France’s traditional establishment candidates lose ground

In keeping with global trends, this year’s race has shaken up the country’s political geography, with populist politicians on the far-left and far-right gaining ground over establishment candidates.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

French voters are deciding who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election based on how they prioritise issues such as terrorism, social provision, inequality, and economic reform.

Elizabeth Walsh Elizabeth Walsh is a journalist in Paris studying for a master's degree in international affairs at Sciences Po. She has written for The New York Times, Middle East Eye and others. @elizgwalsh

SAINT DENIS/PARIS — One week before the French presidential elections, it’s politics – not market vendors – who dominated the Sunday streets. In a Parisian neighbourhood in the northeast, people distribute flyers for Jean-Luc Melenchon, far-leftist and leader of the Left Party on one side of the street, while on the other, leaflets for En Marche! (On The Move!) candidate Emmanuel Macron are thrust into the hands of passersby.

At the opposite end of the city, “VOTEZ UTILE! VOTEZ FILLON” (“Vote smart, vote Fillon”) shouts from paint on the pavement – urging Parisians to vote for the centre-right Republican candidate, who has called for a longer workweek and immigration quotas – a short distance away from a market bustling with women in hijabs pushing strollers alongside those in bright African prints. An older white man in a beret watches them go by as he sips rose wine in front of a poster for the centre-left Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon.

Graffiti in support of right-wing French presidential candidate Francois Fillon and against centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, reading "MACRON = SOCIALIST PARTY, ALL THE SOCIALISTS ARE GOING TO HIM. VOTE SMART, VOTE FILLON" (Elizabeth Walsh/TRT World)

In the northern suburb of Saint-Denis, halal butcher shops and stores advertising exotic African fruit face quiet churches. Here, posters for Melenchon are plastered to a crumbling wall underneath a bridge. Another candidate’s posters are pasted to utility boxes, but they have been torn away. A man rips off a piece that might have identified who. Many residents are immigrants from African, Arab, and South Asian countries and not eligible to vote because they have not yet obtained French citizenship. But some discuss crime outside their boulangeries (bread bakeries) or hope that if Macron wins, he will fight for the youth. Others hesitate to share their views or have given up on politics entirely, after leaving countries like Tunisia.

In the centre of the city, cafes host vibrant political conversations. Retired women argue about the latest Fillon scandal next to young couples rehashing the latest debate. In the city’s posh sixth arrondissement (district), a student association linked to the National Front, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, was recently formally recognised at Sciences Po – the elite university whose alumni include the last five presidents of France. That, too, was met with intense debate and angry graffiti from students.

Paris – which typically votes left and is home to 16 percent of the population – is seeing a confrontation of deepening ideologies play out in campaign materials in the streets. But throughout France, the establishment is weakening and voters are gravitating to a new set of politics.

2012 Presidential Elections

In 2012, 79.5 percent of the electorate participated in the first round of elections, giving establishment party candidates Francois Hollande (socialist) and Nicolas Sarkozy (centre-right conservative) rather comfortable leads at 28.63 percent and 27.18 percent of the popular vote, respectively. Marine Le Pen came in third with 17.9 percent, followed by Jean-Luc Melenchon and Francois Bayrou with 11.1 and 9.13 percent. Francois Hollande ultimately won with 51.63 percent in the second round.

2017 Presidential Elections

This year, 77 percent of registered voters intend to vote in the first round of the elections. The latest polls indicate a much closer race than the one held in 2012. Centrist Macron leads with 23 percent in the polls, followed by Le Pen (22 percent), Fillon (20 percent), and Melenchon (19 percent).

Political outsiders Le Pen, Macron, and now Melenchon have upset the traditional parties’ hold on the electorate, and it is entirely likely that both will be shut out of the race on April 23.

With Hamon trailing in the polls at 8 percent and Fillon facing stiff competition, the rest of the candidates are strategising about how to attract disillusioned voters. In doing so, they are redefining France’s political lines. The question is no longer left or right, but rather, which left and which right? Meanwhile, Macron is forging a new space at the centre with En Marche!, which is barely a year old.

The majority of the French agree that employment – followed by purchasing power and social protections – are the country’s most pressing issues. Sixteen percent of voters say they will determine their vote in the first round on the basis of housing. Questions of security, the fight against terrorism, and immigration follow further down the list.

The point of disagreement is how to solve them. Even France’s Muslim community – of which 93 percent voted for Hollande in 2012, and which accounts for five percent of the country’s total electorate – is more divided this year than in previous elections. Some even support candidates like Le Pen – despite her inflammatory rhetoric. Others are ardent supporters of Melenchon.

Geographical distribution of the National Front

This year, Le Pen continues to see the strongest support in those areas where she was most popular in 2012: Hauts-de-France, Grand-Est, Bourgogne-Franche-Comte, and Provence-Alps-Cote d’Azur. Yet, despite portrayal of her supporters as rural workers and her anti-immigrant rhetoric, these regional strongholds cannot be explained by differences in urbanisation or immigration.

Unemployment might hold a clue to explain where Le Pen does best. While rates of unemployment in France hover around 9.5 percent  – above the Eurozone average – the phenomenon is not evenly felt throughout the country.

More precisely, French demographer and researcher Herve Le Bras explains in his book, Atlas des inégalités: Les Français face à la crise (Atlas of inequalities: the French in crisis), that the key factor in understanding Marine Le Pen’s geographical distribution is inequality. Where inequality is higher, so is support for the National Front, whose policies are protectionist, anti-EU, and anti-immigration.

This would clarify, for example, why Bretagne is a stronger base for Macron: though its residents earn the lowest salaries in metropolitan France, rates of unemployment are lower than the national average, and the region boasts some of the lowest rates of inequality in the country. The opposite is true for regions where Le Pen does well. As Le Bras puts it, it’s about neighbourhood relations.

Macron’s New Centre

Macron, who polls indicate is currently in the lead, is more difficult to pin regionally, in part because of the new political space he is trying to create with a party that has no electoral history.

Like Fillon, he supports greater economic liberalisation and is a supporter of the European Union. But Macron wants to protect France’s multicultural identity, and of all of the candidates, his foreign policy is the least aligned with Russia. Drawing from platforms on the left and right, he has coalesced  – although perhaps not yet united – a group of voters who no longer wants the Socialist Party in power but find Melenchon’s alternative too far to the left, or as one voter put it, they believe Fillon to be “jail material.”

Charismatic pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron has appealed to those who find the other candidates either too far-left or far-right for their liking. (Reuters)

Sam Cobbi, a 28-year-old diplomat and dual French-Swiss national who identifies as a feminist and social liberal plans to vote for Macron.

“Macron pledges for a more pragmatic EU that goes beyond a socio-economic system and can play a role on the international stage in terms of peace and security, as well as real implementation of common borders,” he explained.

He also believes the En Marche! leader could reform the tax system to favour innovation and fairness and hopes Macron will “abolish the left-right divide.”

Maelle, a 54 year old teacher from Nancy – a city in the Grand-Est region where Le Pen polls well – is concerned about the future of employment and social programmes like retirement and healthcare. Unemployment, she said, is a major problem for her community, where many lack a clear vision for their future.

Macron, she said, “seems to have the capacity to create a dynamic economy to relaunch the country and create jobs, but, is also concerned with education and the health system.”

But the new centre does not satisfy everyone.

Melenchon: The other populist

Melenchon, whose motto is “Rebellious France”, campaigned by boat along the Seine this week, drawing discontented Parisians, As he has softened his tone over the years, he has increasingly taken advantage of disenchantment with the Socialists and amassed a following of those who reject Macron’s more capitalist platform.

Christian, 51, and Patrice, 47, agree that Melenchon would create “a system of solidarity.” Despite the candidate’s pledges to leave the EU, they argue that what he is actually against is not social harmony with France’s neighbours, but a financial system that they fault for France’s economic woes.

“He is a sincere socialist,” said Yves, 80, who holds dual citizenship in the United States, where he voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein last fall.

Supporters of anti-EU presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon rally in Paris as he tours the city by boat. The left-wing politician has campaigned on a platform of fighting inequality through tax increases and social spending. (Elizabeth Walsh/TRT World)

“I cannot vote for a capitalist,” he said, referring to a potential runoff between Macron and Le Pen in the second round. “I will vote white” – meaning a blank ballot cast in protest against the candidates.

Of five Melenchon supporters who spoke with TRT World about the elections, only one said he would vote for Macron in a second round. Like Yves, the rest said they would also “vote white.”

The unconvinced

Others doubt newcomers and are unwilling to put their faith in radical parties. Veronique Luquet, 50, grew up in the south of France but has lived abroad. She plans to vote for Fillon. A mother with a career in healthcare, she is concerned for France’s economic future and security and believes that Fillon is the most qualified to deliver on his campaign.

“I have problems with Macron’s retirement reform,” she said. “The idea is good, but it’s not going to work.” The En Marche! candidate plans to combine public and private pension plans without changing the retirement age or pension levels. Fillon would replace the 35 hour work week with 39 hours and modify the retirement age to 65.

Still, just days before the election, nearly a third of French voters are undecided. Matthieu Fajolles, a 30 year-old client services representative from Bordeaux, wants “an ecological revolution in both production and consumption.” His hometown, he says, is in need of economic development and sector diversification. But he is still unsure of his vote.

“I don’t trust Macron’s economic ideas,” he explained. “But I can’t vote for Melenchon because even though he has the clearest programme with many good points, he is still a threat to the European balance. Hamon has no weight in this fight, and Marine Le Pen is the greater danger.”

And Fillon’s scandals and social conservatism make him unpalatable.

“I am probably going to make my decision once I am in the booth in front of the names.”