just might pay off, especially now that Macron’s support has shown the first real signs of ebbing faced with his unwillingness – or inability – to publish a presidential programme.

Emmanuel Macron’s campaign is the most intriguing. Thus far, Macron has been the clear beneficiary of the public’s disaffection with Fillon and the choice of the frondeur Hamon as the PS candidate. Rising as high as 23% in the first round voting intentions, Macron is behind Marine Le Pen but ahead of Fillon. But is the Macron ferment beginning is likely to fade? The rally of support from disaffected PS deputes that he might have expected following Hamon’s victory in the primaries has not yet materialised. Attendance at campaign meetings has been rather disappointing (with the exception of Lyon). The En Marche ! candidate is beginning to pay the price for the refusal, or inability to publish a presidential programme. Where exactly does he stand on the big issues of the day? His attempt to position himself above left and right represents the latest attempt in the Fifth Republic to escape the straightjacket of the traditional left-right cleavage. Bayrou, with over 18% in 2007, came within a whisker of overhauling the established order, but failed at the last hurdle (Sarkozy and Royal fighting the run-off). Will Macron go one better?  Nothing is less certain: cultivating a new form of equidistance between left and right, he is likely to disappoint both centre-left and centre-right supporters. Declaring in Algeria that colonization was a crime against humanity might strengthen his position amongst certain groups in French society, but will alienate others whose support Macron needs if he has any chance of winning through to the second round. The logic was clear: to confront the issues from France’s colonial and post-colonial history preventing the nation from progressing. But has the candidate unnecessarily raked up past tensions for minimal political benefit? The ostensible efforts at destabilization by Putin and the Russian secret service deserve the fullest attention– the rumours on his sexuality, or on the financial sources of his campaign are  identified as a source of  illegitimate intervention not only by Macron, but by the Foreign minister Ayrault as well. But how long can Macron prosper without a programme?  An energetic candidate Macron is en marche…but towards what, exactly?

In the 2017 campaign, one candidate – Marine Le Pen – is very well prepared. She is the most likely to profit from the shifting of the agenda to security and migration related issues in the wake of the police brutality claim against Theo and the outbreak of violence in the Paris suburbs. The security turn has the advantage of occulting – somewhat – the issue of campaign funding. Herein lies the greatest paradox; Marine Le Pen is summoned to repay around €350,000 received by the European parliament to pay assistants working, in reality, for the FN in Paris. But this damning indictment has been transformed from a potential dead-weight into a political argument, at least insofar as it is a stick to beat Brussels and to tap into an underlying state of Euroscepticism. Marine Le Pen has been polling up to 27% in one of the recent polls. She has the most solid electorate: around 90% of potential Marine electors affirm they will not waver and declare themselves certain to vote for their candidate. By contrast, only 35% of Macron voters states they are certain to vote for the En Marche ! candidate. How solid is the glass ceiling that prevents the FN’s Marine Le Pen from being elected on the second round in 2017? When financial markets start to worry – and the ‘spread’ starts to widen – is it time to reevaluate the chances of Marine Le Pen? Making predictions post-Brexit and post-Trump is a hazardous business. This is the strangest campaign in recent years. It is very difficult to predict which candidates will run through to the second round. If  Marine Le Pen looks in pole position, her likely adversary could conceivably be one of three men: Macron, Fillon and – possibly –Hamon, if the latter manages to create a unitary dynamic in the last few weeks of campaigning. The most likely scenario in this fluctuating and addictive campaign is that the glass ceiling will hold – this time – and that Marine Le Pen will not win on the second round. This scenario is the most plausible if Fillon wins through to the second round, which is looking increasingly likely. Fillon faute de mieux?

France – Bye bye Mr Sarkozy, hello Mr Nobody

The ‘open primaries of the Right and the Centre’, fought over two Sundays in November 2016, have challenged two unwritten ‘rules’ of the French Fifth Republic. First, the Gaullist one of the direct relationship between the providential leader and the people unmediated by party. In this tradition, the leader emerges naturally to represent the force of history; the party is a presidential rally to organize support for the exceptional leader. If we can recognize the Gaullist genealogy of this style in the history of the French right, for a long-time French Presidents have no longer corresponded to this ideal.  The vibrant primary elections revealed a movement that is anything but subordinate: whether this is interpreted in terms of a confrontation of powerful Barons or a successful exercise in direct democracy. The hollowing of the Gaullist myth is closely associated with a second unwritten rule: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. Mitterrand in 1981, Chirac in 1995, Sarkozy in 2007 all represented versions of this truism. The introduction of the primary elections, first for the PS in 2006 and 2011, and now for the Right and the Centre (in fact, LR), have laid bare the shifting foundations of presidential power. The success of the PS primaries in 2011 occurred because the voting constituency was broadened well beyond the traditional party members and activists; the party itself was fairly marginal to the procedure and reconfigured on the basis of the results in the primary election. Capturing control of the party is no longer an adequate gauge of the ability to stand as the party’s candidate; Martine Aubry controlled the party from 2008, but failed to win the primary and secure the PS nomination in 2011.  Sarkozy’s return to take control of UMP/LR in 2014 was accompanied by a commitment to introduce primaries, forced upon him by Alain Juppé and François Fillon.

The ‘open primaries of the right and the centre’ were fought over two rounds on 20th and 27th November.  The fortunes of the candidates oscillated widely once the campaign began in earnest in late summer, but most had assumed that the run-off would pit former President Nicolas Sarkozy against former Premier Alain Juppé. In the event, Francois Fillon, long considered as the outsider, even as Mister Nobody (in the charming opinion of former President Sarkozy), emerged in powerful first position (44.1%), making the opinion pollsters the first losers of this primary election. The first round results were widely interpreted as a surprise. ‘Speedy Sarko’ was the main victim. In a previous blog, I wondered whether Sarkozy was on the road to nowhere, with an identity focused campaign aimed at siphoning potential FN voters but ignoring core socio-economic concerns.  The maneuver fell flat:  Sarkozy managed to poll just 20.7%, producing an abrupt and immediate end to his political career and unlikely resurrection. The second unanticipated result of the first round lay in the counter-performance of Alain Juppé (28.6%), who had appeared withdrawn (even complacent) throughout the campaign and who clearly expected to be present, in a commanding position, on the second round against a damaged Sarkozy. In the event, François Fillon emerged strongly with over 44.1% on the first round, though he had been trailing with barely 10% in fourth place a few weeks earlier. For the record: the other candidates were each squeezed by the triumvirate in head: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet  (2.6%) narrowly outperformed Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to win the battle of the forty-somethings (les quadras). The wooden spoon was reserved for the unfortunate Jean-Francois Copé (0.3%), the former UMP General Secretary (elected against Fillon for that position in controversial circumstances in 2012), who trailed the Christian Democrat party candidate Jean-Francois Poisson (1.5%).  Fillon’s second round triumph – with 66.5% of votes counted at the time of writing –  was built, amongst other factors,  upon a high rate of transfer of first round Sarkozy voters.

Who were the winners and losers of the primary and what are the likely consequences?  François Fillon was the obvious main winner, elected on 27th November as the LR candidate with two-thirds of the 4,300-000-4,500,000 voters who participated in the primaries.  On the first round, Fillon came ahead in 11 out of 13 regions (all save New Aquitaine [Juppé] and Corsica [Sarkozy]), 87 départements in metropolitan France, against 7 for Alain Juppé (essentially in the New Aquitaine region) and 2 for Nicolas Sarkozy (Corsica, Overseas). The results delivered a favourite son effect for Fillon, who registered impressive scores in Pays de la Loire region [59.7%], where he arrived in first position in each department, achieving a peak of 78.5% in the Sarthe (that he had represented as a deputy).[1] Rather than its spatial concentration, however, the core lesson to be drawn from Fillon’s first round vote lies in its broad national spread. Fillon led in regions such as Brittany that might have been expected to lean to the centrist Juppé, as well as in the former Sarkozy strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.  Alain Juppe  was runner up in most regions, except in the geographically specific south-west (6 of the 12 départements of the New Aquitaine region, the zone of influence of Bordeaux), along with a stronger performance in Paris region, where the Ile-de-France regional leader Valérie Pecresse had rallied to him.  Sarkozy could draw cold comfort: the former President was beaten into third position almost everywhere, including in the historic stronghold of Hauts-de-Seine. The pole position of the first round was transformed into a triumph on the second, with Fillon attracting the support of three million electors and arriving in first position almost everywhere (except the Gironde, Corrèze and Guyane départements).

How Fillon won relatively clear. Why Fillon won is a rather more complex question, involving three distinct levels of analysis: the personal, the programmatic/ideological and the conjectural.  First, the personal equation. Fillon was widely lauded for a well prepared campaign, a detailed and serious policy programme and a professional performance during the three TV debates between the 7 candidates.  In the three presidential debates, Fillon appeared at least as ‘presidential’ as any other candidate.  By surviving as Sarkozy’s premier for 5 years (2007-2012), Fillon had demonstrated personal endurance. Though Sarkozy’s treatment of his premier (or ‘collaborator’, as described in  2007) produced lasting tensions, the fact remained that Fillon and Sarkozy had shared control of the State for five years and the ex-President rallied without hesitation.  At the level of programme and ideology, Fillon claimed to have a programme that would create a ‘rupture’ with existing social and economic models (a rather similar claim had been made ten years earlier by Sarkozy).  Fillon presented his programme as radical, most explicitly during the second round debate against Juppé.  The centre of gravity of the Fillon programme lay in his attention to the socio-economic and state reform axis. The successful candidate advocates strongly the need to reduce the power of the State in the economy, to bring down company taxation, to end the 35 hour week, to weaken social protection, to support business and enterprise, to engage in a radical reform of the Labour market (including a thoroughgoing revision of the Labour code) and to shed 500,000 jobs in the public sector.  In fairness, the leading candidates were arguing over shades of blue. There was a relative cohesion between the economic policy stances of the main candidates, each promising a version of the most economically liberal programme since the Chirac’s RPR-UDF government (1986-88). The debate between the candidates centered on the extent and rhythm of the shrinkage of the public sector (500,000 jobs, in the case of Fillon, 250,000 for Juppé) and how far and fast to reduce public expenditure. Both leading candidates agreed on the need to increase the retirement age to 65.

This relative cohesion in relation to economic policy was disrupted by clearly distinctive positions on foreign policy and controversy over the role of Putin’s Russia that Fillon seeks to bring back into the orbit of European diplomacy.  A secondary line of cleavage concerned multiculturalism and cultural liberalism.  While Juppé positioned himself as a candidate open to the diverse origins of contemporary and advocated a respect for minorities, Fillon  sent out strong identity markers to provincial Catholic conservative electorate (notably on family issues and adoption), though he refused to be drawn on abortion or  gay marriage. Fillon’s  programme claims to be tough on Islamic terrorism. It rejects aspects of multi-culturalism and adopts an assimilationist ideology not far from that of Sarkozy. The convergences between Sarkozy and Fillon (strengthened by the rallying of the former to the latter) were demonstrated by the controversy over Fillon’s proposals to rewrite history programmes in Schools to encourage a ‘national narrative’.  If Fillon did little to hide his background as a provincial Catholic conservative, the economic and state reform dimension are clearly placed in the forefront. In the French context, this cocktail of economic liberalism and social conservatism raises immediate comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, a comparison willingly embraced by Fillon.

Finally, the conjectural dimension needs to be taken into account. Rather paradoxically, Fillon benefited from being off focus for the main media battles between Juppé and Sarkozy, at least insofar as he was subject to less penetrating media analysis. Fillon occupied the central position in a political landscape marked by a shift to the political right (demonstrated in numerous surveys and notably the CEVIPOF-IPSOS-SOPRA-STORIA-Le Monde 2017 election survey). In the light of recent debates over populism and anti-politics in the wake of BREXIT and Trump, Fillon might be read as an anti-populist candidate.  The ‘populist’ candidate who celebrated Trump’s election was Sarkozy, not Fillon, the provincial, Catholic, conservative promising economic pain in the interests of national revival.  Surveys demonstrated that the kind of national identity politics Sarkozy was proposing were important to some electors, but less important than social and economic issues to electors as a whole. If Juppé scored strongly on the latter, and Sarkozy on the former, Fillon was seen by supporters as being the only candidate able to bridge the identity and economic concerns of the electorate.

Set against the standard of François Fillon, the other leading candidates faltered. Juppé suffered from his open advocacy of the alliance of the Right and the Centre. Sarkozy’s attacks against Juppé on the basis that he would ally with the centrist François Bayrou hit the mark for a fraction of the LR electorate. Juppé’s espousal of l’identité heureuse and pleas in favour of multi-cultural tolerance were notable virtues… but went against the spirit of the times in the ranks of the Conservative electorate.   Was Juppé damaged by the ‘Socialists’ that openly declared they would vote for him? Quite possibly.

For his part, Sarkozy encountered determined resistance, including from the approximately 10-15% of electors who declared themselves to be on the left. Sarkozy stands as one of the most influential politicians of his time, a reformer who energized the French presidency, but whose reforms have not really stood the test of time , with some exceptions. Will Sarkozy be remembered as the tax-cutting President who raised the fiscal burden over the course of his presidency? As the economic liberal who turned to state intervention? As the friend of diversity who ended up excluding those who challenged the quasi-colonialist belief of ‘our ancestors the Gaullists’? As the campaign gathered pace, Sarkozy appeared as a ‘has been’, as did Juppé, the former premier whose welfare reforms had brought the country to a standstill in 1995.

Smaller games were also being played. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet  (2.6%) came ahead of Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to represent the quadras, a  minor but important win. NKM’s performance was probably enough to ensure a bright future, even though she backed Juppé on the run-off. On the other hand, the rallying of Valerie Pécresse, President of the Ile-de-France region and former Fillon supporter, to Juppé days before the first round remains an enigma. There is a more general point: though no-one can predict the victor, the consequences of choices are long lasting. Witness the rallying of Sarkozy’s lieutenants to Fillon as soon as the first round results were known.  The longer-term consequences of the primary elections on restructuring the structure of political opportunities are considerable: the 2011 PS primary demonstrated that presence in the primary ensured a political future. It is not sure, though, that the 0.3% obtained by Copé will be of much use (apart from the therapeutic benefit of having been free to fight the primary and witness the downfall of Sarkozy).

Les Républicains as an organisation emerged as another winner. There were over 4,200,000 voters on the first round (some 9% of the total electoral body), a figure that increased somewhat on the second round. Nobody contested the legitimacy of the process, unlike the  Fillon- Copé spat for the leadership for the UMP four years earlier.  The High Authority for the organization of the primary managed the process in a neutral way and rose to the logistical challenge (apart from running out of ballot papers and envelopes, in Paris notably). The first ever primary election for the mainstream right appeared to give an electoral boost to the victorious candidate, in advance of an anticipated victory in May 2017. Finally, the primary produced a turnover of almost 17,000,000 euros (on the basis of 8,500,000 electors paying 2 euros each) half of which would be drawn upon the Fillon in the presidential election campaign itself.

The immediate polls carried out in the aftermath of Fillon’s election pointed to a comfortable second round victory for the LR candidate against Marine Le Pen. But being installed as favourite this far in advance is a mixed blessing – as Alain Juppé discovered to his cost in the ‘primary of the Right and  the Centre’.

Notes

[1] Le Monde ‘Primaire de la Droite: Résultats du premier tour’, 22 November 2016.