Dr Andrew Smith (UCL) is a regular guest commentator on Sky News to discuss the French presidential race. On the eve-eve of the first round, he gives one final look at the situation, outlining the trajectories and hurdles of the key candidates whilst also questioning how ‘novel’ their projects really are.
There have been a lot of polls lately. Polls for first round picks, speculative polls for second round scenarios, and even the Poles to whom Marine Le Pen plans to charge extortionate tariffs in the name of economic patriotism. Yet, on the last day that polling is legal before the ballots are cast for the first round, France’s Presidential election remains achingly close.
Many polls show a gap no bigger than the margin of error between the four principal candidates. Yet, they show some consistency. In part, this election has been a break from the path dependency of previous years. Old constituencies have realigned and found themselves more mobile than many psephologists imagined in early analyses. This is not some great cataclysm for France’s political traditions, but something of a realignment that echoes the current international climate, yet with a distinct Gallic twang.
Yet, for all the movement and madness, the polls reflect a tight race that has only gotten tighter. The evaporation of Hamon’s candidacy has been the catalyst for boosts for both Macron and Mélenchon, two candidates whose prominence would have probably been the most surprising at the start of the race.
Fillon has remained obdurate, holding firm against the “plots” and “[character] assassination attempts” notionally brought to bear against him as his scandals have aired. His is perhaps the most cohesive constituency, with identifiable core values and a sense of consistency. It recalls the focus on ‘Zombie Catholicism’ proposed as a crucial element of French political analysis by Emmanuel Todd and Hervé Le Bras, both in Todd’s polemic Who is Charlie? (2015) and in the pair’s Le mystère français (2014). This reheat of some very old political loyalties has proven to be an effective touchstone amidst all the talk of novelty elsewhere.
Mélenchon has emerged as a late contender, written off much earlier by the mainstream as a vestigial leftist relic. Yet, his combative persona and debate performances have convinced many that perhaps there is something new about the old campaigner. Depending where you stand, his campaign has embraced either welcome innovation or tawdry gimmickry (his holographic rallies, the folksy bande dessinée of his manifesto, and a surprisingly fun Streets of Rage style browser-based game called Fiscal Kombat). Yet his campaign is not one of glitzy new ideas. Much of its policy basis is rooted in a Mittérandiste legacy, with some new elements thrown in to satisfy the craving for a populist voice. Mélenchon’s role in leading the ‘No’ campaign for the left in the 2005 European Constitutional Referendum has provided another distinctive element of his platform, and helped mark him as a meaningful alternative.
United in their populist voice, if strongly opposing in their focus on immigration, the two most combative candidates have marked the extreme left and right of the race. Marine Le Pen is another candidate seriously threatening the spectre of a “Frexit”. Le Pen’s headlines have remained predictable (if infuriatingly light touch) throughout, often benefitting in analysis from a sheen of novelty that Fillon has been unable to adopt, despite loose attempts to rebrand himself as a defiant populist figure (in particular his rally in Paris where he announced he wouldn’t step aside). Le Pen has been beset by her own embezzlement scandals and moments when the “dédiabolisé” mask has slipped (sharing violent imagery on social media, and channelling her resiliently diabolical Father’s denial of French complicity in the Vel d’Hiv roundup). Here too there is constituency. Nonna Mayer’s analysis holds true: that calls for seizing back sovereignty from global networks of power (and a healthy dose of racism), have re-energised the old home of France’s hard right.
Macron himself is another that seems to vacillate between surface novelty and a deeper continuity that borders on stagnation. Derided as a political ‘nowhere man’, Macron has nevertheless won the support of many who see in him the potential for an endorsement of progressive centrism and a rejuvenation of the status quo (in another continuity, see Emile Chabal’s comparison to his 1970s forerunner in Giscard d’Estaing). There are shades of Matteo Renzi in his character, yet (as indeed Mélenchon says in his manifesto) France’s historic role at the head of the European project could strengthen his hand in reforming and re-energising the course of European politics. There is a real sense of meaning when he spoke of the fact that blood was shed from France’s star in the EU flag, and real resonance when he made the case for France’s multi-racial citizenship in a speech in Marseille. Yet he is resolutely ‘elite’, and his banking ties have raised suspicions (and lamentable anti-semitism from Fillon’s campaign and the FN). His candidacy, aloof from the main parties, is certainly new, though his ideas are not so much revolutionary as cautiously calling for renewal.
Ironically, the most innovative platform is perhaps that of Hamon, and it has seen his support evaporate. In trying to distance himself from Hollandisme (and his ogrish rival in Manuel Valls), Hamon has turned away from some of the core trends of PS policy towards a platform that looks, in reality, a little more like that of the Parti Socialiste Unifié in flavour.
The polls perhaps show that France is not looking for novelty in terms of its political traditions, but for a renegotiation of its political loyalties. Macron remains the front runner (and would be my pick if I had a vote), yet he will face a real challenge to articulate and realise a positive technocratic vision for France if he does win. The legislative elections remain a huge stumbling block for any of the candidates, and if there is too stark a divide in whatever cohabitation combo that inevitably emerges, then the resulting political inertia will lead to further rupture (discrediting the system and the President, in Macron’s case, or the system and ‘elites’ in Le Pen’s). There will be implications for France’s main parties in any event, whether it is finding a home for social movements like En Marche or La France Insoumise, or in reorienting their appeal to recognise the shifts seen during the campaign. Either way, it’s time for the polling to finish and for the polls that really matter to open.