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Will France Vote for Stability or Renewal?

By Marc-Olivier Padis

The stakes are high in France’s presidential elections on the 23rd April, yet the election is unprecedented in its lack of a central theme, the dominance of more extreme views and larger parties taking a step back. What is the central message of each candidate and what are the political feelings and currents which will ultimately shape the French people’s decision? An interview with director of studies for Terra Nova Marc-Olivier Padis.

What are the key issues in the French presidential elections? Which social and political dynamics are reflected in this campaign?

The characteristic feature of this campaign is that no issue has really emerged as predominant. Each candidate is developing their own proposals, but no debate appears to be central – all of the issues seem to be emerging one by one. The most striking aspect of this campaign is the withdrawal of a series of political leaders. Firstly – and most spectacularly – François Hollande pulled out. It was unprecedented for the incumbent president to find himself in a situation where running for office again might have meant his party risking a fiasco. But we also witnessed the voluntary withdrawal of Green Party candidate Yannick Jadot – although he was elected in a primary and he secured his party’s nomination. Next came the withdrawal of centrist candidate François Bayrou who could have made a bid for office after the failure of Alain Juppé in the primary of the right and centre – he chose instead to back Emmanuel Macron. Finally, Alain Juppé withdrew his candidacy. He could have attempted a strong comeback at a time when François Fillon was weakened by the whirlwind of scandals over the alleged fictitious employment of his wife as a parliamentary attaché. This series of candidates’ withdrawals were a sort of late symbolic victory for Jacques Delors who had previously stepped down from running in the 1995 presidential election, even though he appeared to be favourite in the polls.

François Hollande’s withdrawal from the elections and Nicolas Sarkozy’s failure in the primaries created an unprecedented situation: the figureheads of both main parties were absent.  This puts us in uncharted territory with virtually unknown candidates (Hamon and Macron), a political field dominated by extremes, a weakening of the two main parties of a traditional bipartisan system, and a significant uprising within a centrist space opened up for Emmanuel Macron’s unprecedented mobilisation.

We are witnessing two simultaneous changes. On the one hand, Mélenchon on the left and Le Pen on the right are both advocating extremes. On the other, there is a general shift of the electorate to the right, forcing the reformist left candidate, Macron, to position himself to the centre-right of the political spectrum. This displacement of the Left-Right axis is further complicated by yet another cross-cutting dynamic: the basic pillars of French political life are coming up against the electorate’s strong desire for change. At the same time, we have presidential candidates who are familiar with the rules of the campaign game (Mélenchon, Le Pen, and Fillon) and candidates who are looking for political renewal (Hamon and Macron). Between the pull of the stability provided by the electoral processes of the Fifth Republic and this push for renewal, which is stronger? In my opinion, that is what this election is all about.

If traditional parties are indeed so weakened, it is because they have difficulty picking up on deep-seated changes in society and giving them a political voice. It is often when new parties arrive that social conditions which traditional party politics failed to represent become more visible and are taken into account. Can we say that this is what Front National, France insoumise, and En Marche are doing? Analysis of the right and centre primary voting patterns shows that François Fillon benefited from a skewed sample: those voting were the oldest, wealthiest, most provincial, and most conservative members of the right-wing electorate, alongside the traditionalist Catholic fringe, who had been re-politicised by demonstrations against marriage equality, and who had organised to vote for him. Essentially this section of the electorate represents classic provincial France, which had been overlooked by the mainstream media, that was obsessed with the so-called “bourgeois-bohèmes”, the urban chattering classes. Benoît Hamon has been able to revive some of the themes of the socialist party, notably through a discourse about lifestyles, experiences at work (burnout), and concerns about the environment and health (endocrine disrupters). However, his plan for a universal basic income did not amount to a convincing scenario for post-industrial growth, despite speaking to the experience of “precarious intellectuals”, young graduates relegated to inconsequential jobs at universities, in journalism, or in cultural sectors. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has positioned himself within the classical perspective of the “convergence of struggles” that is characteristic of the far-left. Here the idea of “insubordination” is broad enough to unite the Zadistes, activists from the ‘Nuit debout’ movement, or those working with refugee struggles – assuming they all still believe in political action enough to rally behind a candidate running such a personality-focused campaign. Marine Le Pen claims to represent the interests of “real people”, who are “forgotten” by their representatives, and “abandoned” by public services. In fact, in addition to far-right voters, she attracts many undecideds, abstainers, and middle-class voters whose standard of living has slipped, or who are concerned that it will. Finally, Emmanuel Macron is trying to bring in young tech-savvy voters with an optimistic political discourse based on innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, on employment he breaks with the traditional approach of compensation schemes and instead focuses on an “empowerment” discourse that encourages personal initiative and new technologies. In this way he attempts to create a bridge between young graduates attracted by digital growth and personal success, and socially disadvantaged young people who are ready to seize their opportunity through small entrepreneurship provided by the new economy.

Is Europe a real campaign issue in this presidential election? Have French Eurosceptics managed to put it on the radar? What are the different visions of the EU in this campaign?

The French presidential election is considered to be the main political event in France. It is where we decide which way the country will go for the next five years. Yet, the “Gaullist” nature of this election has meant that domestic and internal issues are more prominent – as if France lived under a glass dome for a few months. Since the presidential election involves candidates meeting citizens across the country, the campaign lends itself to intense introspection, cutting France off from European and global realities during the campaign.

However, Europe does exist as a kind of preliminary issue. The far-right, has expressed its desire to stop using the euro and to leave Europe (or at least it intends to hold a referendum on this issue to be precise), and it assumes that the French will choose “Frexit”. The Front National’s entire economic programme is based on the assumption that leaving the EU and returning to national sovereignty will be the solution for France.  They also maintain that national law takes precedence over all international treaties we have signed – enabling them to put their discriminatory and xenophobic proposals into law.

The far-left also proposes an exit scenario, although they do not make it so prominent. Jean-Luc Mélenchon claims to have a Plan A, consisting of proposing his economic revival plan to our European partners (there is talk of “identifying our enemies”: the German government, the ECB, the Ordoliberalism of the commission, the ECJ, etc.). If this is not accepted – which is very likely – Plan B would lead us towards leaving the EU. However, with a few days to go until the elections, no details of this Plan B are shown on the candidate’s website.

The candidates of the government parties, Hamon and Fillon, are sticking to the dominant but ineffectual logic of previous elections: they have announced that the new president will be able to legitimately impose decisions on partners. We saw how unrealistic this attitude was for Sarkozy and Hollande. Only Emmanuel Macron is proposing a realistic strategy based on confidence in our European partners and rebuilding with them.

Emmanuel Macron appears to be the most pro-European candidate, but this does not necessarily mean that he is the most progressive. Is a pro-EU position compatible with – or even favourable to – a position promoting an ecological and social transition for the 21st century?

Emmanuel Macron is the only candidate who garners applause for Europe in his meetings. He is also the only one to present a programme that is compatible with France’s European commitments. Macron travelled to Germany to meet with the Chancellor and has maintained a good relationship with Sigmar Gabriel from the time he was his counterpart at the Ministry of Economy. In terms of ecological transition, his programme is not very well developed. Nevertheless, to his credit, the programme does include financing an energy transition through borrowing that takes advantage of current low interest rates. His other main investment plan involves training, which ties in with your question about the world of work. Many aspects of Emmanuel Macron’s programme relate to modernisation of vocational training, social negotiation (focusing on negotiation and company-level agreements) and our welfare system (including independent professionals in the general unemployment system, which would no longer be managed by social partners; ambitious reform of the pension system etc.).

Does the 2017 presidential election offer an overview of the link between economic, environmental, and social issues? Is France lagging behind in this regard, or it is only a shortcoming in the political world?

Curiously, as I have said, even though this is the most important election for French institutions, the presidential election does not really help clarify the big questions about where the country is going. We can see this in the much-needed debate about our new growth programme. We need to achieve more inclusive and sustainable growth: an increase in productivity that is compatible with high levels of employment and a decoupling between growth and the indefinite increase in exploitation of natural resources. But environmental issues are struggling to gain prominence in France because it is a country with a strong state whose administrative culture is dominated by engineers, who focus on mining, bridges, roads and railways, atomic energy, and electricity grids. They call them “planners”. These were the people who helped or supported the economic upturn in France through large development projects. Large-scale projects such as the Notre-Dame des Landes airport, the Lyon-Turin high-speed railway, and the nuclear power plant in Flamanville are the last vestiges of this infrastructure policy. But central authorities can no longer carry out these projects without public support (also note the opposition to Sivens dam). It is significant that François Hollande did not deal with any of these debates over the course of his five-year term. Citizens are mobilising more for environmental protection, sometimes developing real field expertise (Zones to Defend, ZAD). Even so, these mobilisations do not provide an answer to the broad question of energy transition that does not emerge from this kind of micro-struggle. Thus, a comprehensive plan is needed, not just for the pioneers of green and alternative lifestyles. It must help households that do not have the means to insulate their homes or change their mode of transportation. This issue has been addressed in France, for example in quite precise proposals on financing methods (Michel Aglietta), on energy evolution scenarios (Negawatt association), and so on.

Have the 2017 candidates managed to distinguish being pro-Europe from being pro-EU (in the sense of EU institutions as they function today)? Is this a sticking point in France?

Emmanuel Macron, for his part, has shown his support for Europe. The two candidates representing government parties, Fillon and Hamon, both have a position that reflects the internal division of their own parties on the subject. Their solution is to call for a “different Europe”, which they both interpret in their own way. For François Fillon, the conservative right candidate whose programme is centred on the idea of “national recovery”, it is a question of putting France back in the driver’s seat of Europe, and working towards a “Europe of nations” by defending national interests above all. For Benoît Hamon, the socialist candidate, the point is that the current austerity is no longer acceptable – but that this is not grounds for leaving the EU. Therefore, he proposes introducing a new euro institution: a real parliament for the Eurozone. However he does not explain how he would attempt to win over European partners to this viewpoint. He imagines a coalition of France and the southern countries, but only Portugal could be close enough to Hamon politically. Alternatively, he proposes alleviating the debt burden by pooling debt that exceeds 60% of GDP at a European level. Hamon thus takes on an idea from the SPD that would also be acceptable to Germany if Martin Schulz wins the elections in September 2017.

Finally, whatever the outcome of the first round of the French presidential election, could you describe two or three possible and feasible scenarios you envisage after 8 May? And what emergency measures can restore France’s place in Europe and help revive Europe?

For Marine Le Pen to win the presidential election, voter turnout would have to be very low. Many left-wing voters have bad memories of 2002, when Jacques Chirac received all the votes from the left then did not consider them in his policies. Supporters of François Fillon may also be frustrated about a changeover that they thought they had achieved. It is possible that neither of these groups will come out to vote in the second round. However if she won the presidential election, she would certainly not have a majority in the National Assembly. France would then enter a period of political confusion and ineffectiveness, in which it would be difficult for different political representatives to coexist and it would certainly be hard to build a government. In this case, France would spend much of its energy dealing with its internal situation and be unavailable to maintain its place at the European level.

If Emmanuel Macron wins, France could have an ambitious, credible, and imaginative policy on Europe. Emmanuel Macron would also find it difficult to form a presidential majority, but he would necessarily appoint a pro-European Prime Minister who would be capable of forming a centrist coalition. However the overall political landscape would be completely shaken up because the socialist and Republican parties are already on the brink of collapse. If Benoît Hamon and François Fillon do badly in the election, the rifts will grow even deeper – ideological differences will be accentuated and personal rivalries exacerbated. In this scenario, the political landscape would be completely redrawn, certainly with quite a large parliamentary group for the Front National, a group for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s “insubordinates”, with the socialists and Republicans in disarray, and the newly elected En Marche MPs would be political novices. Whatever the outcome, there will a significant changeover of political personnel in the June 2017 general election.

The priority for France is to regain credibility with its European partners. From this point of view, François Hollande’s performance had been positive on the whole (on his stated terms). He has pursued a consistent policy throughout his mandate. Firstly, France has become more competitive, deficits are on the right track, unemployment is beginning to decline, and so on. Secondly, France must recognise that Germany has incorporated significant changes into its economic policy in order to save the euro and face up to the financial crisis. More specifically, Germany accepted the new role of the ECB, which has adopted a partly unconventional policy. Therefore, it is not a question of criticising Germany or creating tensions between Paris and Berlin. Progress has yet to be made on banking supervision, macroeconomic management of the Euro Zone, and looking beyond economic issues, on a more resolute European defence strategy. Faced with the pressure of the current international situation, Europeans have every reason to strengthen their institutions – but more importantly their willingness to work together in a spirit of mutual understanding.