A primer on the French elections

Who's running, what they want, and why you should care.


From his mansion in west Paris, Jean Marie Le Pen commands a sweeping view of the city. The 88-year-old founder of the far-right National Front (FN) keeps an antique telescope mounted by his window as if on constant alert for the hordes of migrants he fears are on their way to “submerge” Europe.

Today, Mr Le Pen sees the rise of populist nationalism across France as confirmation that the nationalist roots of his party were onto something. He declared the public “now realises that Le Pen was right.”

But it is not the old father of the FN who will be leading the party in the upcoming French presidential election. Instead, his daughter Marine Le Pen will be the new face of the movement.

Party leader from 2010 after effectively ousting her father, the “Devil of the Republic,” she has since pursued a policy of “de-demonisation” to soften the group’s nationalist and anti-Semitic tones.

Whilst her father created the party and watched it grow for thirty years, it is only since Ms Le Pen gained leadership that the FN has truly gained momentum.

To decontaminate the Le Pen brand and move from the fray of the far-right, Ms Le Pen is riding on an anti-elitist, anti-Brussels, and anti-immigrant program.

This platform is working well with a significant fraction of the population. In fact, similar messages are being heralded by charismatic right-wing insurgents across the continent. Nationalist parties emerging across Europe (note Germany and the Netherlands, amongst others) now make the FN less of an exception.

In 2016, populists thrived, swaying voters with their nationalist rhetoric and promises of reduced immigration. The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election have paved the way for a global anti-establishment movement and emboldened Eurosceptic parties. Building on this momentum, the FN offers change to a public apparently faced with the dual threat of globalization and radical Islam.

If Ms Le Pen wins, she promises to hold a European Union referendum within six months of taking office. She also takes a hard line on immigration, arguing that French citizenship should be “either inherited or merited” and illegal immigrants “have no reason to stay in France.”

She suggests that an FN victory will mean an end to “playtime” for the children of undocumented immigrants, as the party will end to their access to public education.

Yet these views are not so different from Francois Fillon of the Republican Party. He is one of the three front-runners in the race alongside Ms Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! (On the Move).

Ms Le Pen’s promise of a referendum on France’s EU membership has led some observers to hypothesize about the possibility of a “Frexit” after the elections.

The FN is especially critical of the bloc’s provisions for a common currency and free movement, but a poll taken by European media outlets days after the Brexit vote showed only 33 per cent of the French public was in favour of leaving the EU. Comparatively, 45 per cent of individuals surveyed opposed such an exit.

Surprising election results in the US presidential election and the unforeseen “yes” vote on Brexit have shown the dangers of underestimating disgruntled populism. What’s more, a Politico poll taken last year showed a strong majority of the French public (61 per cent) had an unfavourable view of the EU, compared with a mere 48 per cent of Britons.

Were France to leave the EU, the effects would reverberate around the  globe. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claimed a Frexit would mean the “destruction of Europe.” Regardless of whether France chooses to leave the EU, Ms Le Pen has promised to withdraw France from the euro and reinstate the franc; Deutsche Bank analysts warn that that such an abandonment could precipitate a crisis that goes beyond a “Lehman moment” (the financial service’s collapse helped spark the 2008 global financial crisis). Swiss firm UBS predicts a 35 per cent drop in European stocks in the event the FN candidate wins the second round of elections in May.

None of the three frontrunners are expected to gain a majority in the first round of voting on 23 April. Despite an expected Le Pen plurality in the primaries, polls suggest Mr Fillon or Mr Macron would defeat her in the second round on 7 May, when the field narrows to the top two contenders.

This is the first election in the history of the Fifth Republic to include nominees selected from the main center-left and center-right parties but no incumbent president.

The election appears driven by a spirit of restlessness, a popular urge to expel leaders tainted by office, established politics, or privilege. Less clear, however, is the type of outsider French voters want.

The center-right Mr Fillon shares Ms Le Pen’s hard line on immigration, appealing to a nationalist and increasingly Eurosceptic public. Under his rule, jihadists returning from war in Syria or Iraq would be stripped of French nationality, whilst closer to home, parents receiving social allowances would sign contracts to tackle their children’s behavior when it is “disrespectful of the values of the [French republic].”

Ms Le Pen has placed herself as a champion of the people in the face of what she describes as “wild and anarchic globalisation.”

But left wing parties in France are championing anti-establishment and anti-globalisation values as well. Indeed, across Europe, anti-EU populists appear to be gaining momentum. In May, voters across the EU will elect 751 deputies to the European Parliament. Polls suggest the FN could win a plurality of votes in France, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the UK and Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands have high hopes.

Anti-EU populists on the left and the right could make up 16 to 25 per cent of the parliament’s seats, up from 12 per cent today. Yet it is not the established parties of the Eurosceptic left who are scaring the mainstream, but the rise of the right and far right, who could take up to nine per cent of seats. This raises the question of how far these parties can use popular dissatisfaction in Europe to reshape Europe’s political debate and gain real political power.

Whilst they differ hugely according to local tastes and histories, there can be no doubt that their commonalities – populism, nationalism, strong views on the EU, immigration, and national sovereignty – make for successful polling.

The Eurozone crisis and its consequent aftermath partly explain why this trend is happening but do not fully account for the widespread wave of populism.

Interestingly enough, the current wave of Euroscepticism appears to appeal almost as much to younger voters as older. In December 2016, the FN was the most popular party among French citizens aged 18 to 34, according to an Oxoda-Dentsu Consulting poll.

Identity politics provide a link between immigration and the problems of Europe as some citizens grow fearful of globalisation’s capacity to undermine their ability to defend jobs, traditions, and borders.

Populist parties provide an outlet for protest votes from a disillusioned electorate, young and old alike.

Supporters appear confused and anxious about where their countries are heading, unsure whether their leaders are capable of achieving active change.

The French elections may seem irrelevant, especially now that Britain is forging its destiny separately from Europe.

However , with the stakes as high as they are for Europe, these elections are worth keeping an eye on.


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