Elections

France Discards the Politics of Left and Right

Voters will chose as president someone who claims to be both liberal and conservative, or someone who claims to be neither.

A different kind of revolution.

Photographer: Amy T. Zielinski/Getty Images

For globalists rattled by Brexit and Donald Trump, the first round of the French presidential race was a relief. They should savor it. It probably won't last.

Turnout was nearly 70 percent. I live in one of France's most important political centers -- London -- and here voters queued for hours (in polite English fashion) to cast their ballots.

Future of France: Macron and Le Pen Go Head-to-Head

And this time, pollsters got it right: The hypernationalist Marine Le Pen will face a 39-year-old centrist reformer, Emmanuel Macron, from a political party that didn’t exist one year ago, in the final round of the contest on May 7.

That’s a big change for France, which left its long-dominant political parties of both left and right gasping by the side of the road. But there won’t be an apocalyptic, turn-out-the-lights-as-you-leave-the-world second-round showdown between Le Pen and the anti-market statist Jean-Luc Melenchon. Both campaigned to substantially rewrite France's relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, something Macron does not propose to do.  

Instead of this doomsday scenario, the largest share of the vote went to Macron, a blue-eyed reformer who’s easy to like. He is, without a doubt, a political phenomenon. Once part of a Socialist government that has been thoroughly rejected by voters, he launched an independent party he called En Marche!, styled himself as non-establishment, and campaigned as a changemaker who could bring in outsiders and parley with insiders. His success on Sunday is a salve to markets and a sign that the natural order of things hasn't been entirely disrupted.

"Foreign business chiefs swoon over this young, modern, dynamic minister. A French Justin Trudeau," wrote Gerard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme in their book about his mentor, President Francois Hollande, who tolerated Macron's political freelancing without suspecting that it would push his own party aside.

The Le Pen-Macron victories amount to the complete rejection of the rigid two-party system that has dominated French political life for over half a century. Grandees from the Socialist Party and the main party of the right (currently the Republicans) grew accustomed to gobbling up talent from France's best universities, clashing swords, handing off the Elysee Palace to one another and essentially deciding the terms of debate and the course of policy in the world's sixth largest economy. In 1956, they together got 76 percent of the total vote; in 2012 it was 56 percent in the first round. On Sunday it was 26 percent.

The biggest hemorrhaging came from the Socialist Party, whose hapless candidate, Benoit Hamon, barely surpassed 6 percent. Hamon's candidacy was rejected even by the Socialist Party prime minister; his proposal to tax robots and his advocacy of a universal basic income and a range of hard-left policies struck voters as out of touch, as it was. Imagine if the U.S. Democrats had chosen Bernie Sanders to lead them and he had received 6 percent of the vote last November (with a Democrat in the White House at the time). It's about that dramatic a result.

France's right fared better. Francois Fillon, a Thatcherite conservative to the right of his party, finished third with nearly 20 percent of the vote; at a time when voters had finally tired of the country’s endemic political scandals, he was hurt by allegations that he misused party funds to employ family members. But his surprise selection in a first-ever Republican primary was only begrudgingly accepted by party leaders. His party may do better in the June parliamentary elections, but there is likely to be a vigorous debate over what exactly it stands for.

France now has one presidential candidate, Le Pen, whose promises of expanding the already-robust welfare system coupled with xenophobia and contempt for the European Union justifies her claim to be both left and right. Macron, by contrast, claims to be neither. We can safely say that those labels no longer apply in France, just as they are becoming blurred elsewhere.

Instead, as in the U.S. and U.K., France is fractured by education and by geography. Over 40 percent of the voters picked candidates, Melenchon and Le Pen, who represent the most extreme views. Replacing the old left-right divide, there are new battle lines drawn between those who want a more open, globalist France and those who see international ties as destructive of sovereignty. There are elements of the old left and the right in each of these camps.

On the economy, the division is between a vision of the state that focuses more on redistribution of wealth (Le Pen and much of the Socialist left) and one that, while embracing the centrality of the state in the French social contract, is focused on improving its efficiency (Macron and much of the center-right).

Even if Macron wins the May 7 runoff, he will need to find a way to widen the center and draw from both left and right in the parliamentary elections in June. Without a governing majority, or a coalition in parliament, he can say what he likes but he can do little of it.

Alexis de Tocqueville once said, "The most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually when it starts to reform." Voters have decided that France has had bad government long enough and are demanding change. The person who gets to try to deliver it has a most difficult job. The relief may last into May, but it could be a hot summer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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